This year, sexual assault has been inescapable in the news — from people complaining about short sentences for rape to people speaking out about old crimes for the first time to colleges trying to deal with a rape crisis, people are talking about sexual assault and rape. A lot of that conversation is good, and something that needs to happen. Some of that conversation is not so good, and that is the part that revolves around whether people should report. Particularly the claim that people should report for the good of others.
I want to deconstruct this, but first I want to say this, from the start: You are not responsible for what your assailant does in the future if you choose not to report a sex crime (or anything else). That burden is on the person committing that crime. Not you. The only people responsible for people’s actions are they themselves.
There are a lot of reasons why people choose not to report sexual assault. Every victim/survivor has complicated feelings around an incident. Some want to rush out immediately and report and keep pushing and pushing until something happens. Others feel more ambivalent, or are afraid, or can’t even talk about it for years or decades (one reason it’s important to eliminate the statute of limitations on rape). No one should be criticised for how they respond to a crime, even if it’s not the way you personally would have responded. Period. Sexual assault is an intimate, violating, awful crime, and even if you are a victim/survivor, another person is going to cope with an incident differently than you are. That’s okay. We are all humans, trying to survive.
So this meme, it goes like this: You have to report it, because if you don’t, they will rape again. You are responsible for ensuring they are brought to justice (and will never rape again). You are responsible for keeping other people out of harm’s way, for protecting the interests of people like you. You must use your power!
Let’s back up and look at some of these things, though. How empowered are sexual assault victims/survivors, really? Unless they fit the requirements of the ‘perfect victim,’ not very. Some simply aren’t believed, others face an uphill slog. You may file a report and be ignored or laughed off. Or people might not take the investigation seriously. Or you may be told that they’re not interested in pursuing a case because with a victim like you, a conviction is unlikely. Are you disabled? A sex worker? A person of colour? Someone in an unequal power dynamic? Were you drinking or using other drugs? Were you in an existing relationship, especially a sexual one? What were you wearing? Do you have tattoos? Are you ‘promiscuous’? The long long checklist used to determine whether someone is the right kind of victim is pretty intimidating and awful.
Okay, so you’re a good enough victim to pass initial muster. Great. Are they going to prosecute your case? The percentage of rape cases that are actually brought to trial is extremely low, and the number of trials resulting in convictions is even lower. Reporting a rape is actually not a one way ticket to conviction and poof your rapist is gone forever, never to rape again. It can take months or years for a case to move its way through the legal system, during which your rapist may well be out on bail, raping people, because that is what rapists do. Or your rapist is in jail awaiting trial, raping people, because that is what rapists do.
I’m a prison abolitionist and don’t actually believe that putting people in jail and prison solves anything, but if we accept the premise that reporting a rape magically leads to successful prosecution, let’s take a look at the “off the streets” mentality. As illustrated this year, many rapists serve extremely short sentences, especially when they are people in a position of social power, such as young white college athletes. That means that you may go through the trauma of a trial — which is considerable — only to have your rapist cruise out of jail three months later. And, as I alluded above, being in jail or prison doesn’t stop people from raping people, it just means that they will be raping different people.
Sexual predators find people to assault no matter where they are, looking for the weak and unimportant, for those viewed as soft targets. That’s not something you can stop, whether someone is in jail or out on the street. What stops that is a shift in society and culture that makes it harder to find victims. One in which victims are taken seriously when they report crimes, and one in which restorative justice forces rapists to actually confront and deal with their crimes. One in which entire classes of people are not rendered invisible or worthless by social attitudes — in which sex workers can work openly and freely in a safe, supportive environment, in which disabled people aren’t left to rot with inadequate care, in which trans women don’t have to risk their lives just to get the health care they need.
You, personally, you? You are not responsible for any of that. You can do your part to try to make the world a better place via whichever means you can, but you are not responsible for the actions of other people. They are responsible for their own actions, and society is responsible for enabling those actions, for making it easy for people to casually dodge responsibility and commitments to society like ‘hey, don’t rape people.’
If someone tells you that you must report for the public good, that person doesn’t understand how sexual assault investigations and prosecutions work, and that person also doesn’t understand the way people work. That person is implying that you need to save potential victims from themselves, implying that victims are responsible for the crimes perpetrated against them. No. That is incorrect. Society is responsible for eliminating the barriers and attitudes that turn people into appealing victims.
Image: The police, Luca Venturi, Flickr