Why people don’t report: Testimony

There’s a strong cultural pressure surrounding rape victims/survivors and reporting: You’re a bad person if you don’t report, if the rapist does it again it’s your fault, why wouldn’t you want the rapist to be punished, you need to talk about it to work through it, &c. This pressure doesn’t consider the needs of the victim/survivor at all, or the complexities behind reporting or not. The bottom line is that people need to choose whether to report on their own, and that the complexities behind that choice are not really up for judgment or discussion in the cases of individuals.

But it is critical to talk about the factors involved in some decisions not to report, and one of the most compelling is the trauma of testimony in rape cases. The way we handle rape victims/survivors in the legal system is beyond byzantine and violent, and it’s disturbing that we’ve seen no movement towards reform in this area — yet, not that surprising, given the position of most victims/survivors in society. The fact that rape is still treated like a crime against the state is really a telling indicator of how we deal with rape on a cultural level.

What happens in a rape case is a highly specific and measured thing, and once it gets started, it can turn into a nightmare for the victim/survivor.

It begins with, yes, reporting the rape. The police arrive and take testimony, in addition to collecting a rape kit, depending on when the report is filed and under what circumstances. A victim advocate may be appointed — many police departments have relationships with rape crisis centres and put in a good faith effort to connect victims with advocates to talk to as they navigate the extremely long and painful road ahead of them.

Filing a report with the police, even with a supportive advocate and an officer trained in how to handle sensitive situations, is really upsetting. Victims/survivors are reliving the trauma, and in some cases, it’s very fresh. They may be testifying about the actions of a friend or partner. They may be disorientated due to drugs or alcohol. They may be fearing hostility and reprisals. It’s incredibly stressful, especially as police officers start asking probing and repeating questions, collecting as much evidence as possible while the memories are extremely strong, in the hopes of gathering supportive material for court — if the case enters court.

Should a rape kit be suggested, the victim/survivor has to endure a traumatic and stressful examination. A victim/survivor advocate is often present by request, but that doesn’t make the experience any less upsetting, as a victim’s/survivor’s body is invaded and treated like a piece of evidence. People who collect rape kits receive special training, they take their time, and they focus on collecting evidence meticulously and carefully, but it’s still traumatic and it can be violating. It can also be dehumanising for victims/survivors when performed poorly, and even more so when they think about the huge number of kits that go untested.

Then, rape victims/survivors may be forced to testify over and over again, depending on the circumstances of the case. They may need to talk to other police officers. To prosecutors. To a grand jury that makes a decision on whether to indict. To their own attorneys and advocates, who help them develop their testimony and prepare for court. This testimony is incredibly traumatic, because it’s not just about reliving the circumstances of a rape over, and over, and over again.

It’s about being asked slut-shaming questions, whether with the attempt of undermining their testimony or making their cases convincing — ‘she was wearing modest clothes and hadn’t been drinking, so she’s a reliable witness!’ It’s about being asked a series of leading and awful questions intended to cast judgements upon the choices made by the victim/survivor: What was she doing, where was she doing it, did she really say no, why didn’t she fight back, which clothes was she wearing, why didn’t she say anything, how come no one noticed…the list of questions goes on and on. These questions may be used to draw out information about the case, but they’re also used to cut people down, to make them question their own narrative, to make them feel like the crime they experienced wasn’t rape — in many senses, they are being violated all over again, and in fact, there’s a term for it: Secondary trauma.

This is taking place over a period of weeks and months. During this entire period, a rape victim/survivor has to deal with comments from friends and family, endless appointments with legal officials, and medical followups including STI testing, pregnancy testing, and possible treatment for the medical aftereffects of rape. In addition to the physical aftereffects, victims/survivors often face psychological issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder that they need to cope with, and these issues can make it extremely difficult to function.

Should a case even make its way to court, then victims/survivors are facing down another round of testimony, but this is perhaps some of the most difficult testimony of all. They need to answer the same series of intrusive, invasive questions while performing on the stand, and they need to do it while facing down their rapists. Every rape victim/survivor is aware that this could be the potential endpoint of reporting the crime, and that the very low conviction rate for rape means that their rapist may sit smugly in court and then walk off without any penalties.

When we push people to report, we’re asking them to do something incredibly traumatic, something that will have lasting consequences, and it’s unbelievably selfish and unreasonable to demand that one person be responsible for such a momentous, complicated thing.

Image: Historic Courtroom, Ann Fisher, Flickr