The Problem with Saying “The Importance of Reporting Sexual Assault Immediately”
To support sexual assault survivors and end rape don’t place undue obligations on them. Help them. Don’t criticize, judge or oblige someone in an extreme state of distress.
First the obvious, yes immediately reporting sexual assault after it happens is what we all want. We all want rapists to go to jail. We all think rape is bad. Hopefully, we all want to support sexual assault survivors. We know immediately reporting a rape creates a better chance for a conviction than reporting a rape years later. What we all really want is for rape to stop and for victims to heal and get justice.
But does saying “the importance of reporting sexual assault immediately” help us get to that goal?
If you want to support sexual assault survivors, but your message is it’s crucial survivors report their rapes immediately you are telling rape survivors what to do and how to act. You are saying to stop predators, rape survivors have to report immediately. That message gives rape survivors an obligation to meet. With a message of obligation comes a message of failure if that obligation is not met. The effect of your message is to tell someone who has experienced an unimaginable trauma that they have also failed if they do not report their rape immediately. You have put the burden of stopping rape on the one who has just been raped.
This is what happens after your raped.
Most likely you are shocked. Frequently the experience of being raped is so confusing that you go into shock. Your body and mind go into survival mode. Your body freezes, because freezing typically creates the best chance for survival. To fight back is to risk escalating the situation into greater danger. Your mind disassociates, you feel like you’re having an out of body experience. This happens to protect your psyche from what is happening. The situation is so intense and horrifying that it overwhelms the mind. So you disassociate to lessen the intensity of the experience and to get through it.
When the experience is over and you are out of danger you come back into reality. Suddenly you are home in your room and the reality of what has happened hits you. Mentally you might not be able to understand what actually happened. Often survivors can’t yet see what has happened as rape because psychologically they can not yet handle it. They can’t yet mentally process the idea that they are a rape survivor. Yesterday, rape didn’t happen to you and if it did you sure as hell were going to kick the rapist’s ass. But you didn’t kick his or her ass so it must not have been rape. You must have been complicit in it happening.
Psychologically maybe you do or don’t know what has happened to you. Physically you feel awful. You feel the kind of shame that makes you go take a shower and scrub your skin until it’s bleeding so you can get the feeling of dirtiness off of you. You feel so much shame you can’t look in the mirror anymore. You feel the kind of shame that makes you say to yourself, “the only way I can go on living is to not think about what happened”. Or you feel the kind of shame that makes you throw up and stop eating. You can’t understand how that feels unless you have felt it too.
Why do you feel shame?
You feel shame because you feel somehow complicit in what happened, you didn’t fight back. You did have drinks with them. You did think they were cute. You weren’t supposed to be out so late and so on.
Maybe a friend or family member notices you are acting weird and asks you what’s up. Most likely you feel so much shame you try to dismiss their concerns, you can’t talk about it. Shame is, afterall, a feeling that something is inherently wrong with you. Something about you and who you are as a person is bad or gross. It’s not the same as embarrassment. Embarrassment is about your actions and feeling like your actions were silly or stupid. Shame is about how you feel about yourself at your core.
Rape in an ideal world.
In an ideal world a rape victim would wake up the next day and say oh wow I was raped, let me go tell the police. Or a friend would listen to what happened to their friend and through persistence get them to see that they were raped. The two would go off to the police to report the rape. But we don’t live in that ideal world.
Rape in the real world.
In the real world police leave thousands of rape kits untested. In the real world, the first thing a lot of those friends say is were you drinking? Was he or she cute? What were you wearing? Or maybe you do go to the police. But as many who do go to the police will tell you the police are the ones that ask those intrusive and painful questions. They look at you and want to know if you sleep with a lot of people. Are you easy? Because well if you are, then they can’t prosecute. Did you text him the next day and say thank you for the date? You know you were scared and trying to minimize what happened, but the police will think you wanted it.
In Roy Moore’s case these girls were 13, 14, 15 or however old they were. Maybe they liked the attention and encouraged it so they feel complicit and thus ashamed. But what they can’t see until they are an adult is that they were kids being preyed upon by an adult. They have to actually become an adult before they can even start the psychological process of considering what really happened to them when they were 15. And that’s a psychological process that can take years if not decades.
The implied obligation of “The importance of reporting rape right away”.
So throw in to all of that the statement, “the importance of reporting rape right away”. Now your statement has put an additional obligation and responsibility on the victim of the rape. Most will fail because they can barely even look at themselves in the mirror. Rape is murder of the soul and their soul is in shambles and your message is get up, go report it, and if you don’t the next victim is your fault. Your message needs to be, “How can I help you? Are you ok? Rape is not your fault. Your only responsibility is to yourself and to your survival. If you can do more than that great, but if not that’s okay… I’m just here to help you.”
What about “less than rapes”?
Maybe you’re saying well I get that but not every sexual assault is rape. What about the lesser assaults or experiences of harassment? To have your boss force his tongue on you, or to be harassed at work results in its own unique set of psychological battles: Should you tell someone what happened? But then you will be blamed for bringing down the career of this “good guy” over a seemingly small incident. What if you tell and you lose your job and you’re blackmailed from your industry; how will you feed your kids? Or maybe you see other people tolerate the same harassment, so you should too. If you don’t you’re just a wimp out to cause problems.
It doesn’t matter what the sexual assault experience is, the only responsibility the survivor has is to their own survival. They are the victim. A crime was perpetrated on them, they did not choose to be part of it and they are not required to do anything.
We want to get to that world where survivors are able to report their attacks immediately. We get there not by placing an obligation on them but by creating a culture that helps them to do so. We get there by having less people ask questions like, “What were you wearing?”, or “Did you like it?” As the culture shifts away from those victim-blaming questions, survivors will feel more comfortable speaking out. Awareness, understanding and support for survivors will grow and more survivors will have the capacity to report their attacks immediately.
Why do survivors speak out decades later?
Because now they finally can. They can finally say the words, “I was raped” out loud and so that someone else can hear it too. Their sexual assault was not something that happened to them years ago that they put away in a cabinet somewhere. They are not now bringing it out for some opportunistic agenda. Rape isn’t put away in a cabinet like that. It changes the course of your life. It changes how you think, how you look at people, how you trust, how you walk, where you walk, who you talk to. It changes everything. It doesn’t ruin you (or doesn’t have to), but it does change you. So people speak out when they finally are able to and when they feel it’s important to; when they feel like what they have to say matters. Seeing someone run for office who raped you makes you feel it’s important to speak out, but if you are not able to speak out yet, you won’t. Going through therapy and healing and getting to the place where you can speak out makes you feel like you can speak out, but you probably won’t speak out until you feel it’s important to. Perhaps you feel it’s important to speak out for your own growth, or perhaps it’s to help other survivors, or perhaps it’s because that person is running for political office.
The survivors of Trump, Weinstein, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons and everyone else finally got to the place where they are able to speak out and feel it’s important to.