One of the myriad of unhelpful statements offered to people when they talk about their rapes is ‘did you report it,’ which will be followed by ‘why didn’t you’ if no report was filed. It’s one among a pile of things which displays alarming ignorance, and it’s often accompanied by the attitude that someone wasn’t really raped if a report was not filed, which makes it appropriate to question that person and to shame that person.
There are a lot of reasons why people do not report their rapes. The following are some among many, and should not be taken as an exhaustive list. As you read through it, consider your own complicity. How do you feel, reading these statements? Do you contribute to the structures behind them, or are you resisting those structures? And when someone comes to you and trusts you with the information that ou has experienced rape, how are you going to respond?
Not recognising what happened as rape.
We live in a society in which sexual violence is routinely ignored. In which acts of rape and sexual assault are reported as ‘not rape’ by the media and these reports are believed by society in general. Thus, it is often difficult for people to identify what has happened to them as rape. People may not be able to say the word ‘rape’ and to name what has happened until years have passed since the event. Those who do find themselves in situations which they think are nebulous who reach out for help are often told that they were not raped; ‘if you have to ask, you weren’t raped,’ the line of thinking seems to go.
There are also a lot of attitudes about the conditions which need to be present to make a situation ‘rape.’ Like that the person being raped must always fight back. Cannot experience feelings of arousal. Has to be physically forced, that verbal threats and coercion don’t count. Must have been sober at the time of the incident. That rape only involves strangers coming out of bushes. Cannot be a sex worker. That partners cannot rape. Given this, it is not terribly surprising that many people have difficulty identifying their rapes, let alone reporting them.
Fear of reprisals.
People who are raped may fear reprisal. Especially if they are female and know their rapists. Reprisals can vary considerably in nature; firings, assaults, verbal attacks, being slandered. They can also integrate layers of complexity. What happens, for example, when a person with disabilities is raped by an attendant or caregiver? Reprisals could include neglect, withholding nutrition and needed medications, and physical abuse.
Worries about not being believed.
Reporting a rape is extremely difficult when the victim/survivor fears not being believed. Friends and family of both the victim/survivor and the rapist may dismiss the claims, saying ‘that sounds out of character for [rapist],’ or ‘there must be more to the situation than this’ or ‘this didn’t happen’ or ‘I bet it was really consensual’ or any number of horrific and hateful things. Many people respond in an ugly way when they learn that someone they know has done an ugly thing. This becomes even more complicated when the victim/survivor and rapist are related.
Since we already dismiss many rape victims/survivors as it is, knowing that it will be an uphill battle with law enforcement and people who are supposed to be supportive can be enough to dissuade someone from reporting a rape. Because being told over and over that you were not raped tends to have a very deleterious effect.
Lack of faith in the justice system.
And not just low conviction rates, although this is certainly a legitimate concern. Many people who have a passing familiarity with the justice system are aware that rape convictions are hard to get and that if ample evidence and supporting material are not available, a case may not even be taken to trial. Going through the process of reporting a rape, having a rape kit collected, and being involved in the trial itself is grueling, and if there’s a slim chance of a conviction, it may not be worth it.
A rape victim/survivor who knows that the case is unlikely to even be brought to trial will be understandably reluctant to report it. Contrary to popular belief, reporting a crime does not mean that there will be a trial and conviction, it means that an investigation will be opened to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to support the claim that a crime has been committed and to successfully prosecute a perpetrator.
The justice system also routinely fails rape victims long before the steps of collecting evidence and setting up a trial take place. Take rapes on college campuses, for example, where students are encouraged to go through ‘mediation’ with their rapists instead of reporting them to law enforcement.
‘The second rape.’
The trial, if a case goes to trial, is sometimes known as ‘the second rape.’ While testifying, the victim/survivor will be forced to relive the event, in detail, and is also subject to cross examination. Secondary victimization occurs not just during the trial, but as the victim/survivor works with social services and law enforcement. The rape itself is traumatic; reliving that trauma and being reminded of it on a frequent basis for weeks, months, or even years can contribute to significant and long lasting harm. Especially since that is paired with being in the public eye and enduring all that has to offer.
What’s the first thing to come up in every media report about a rape? A detailed statement about the circumstances, so that readers can judge for themselves whether or not the victim/survivor was ‘really’ raped, and if she was a ‘slut,’ well then, she wasn’t raped. What ou was wearing, where/when the rape occurred, whether the rapist and victim/survivor were acquainted, if anyone was intoxicated, if there are any ‘extenuating circumstances’ like perhaps someone has mental illness, or has been involved in rape reports before, or is in a polyamorous relationship— all of these are viewed as things which can be used to erase the reality of a rape accusation. It often seems like as many opportunities as possible are being provided to acquit the rapist, especially if the rapist is a public figure; an athlete, perhaps, who is beloved by many who don’t want to admit the idea that their hero has been accused of rape.
And what’s the first thing to come up when people talk about their rapes? More often than not, there is slut shaming involved. ‘Well, you were pretty drunk.’ ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have worn that cute dress after all.’ ‘Are you sure you didn’t send mixed signals?’ ‘Well you know, people know you have had a lot of partners.’ I wish I could say I’m making these up, but I’m not. Many people fear reporting their rapes because they know that if they aren’t ‘perfect’ victims/survivors, they will be slut shamed.
And slut shaming gets real old, real fast.