This week, I was one of three survivors that spoke at a press conference where Senator Gillibrand announced her new initiative to increase federal funding for the Department of Education to address the high rates of sexual assault on colleges campuses. After each of us shared our stories of our colleges miserably failing to support us after sexual assault, multiple reporters asked about the role of the local police in each of the investigations and whether one of the Columbia survivors, a junior named Emma Sulkowicz, reported. These questions prompted a shift that often happens when survivors speak out: a focus on the police and pursuing retribution through the courts.
Time and time again, I’ve seen questions about whether a survivor went to the police derail conversations that focus on other aspects of sexual violence. Senator Gillibrand’s goal is to get funding so students’ civil rights are protected, yet reporters seemed fixated on the potential criminal prosecution part of her story – something that is separate from a school’s internal judicial process. I think the tendency to ask about reporting to police after a survivor speaks out is a reflection of our society’s narrow view of justice after sexual violence: sending the perpetrator to prison.
This, unfortunately, sets the stage for survivors who come forward to be judged and attacked for yet another reason: deciding not to report. Recently, my friend Britni de la Cretaz wrote at her blog Fiending for Hope about being raped and deciding to not report it. Inspired by Britni’s bravery, her friend Marti McKenna shared her own story a few days later about her own decision to not report after an attack. But instead of reading and understanding their very valid decisions to not turn to the police, people were outraged. The negative backlash they received is astounding to me. Instead of celebrating Britni’s and Marti’s bravery, readers called them cowardly for not coming forward. Others said that they owed it to society to report and by failing to do so they are contributing to the perpetuation of rape culture. It was clear that these people were missing the point. The whole point of these blog posts was to promote understanding and provide a nuanced look at the option of reporting.
The view that all survivors must report to the police is problematic for two reasons. Both are rooted in misogyny, even though the impact is felt survivors of all gender identities. Firstly, the argument is rooted in the belief that it is a woman’s responsibility to stop rape. Rape is an act done overwhelmingly by men, yet society still insists on women to keep it from happening to them, whether by telling them to never drink again or to stop wearing short skirts. And second, it is a manifestation a patriarchal norm that women need to put themselves last and not take care of themselves emotionally or mentally. Examples like the prevalence of women working the “second shift” when they get home from their jobs or the claims that women can never “have it all,” show how society places a lot of a pressure on women. Women expected to put others first and this is often to their own detriment. These two beliefs only serve to maintain the status quo because in order to effectively dismantle rape culture, we need to hold the people who are doing the harm accountable and we have to create a society that allows survivors to recover and heal properly.
Survivors have to deal with an incredible level of scrutiny of their actions. The questioning and judgement doesn’t stop at what they wore before the assault; survivors have to worry about people judging how they heal and recover from what was done to them. There is no one way to be a “victim” yet it is not rare for folks to analyze someone’s behavior after assault as if it is a verifiable way to tell whether someone was really assaulted or not. I do not think that it is a concidence that it is a lot easier to find vitriol thrown at survivors who do not report. In a world where rape culture is alive and well, people are a lot more ready to put the already marginalized people down than to hold a perpetrator accountable. I wish I saw people jump to condemn rapists with the same speed and passion they have when they question a survivor sharing their story. Why is it so much easier for folks to doubt whether someone is really a predator than it is respect someone who had the courage to come forward? Considering the very negative (and sometimes deadly) consequences of coming out as a survivor, it is not a decision that is made lightly.
A few years after failing to get my rape report taken seriously by Tufts or the local town police, I traveled to Washington, DC to participate in a week-long digital media skills training program. I was raped on the last night of the program. At first, I was not going to tell anyone, but I did tell the people running the program. I was thankful that they were supportive of me after I reported – they even offered to support me if I decided to report to the police. However, I knew I did not want to go to the police about what happened. I thought how traumatizing it was when I reported years earlier while I was at Tufts and I did not want to go through something similar again. I had absolutely no desire to repeatedly rehash my story to multiple strangers over an extended period of time, stay up even later that evening, or go to the hospital. I did not want to have to travel down to Washington, DC multiple times over the course of an investigation and/or trial. The thought of it all simply seemed exhausting and I could not afford to go under the extra emotional stress.
Finances also were a large reason why I chose not to report. In the morning after the assault, I was scheduled to meet and interview with multiple prospective employers. In fact, this opportunity was the main reason why I even applied to the program. In the time leading up to the program, I had been struggling to find any meaningful employment after getting kicked out of Tufts and I desperately needed a reliable income. I did not report because I knew i needed to be in the best mental condition possible to portray myself as a viable job candidate. Participating in multiple job interviews hours after an assault does not make me any less of a survivor and doesn’t make my rape any less real. I had a decision to make and I decided to put my well-being forward. And I’m damn glad I made that decision.
Many colleges are hosting events this April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I noticed that many schools are also using this week to observe Mental Health Awareness Week. While I don’t think the overlap of observing awareness about both mental health and sexual assault was done intentionally, I do think it is a very appropriate combination. There is no denying that experience sexual violence is something that can have a severe adverse effect on a survivor’s mental health – this is why we need to respect any decisions made in the pursuit of a better life.
During a debriefing with Gillibrand’s staff after Monday’s press conference, a few of us shared our concerns about promoting the exclusive use of the prison industrial complex to address rape. In response, one of the survivors felt compelled to state that she believed that rape is a violent crime and should be treated as such. I think it is important for me to say that I am in no way advocating that survivors should never report. Nor I do I believe that it is wrong that rape is considered a crime in our society (despite the reason it started to be considered a crime having very patriarchal origins). What I am saying is that we need to respect individual survivors and their decisions in this very personal, difficult process. Just as pro-choice advocates call on legislators to “trust women,” I advocate for us to trust survivors of violence. Why can’t we trust women (and survivors of all identities) to know what is the best way for them to heal?
Wagatwe Wanjuki is a writer, activist, and a public speaker. She trusts survivors.