Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization. While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.
Over the course of the past several months beginning in July, The Star Tribune has released multiple installments in their series “Denied Justice,” which focuses on the failures of the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual violence cases. Among the series’ findings: sexual assault charges by prosecutors in cases of sober victims are few and far between, but charges by prosecutors in cases of intoxicated victims are even fewer. Repeat sexual violence offenders often slip by the police again and again, going on to commit additional acts of abuse. Sex crimes are often not treated as priorities within Twin Cities police departments. And so on.
It’s no wonder that victims are often hesitant to report. Yet, when victims of rape and sexual assault share their stories – whether it is years, decades, or even weeks after the crime occurred – they are often still pressured into reporting to law enforcement. And typically the pressure is not just for victims to report to help themselves, but more often than not, to help prevent the abuse from happening to someone else. This responsibility, to say the least, can be an immense burden and a well-intentioned but devastating expectation.
In 2015, Julie Zeilinger wrote an essay for Mic on the importance of creating an environment in which victims of assault feel comfortable reporting to police. In one section of her article, she wrote about a piece published by a rape victim on the now-defunct feminist website xoJane. In the comments section of the piece, one individual wrote, “PLEASE do something to save other women from this predator.” The “something” the commenter was referring to was a report to the police.
In 2016, Reveal News penned a guide for sexual abuse victims on reporting to the police. While the guide offered several helpful resources for victims, it also mentioned one assumed benefit of reporting: “help[ing] to prevent an offender from abusing someone else.”
It is a noble and certainly worthy cause to help prevent perpetrators from preying on other individuals, but pressuring victims into playing this role – whether they want to or not – can place an enormous burden, and additional guilt, on top of someone who is already most likely experiencing substantial guilt, self-blame, doubt, and traumatic stress. It creates a rock and a hard place for victims, who are now not only expected to be responsible for their own well-being, but the well-being and safety of others. It places the expectation of caregiving on an individual who needs first and foremost to focus on their own care before they can even possibly begin to think about the care of others, especially complete strangers.
According to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, out of every 100 incidents of sexual violence, almost half were reported by people with household incomes of less than $25,000. Thirty-three of the 100 incidents were perpetrated by an intimate partner. Twenty-eight were reported by people of color. Even if your household income is stable and allows you to easily survive, even if you aren’t already faced with systemic racism, poverty, and the unquestionably painful fact that someone you love, whether they are a dating partner or a spouse, has raped you, recovering from sexual trauma is overwhelming, costly, consuming work.
Sure, there are options in place – crisis hotlines to call, support groups to attend, shelters to contact, counselors to meet with – but rebuilding one’s life after trauma is no easy feat. On The Greatist, Jo Beckwith wrote that “If you had asked me a few years ago if I thought I could ever be in a healthy relationship [after being repeatedly raped by an ex-husband], I would have politely said no and then excused myself from the conversation to go cry in the bathroom.” Although Beckwith is now in a comfortable, loving relationship with someone who does not violate her boundaries, it took her six years to get there – just as it takes many victims years to get to a place in their lives in which they finally feel safe and at ease. With the amount of energy it takes to accomplish all these goals, access all these services, and rebuild a life after rape, we cannot, and should not, coerce victims into pouring even more energy into making sure that someone else’s life does not need to be rebuilt either.
When we manipulate sexual violence victims into reporting their perpetrators to law enforcement to prevent them from harming anyone else, what we are really implying is that victims are able to stop sexual violence, that they have the ability and the willpower to prevent additional rapes. In reality, the only person who can truly, with 100% certainty, stop a perpetrator’s additional harm, is that perpetrator themselves. What we are really implying is that, in the moment, someone who has not yet been victimized is more important than the very person who has already been victimized. We are pressuring someone into a situation in which law enforcement may not be able to do anything, prosecutors may not be able to charge, and cases may not be high priority, just as so many women in “Denied Justice” experienced. A situation in which that person is forced to relive their trauma, over and over again – for the potential benefit of someone else they’ve never even met.
There are so many what ifs in situations like these. What if the perpetrator rapes again? What if someone else’s life is irrevocably shattered, yet again? The reality is that not all perpetrators reoffend. Some do. But not all. And it is critical that we do whatever we can to prevent any potential recidivism – but not at the expense of someone who has already experienced a life-altering crime.
What we can do is offer support, and resources, and encouragement. We can be there, truly be there. We can offer reporting as an option, and we can also offer that it may help someone else – but until that person is ready to report, if they ever do want to report, we cannot conscionably place the burden of saving another person onto someone who is already busy trying to save themselves.
Written by Meggie Royer, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates, firstname.lastname@example.org.