And Why Telling Our Stories Might Be More Important Than Filing Police Reports.
I didn’t report two sexual assaults I survived when I was in college, more than 25 years ago, and I want to tell you why.
One assault was committed by a stranger and the other by a lover. One was in an incredibly unlikely situation and the other was as mundane as can be. It isn’t the assaults that matter most here. What matters the most is what happened afterwards. While the details of an assault might be one set of factors influencing a decision to report, there are many others that might have more weight.
After the first assault I sat on a bus with the assailant for another couple of hours, I think, not sure how I’d get home any other way. I don’t know exactly where my mind went during that time, but by the time I reached my destination I had, to some degree, dissociated myself from the experience. I was picked up by a male classmate with whom I wasn’t tremendously close and wanted nothing more than to get back to my room and into my bed. The next day I travelled from the college to my hometown for the remainder of summer vacation and it was there that I slipped into four days of depression that worried a very close and trusted friend enough that he got me to tell him the real reason I had been largely unable to get out of bed and get dressed, let alone leave the house. He convinced me to tell my mother, and I was lucky again because she, being a very loving and understanding parent, found out where the county’s rape crisis center was and took me there.
At the rape crisis center I had further luck. A thoughtful, gentle, pragmatic woman counseled me about what would happen if I wanted to report and said that the decision needed to be mine and mine alone. She told me I would be supported either way. I’d have an advocate with me during every step of the of the process. There would be little collectible evidence given the time that had passed and my behavior during that time, and it was unlikely that charges would be filed but she reaffirmed my right to report, regardless. She listened when I said I was afraid for other women who might encounter this man and that I was terrified about what the process of reporting would be like for me. I had the luckiest of all possible responses each time I told someone what had happened, and in the end my decision was not to report.
Though I didn’t report that assault, I become an activist on my campus around issues of sexual assault. As a member of the residence life staff I shared my story to the other staff members and helped develop training materials for our campus leaders. I helped to organize a women’s resource center on campus. I believe this was a more effective way of facilitating my own healing than reporting my assault could have been. It may also have been a more effective prevention effort than a report that, like most, failed to result in charges.
I didn’t report my second assault for an entirely different reason: I loved my assailant despite our breakup and I wanted to just move on. And I did, and so did he.
I’m telling you all of this right now because of the disgusting remarks made by Donald Trump in his attempt to discredit Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story simply because she didn’t report it when it happened. I’m telling you because I’m inspired by a powerful Twitter thread in which Lux Alptraum explained why she would be unlikely to report a sexual assault and today I read a blog post by Mollena Williams about an assault she didn’t report 25 years ago. Then I learned that #WhyIDidntReport had gone viral.
These stories are important precisely because reporting is so difficult. As Lux points out in her twitter thread, reporting sexual assault isn’t like reporting any other crime. It isn’t only that there is stigma, or that there is a likelihood that you might not be believed. It is also that your body is the crime scene and you’ve already lost control of it once. It’s an act of tremendous courage and not a little bit of faith to relinquish control of it again, and to a system that isn’t squarely on your side.
Opting not to report our sexual assaults to the police does not prohibit us from telling our stories in other forums and at other times. Prosecutions are only one way to address the endemic problem of sexual assault in the United States. Prosecutions can’t directly change the toxic elements of masculinity that drive sexual violence, nor can they, on their own, rebalance sexist power systems. What they can do is lead to the incarceration of specific perpetrators. Storytelling is a transformative method for driving social change and may get us farther by sparking the kinds of ongoing conversations needed to instill norms and values of consent, respect, and equity in a culture that desperately needs them.