Every few months, a new story drags an old question back into the limelight: why do so few sexual assault survivors report their attacks to the police? In the past few years, the question has popped up regarding the 50-plus women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (charges the former Cosby Show star denies); it also burbled up when Canadian radio personality Jian Ghomeshi was tried for assault in 2016. Today, the question looms again, this time over the women who have come forward to make sexual assault allegations against GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Trump has insisted these incidents did not occur.)
The question generally has a second, unspoken part — "Why didn't you go to the cops right away if you're telling the truth?" — a subtext that Trump has made text several times over the past few weeks. At a rally this past Saturday morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Trump said that "Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. ... Total fabrication. The events never happened," while NBC News reported that last week, at another rally, Trump questioned People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff, who claimed that Trump assaulted her while she was reporting on him in 2005, by asking, "Why didn't she write what she said happened before she wrote the story? Why didn't she put it in the story? Why didn't she do it 12 years ago? ... She's a liar."
Many sexual assault survivors will find this line of questioning sadly familiar, especially because the people asking these questions rarely want to listen to the actual answers. The five survivors in this Bustle video did not contact the police after they were assaulted, and each of them had their own important reasons that led them to make this decision — none of which have anything to do with not telling the truth.
Looking at statistics regarding sexual assault in the United States, it seems that the better question to ask might be: Why do we act like those who don't report their sexual assaults are outliers? According to the National Institute of Justice, only "36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported" between the years 1992 and 2000 — meaning that each year, two-thirds of sexual assault survivors don't report the crime committed against them to authorities.
Each of those attacks went unreported for reasons unique to the survivor, but which could include factors like fear that their charge won't be taken seriously due to their sexual history or other personal elements; or because they had been drinking at the time of the attack; or because they had previously had a relationship with their attacker; or because of dozens of other qualifications that our culture uses to classify an assault as not legitimate.
In the video, Kristen, who now works with sexual assault nonprofit A Voice For The Innocent, explains: "Who wants to come forward with the literal most violating thing that can happen to you, relive it, and then have people tell you that you're making it up?"
Survivors may also fear retribution from their attacker or their attacker's community if they file legal action against them, worry about becoming retraumatized over the course of the legal trial, or even simply think that it's not worth it to go through it all due to the shockingly low sexual assault conviction rates in our country — according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, out of every 1000 sexual assaults, while 334 are reported to police, only 64 lead to arrest. Sulome says in the video, "I imagine — and, I think, rightfully so — that it would have been more traumatizing for me in many ways had I reported it."
Is is really any shock, then, that so many survivors simply decide to skip the legal battle and try to move on?
I'm unfortunately an expert on this — nearly a decade ago, I was sexually assaulted by a man I met at a bar. I knew that what happened to me that night would read to anyone as an assault: my attacker penetrated me while I was either blacked out or passed out (I didn't remember it, but felt the pain in my vagina the next day); when I came to, I ran out of my attacker's home only partially clothed and shoeless, sprinting several blocks to my own home with my bare feet on the New York City sidewalk. If you saw it on a TV crime procedural, you'd be horrified.
But the moment I was able to admit what happened to myself, I knew that I would not press charges. I knew a number of facts that had nothing to do with my actual attack could be used against me in a legal trial — that I had left the bar willingly with my attacker; that I had a history of drinking heavily, as well as a history of having sex with men I did not know terribly well; that I had not been conscious when the assault occurred — painting me as far from a "perfect victim." Caitlin reiterates this mentality in the video: "I wasn't the 'perfect victim.' I didn't, like try to fight him off, or I didn't slap him around, or, you know, I didn't pick up the phone and call 911."
For me, I worried that if I went to court, my attacker would not be on trial; my reputation would be.
As Latasha says in the video: "I could hear people's judgments, saying — 'Well, why did you do that? It was your fault.'"
Maybe I could find a good victim's advocate to work with me, and maybe I could summon the strength to try to bring legal charges against this guy — but I knew that the odds were not in my favor to get a conviction. So I did what so many survivors are criticized for doing: I tried to move on with my life.
I don't know that I made the unassailable right choice. Sometimes I wonder if he attacked other women after me, if reporting him to the police would have prevented it. In an ideal world — a world where a rape victim is treated with the same amount of empathy as a mugging victim — I would have felt it was my duty to come forward, to make sure that neighborhood crime statistics were accurate and that I had gone through all the proper channels to try to keep a criminal off the streets.
By the same token, I always wonder if going through a court trial where my personal life was dragged through the mud would have made my life awful, stalling my healing and making a bad situation even worse. There's no single thing all assault survivors should do after their attack — we all respond differently, and we all heal differently. And, as the survivors in this video make clear, we need to be trusted to choose the response that is right for us.
If you or someone you know has suffered a sexual assault, you can anonymously share your story and find support at A Voice For The Innocent. You can also call RAINN at 800-656-4673 or speak to a trained RAINN staffer member via online chat here. You are not alone.