By LB Klein, MSW
[Photo courtesy of morgueFile]
According to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. There are many reasons why a survivor might choose not to report an assault, or to stop pursuing a case after reporting it. Every survivor’s healing process or sense of justice is different, and it’s always the survivor’s right to choose whether or not to report sexual violence to law enforcement. The following are just some of the reasons that survivors may choose not to report:
- Survivors might feel embarrassed about what happened, or want to avoid publicly discussing sexual acts or repeating the story over and over again.
- Survivors often blame themselves or believe others will blame them.
- Survivors might believe that involving the police or criminal legal system could lead to time-consuming and invasive processes with little chance of tangible results. They might also worry that these lengthy processes could delay their recovery.
- Survivors might worry that the criminal legal system will find the perpetrator not guilty, making the reporting seem like an unnecessary and demoralizing ordeal. This might lead survivors to feel even less safe having gone through these systems. Failed legal cases can make survivors feel even more at fault, and as if no one believes them.
- Survivors might not want others to find out about what happened, or to become targets for gossip or retaliation. Survivors might fear both physical retaliation and social consequences that could inhibit moving forward with their lives.
- Survivors might not want their families, significant others, or friends to find out for fear that they will worry, become overly protective, blame them, retaliate against the perpetrator, or insist that they leave certain environments like school or work.
- Survivors may not recognize that what happened to them was sexual assault or rape. They likely know and sometimes care about the person(s) who committed these acts. They might want help or support, but would not want to pursue actions that label what happened as “rape.”
- If the perpetrator is found guilty of committing a sexual assault and receives a significant punishment, the survivor may face retaliation from other members of the community for getting someone in trouble.
- The survivor may have been threatened by the perpetrator or be frightened of the perpetrator.
- Survivors may fear compromising or complicating relationships with mutual friends.
- The survivor may fear that others won’t believe an assault occurred. A common reaction from friends or family members that the survivor might have experienced is disbelief—that situations like this could not possibly happen. Another common reaction is to blame and scrutinize the survivors’ behavior, making the survivor reluctant to report assaults in future.
- The survivor may have already had a bad experience with legal systems or have a criminal record, or know someone else who has been victimized by the system.
- The survivor might not have the resources to pay the legal fees that are sometimes associated with reporting.
- Survivors from communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities, American Indian and low-income communities may have negative histories with law enforcement perpetrating state violence against them or their communities and may not view law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a source of healing, justice, or support.
- The survivor might be focusing on coping with mental health symptoms, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, PTSD, academic or work difficulties, and safety concerns, and not have the time, energy, or support to pursue the case. Participation in legal processes often exacerbates these problems rather than alleviates them.
- The survivor may have been engaging in other embarrassing or illegal activities when the assault occurred, and fears the conduct or legal process will uncover these.
- If survivors identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer, or they were engaging in sexual activity with a person of the same gender at the time of the assault, they may be concerned about being outed if they pursue a legal process.
For these reasons and many more, many survivors do not choose to report to law enforcement. No one should ever force or coerce a survivor into reporting an assault to the police, and it should be a survivor’s decision if and when to report. It is crucial to put survivors’ self-determination at the center in all sexual assault prevention and awareness programming to help survivors regain the power and control taken from them when they were sexually assaulted. We must continue to validate the experiences of survivors, regardless of whether they ever report to a police officer or spend a day in a courtroom, and to consider ways to address sexual violence outside of criminal legal interventions.
LB Klein, MSW is a Consultant and Lead Trainer for Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. In that role, she builds the capacity of institutions of higher education and communities to implement the Bringing in the Bystander Program. She is based in Atlanta, GA.