Part five in a series by Joy Pedrow Skarka
After my rape, I was not planning to report him to authorities. Then I heard that he “slept” with another girl. Thinking about how he probably had raped her too, and wanting to protect future women, I went to my university’s Center for Victim Advocacy and reported my rape. I was paired with an advocate, and she helped me decide what to do. I had three options: reporting to the police, reporting to my university, or both. If I reported my rape to the police, my case would go through the criminal justice system and the perpetrator could face legal sanctions or jail time. If I reported it to my university, he could have faced expulsion.
I decided to report to my university and press charges through my school’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, but not through the police. We had multiple classes together, and he would sit next to me and write me notes. When we made eye contact, he would smirk and wink. One time we were in the library, and he walked right into my path and did a spin move in front of me, smiled, laughed, and walked away. I wanted him off of my campus.
When he found out I pressed charges with the school, he wrote me a note saying, “I’m not a rapist. Please take back my charges. This could ruin my life, and I don’t deserve that.”
In order to report the rape, I had to write out the story and then share it in a small room while sitting across from four adults who were somehow involved on campus. My advocate sat next to me. She often checked in to see how I was doing. My rapist was also in the room. We were separated by a small man-made wall. After I told my story I left the room, and he had a chance to tell his story.The school acted quickly, which I greatly appreciated. I was raped in August, and by December I received a call that he was kicked off campus.
I know that my story is unusual. If students do report on campus, most rapists actually win and stay on campus. I am thankful I never saw my abuser again.
Why didn’t I report his crime to the police? I heard horror stories of the length of the process. I had spent five months, my first semester as a freshman in college, living through the pain of rape. I did not want this pain to drag on any longer. I wanted to move on with my life.
In 2018, Dr. Christine Ford pressed charges against Brent Kavanaugh. When she went public with her story, many claimed she was lying because she should have reported it sooner. I am not making a claim about whether she told the truth or not—but we should never use the “she waited too long” argument to blame a victim.
During the media explosion related to the Ford/Kavanaugh travesty, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.” The situation and such language surrounding it perpetuates rape culture and mocks victims. In a later interview, Trump continued to mock Dr. Ford, asking in a public gathering, “What neighborhood was it? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it—I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.” His audience laughed and cheered.
We must understand that traumatic experiences have an impact on the brain. In moments of high stress or fear, such as during sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired and sometimes even shuts down. This phenomenon causes many victims to remember only fragments. So we cannot reasonably expect a victim to recall, detail for detail, the rape, especially if years have passed, and the victim has spent those years trying to forget the painful details.
What happens when a victim does come forward and share her story? Frequently, she gets mocked. Yet people argue, “Why didn’t she come forward sooner?” Such is the cycle of rape culture.
Actress and activist Alyssa Milano responded to Trump by sharing her own experience of staying silent about her sexual assault. She also encouraged others to share their stories. She tweeted, “Hey, @realDonaldTrump, Listen the f*** up. I was sexually assaulted twice. Once when I was a teenager. I never filed a police report and it took me 30 years to tell my parents.”
Why don’t people report? Fear. The length of court cases. The continuation of trauma. The victims have been told: “You’ll embarrass your family.” “You’ll lose your job.” “They’ll never believe you.” “The case will take forever to process.” In a justice system that usually sides with the perpetrator, a victim would think twice before reporting. Many choose not to report to protect the rest of their household from the abuser. If the criminal does not go to jail, which statistics tell us he will not, then he could come back for revenge against those in the household.
Some people cannot report because of their immigration status. For many undocumented victims, taking steps to report abuse could lead to the government detaining or deporting them. When a person could get kicked out of the country, they obviously would fear reporting or saying anything to a government that has authority over them. A New York Times article reported that the fear of deportation causes crimes to go unreported—especially sexual assault. In the same article, it was reported that a woman who immigrated illegally from Mexico nearly thirty years earlier waited for years before reporting an abusive partner to the police. She said, “Fear is stronger than ever—anyone from above could keep us in custody and deport us.” There are countless stories of immigrants who are putting up with abuse to stay in America. These silent women could not report the abuse they endured.
A former prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office said in the article, “If the perception is that there is a greater risk if you go to the police, you are going to be less likely to do so, and you are more likely to stay in an abusive relationship until you need to seek treatment at a hospital. All of this strengthens the abusive partner.” Our world is not a safe place for victims to report.
Other women who do come forward get blamed for “crying rape.” People argue, “Maybe after consenting to sex, she regretted it and now cries rape.” However, the statistics demonstrate that this happens incredibly rarely. In The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses, it was stated, “Only 2–8 percent of reported rapes are false in any given area.” What should a woman do? Report it and not be believed and risk putting herself or her loved ones in danger? Or suffer in silence?
Finally, many women do not want to report because doing so might involve going through the grueling process of completing a rape kit. In the middle of the night, my friend texted me that she needed to go to the hospital—she had been raped. I met her at the hospital and waited with her for hours in the hospital room until a victims’ advocate showed up. Once the advocate showed up, my friend was taken away into a private room where she had to strip down naked, enduring having photos taken of her entire body (including inside and outside of her body). It took more than two hours for processors to complete her body scan and rape kit. And then what happened? She was told they told her they did not have enough evidence to prove anything, because she had gone to the bathroom and changed her clothes. Leaving the hospital, my friend said to me, “That was like getting raped all over again, but actually probably worse.”
This is why victims don’t report.