Why Sexual Assault Cases Often Go Unreported

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I want to take a few minutes to talk about something that’s deeply personal to me, and to many other women (and men) across the world. It’s estimated that one in four women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, but most cases don’t even get reported to the police.

I don’t talk about my situation very often, because – even after all this time – it’s still painful to talk about. Starting in early 2014, and not ending until late 2015, I was the target of multiple sexual assaults by the same perpetrator. I’ve always considered myself a pretty strong woman – with three older brothers, I learned how to fight at a pretty young age, and I’ve always been able to stand up for myself when the situation called for it.

But not with my rapist.

I wasn’t able to talk about it with my family until it had already been going on for over a year (which was immediately before it stopped – thankfully my family took my side and took actions to protect me from him). They never pushed me to talk about it, or to press charges, or any of that… They simply made sure that he would never get in touch with me again.

That didn’t mean that I never saw him again. In fact, he was arrested once in the parking lot of my apartment building with a gun. I assume he was coming after me, but I obviously never asked him about this. (He was soon released – he hadn’t committed any verifiable crimes, beyond carrying an unlicensed weapon.) Another time, I was alone in a different parking lot, and he passed less than three feet in front of my car, making direct eye contact with me. All the previous incidents flashed through my mind all at once, and I panicked and ran inside to find my mother.

It wasn’t until 2017 that I had the courage to file a police report. I was informed that the statute of limitations for pressing charges had expired already, but I could file a report to help someone else’s case, if another report was filed against him in the future. This is when I found out that I wasn’t his only victim up until that point. The other victim was a 12-year-old girl, and while they couldn’t tell me any details about her report, it absolutely broke my heart knowing that I wasn’t his first, and I probably wouldn’t be his last, either.

The same person I told my story to, who told me that my report could help someone else, asked me, “Why didn’t you report this sooner? We might have actually been able to do something.” Well, in short, there are tons of reasons why someone might not report a sexual assault. Here are a few of mine.

They fear retaliation.

If you file a rape or sexual assault report, and the prosecutors determine that it’s “unfounded” (which happens far more often than we’d like to think about), the rapist is free – and they know that you have made a report against them. Considering their willingness to use force and violence to get their way, you can only imagine what happens when they feel someone has tarnished their reputation. In my case, I told family members – he was also a member of my family, by marriage – and he came after me once he was kicked out of his home.

The chance for justice is low.

Most sexual assault perpetrators who are taken to trial don’t serve even a single day in prison, despite a near-universal agreement that “rape is bad.” But rape isn’t the only form of sexual assault, and up until 2013, it was the only form of sexual assault that was considered bad enough to even warrant an investigation… And, even still, the laws are fuzzy about what “counts.” The statute of limitations exists, and although it varies from region to region, it’s hard to talk about, so many women choose not to.

The victims who do report are blamed for their own assault.

Rape culture penalizes the victims of these heinous crimes by asking what they did to provoke the attack. As far as I’m aware, this is the only crime in which the victim must prove their own innocence before their attacker has to prove theirs – and, in many cases, it’s impossible to prove that you “did enough” to prevent it. My rapist told me that I should “be grateful” that someone like him was “even interested” in someone like me. Never mind the fact that I had told him that I was not interested in him.

Their assaulter is stronger than they are.

Rape isn’t a “sex crime” – it’s a crime of power. No one sexually assaults someone who is stronger than them (although sexual harassment of someone bigger and stronger is a real possibility – but that’s not what we’re talking about here). In one instance, my rapist shoved me against a wall and told me, “It doesn’t really matter what you say – I’m stronger than you are.” Because his use of force was implied, rather than exercised, that instance wouldn’t have been considered a “real” rape, under many jurisdictions.

They black out and have memory gaps.

Blacking out is a psychological defense mechanism that lets us pretend a traumatic event never happened. This has been well-documented in other cases of PTSD, but when it happens to a sexual assault victim, it’s often twisted that the victim is false-reporting an event that never really happened. In many cases (mine included), the victim may even struggle to determine whether the rapes were real or imagined – there are still a few instances of assault that I’m not 100% clear on (such as one case where I woke to find my attacker already on top of and inside me).

They’re ashamed of what it says about them.

In a society where women who have sex are considered sluts, and women who don’t want sex are considered prudes, a woman who is forced into sex when she doesn’t want it is in a category all its own. My rapist told me once that I was “the best fuck” he’d ever had, and commenting on how wet I was at the time. (I was on my period, which was yet another reason for me to feel ashamed.)

They don’t want to disappoint their family.

In many cases, the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s family, either directly or indirectly. My rapist was my sister-in-law’s step-brother. I had known him for almost my entire life. Most people associate rapists with a stranger in a dark alley, and when the rapist is a little closer to home, there’s a chance that the victim will be blamed for “breaking up the family.” I am eternally grateful for my family members who stood by me during this time – I know of others who weren’t so lucky.

They didn’t do enough to stop it.

Even though I had learned how to fight from my brothers, all that knowledge went out the window when I was alone with him. I was pretty pudgy at the time (TBH, I still am, but that’s mostly unrelated) and he was very muscular. If I had fought back, he may have killed me. No, I don’t know this for sure, but I do know that he was arrested in 2008 for armed robbery and assault in a separate case. I don’t know if he had a knife or a gun with him any of the times he assaulted me, but I do know that he was strong enough to lift me off the ground, even though I weighed a good 30 pounds more than he did.

They’re gaslighted by their attacker.

Many rape victims are told that they must enjoy it, because they’re “so wet” when it happens. Truthfully, this happens as a defense mechanism by the body, in trying to make the rape as painless as possible (and it doesn’t always work). My rapist even told another family member, who suspected there was something going on, that the suspicion was stupid because, and I quote, “You know I don’t like fat girls.” When I heard that Trump’s defense against one sexual assault allegation was, “Just look at her! I don’t think so.” … I was horrified. Comments like that prove that sexual assault isn’t about sex at all – it’s about power and control.

Victims who do report are forced to relive the event.

When a lawyer represents an alleged rapist, it is their job to prove, without a doubt, that their client is innocent. Even when a woman files an informal report – one which doesn’t explicitly tarnish the accused’s name – the person taking the report needs as much of the information as possible, to prevent false accusations from getting through. I was questioned several times, over several days, just to see if they could catch me in a lie. There was only me, the police officer, and my sister-in-law in the room, and I cried with almost every question. If I had pushed my case to trial, I would have had to relive it again in front of dozens of people.

Their own (perceived) promiscuity will be held on trial, too.

When a rape allegation goes to trial, the victim is asked intrusive questions about how many sexual partners they’ve had, what they were wearing, and whether they were intoxicated. In almost every instance (that I can remember) with my rapist, I was wearing pajamas – because I was in my own home. The first time, I had been drinking to celebrate my first day in a new city. I was drunk for most of the other times, too, in an attempt to “wash” the traumatic event out of my mind. And, I wasn’t a virgin when the first rape happened – even though I had literally only had sex once before that. If I had ever had consensual sex with my rapist, it would be assumed that I wanted it this time, too.

There is often no physical evidence.

In my case, the physical evidence had “expired” – as I didn’t tell police until my sexual assault had finally come to an end. In other cases, the attacker may use a condom, and in the eyes of the law, if the rapist has time to use a condom, the victim has time to get away. (This isn’t always true.) In cases where the victim gives into the rape to prevent the situation from escalating – as I had on more than one occasion – it’s legally deemed “consensual,” even if there was a verbal threat of violence for non-compliance. You can’t usually prove what someone says to you, so if there aren’t any signs of a struggle, there’s no proof of force.

Because talking about sexual assault is really hard.

Even if none of the above were true in my situation, it would still be really, really hard to talk about my rape, because of the way our society is set up. Women are shunned for talking about sex, and feminists are shunned for letting themselves be victims. (As a side note, who “lets themselves” be victimized? But I digress.) Our society is set up to make it really, really difficult to talk about sexual assault – and we have convicted rapists doing very little time, in relation to how long their victims will live with the effects of what happened to them.

It’s been over ten years since my rapist left my life. I’ve moved six times, but I still worry that I’m going to run into him somewhere. It’s been over eight years since I reported my case to the police, and I’m still crying as I write this. I still have nightmares about what happened, and I still have a hard time doing certain consensual sexual activities with my partner. I still try to mask the pain in whatever ways I can – there’s whiskey in my coffee this morning just so I can be calm enough to write this. Obviously, the whiskey doesn’t fix the problem, but it makes it easier to talk about.

It doesn’t matter why you don’t report your rape or sexual assault – your reasons are just as valid as mine, and I want you to know that I’m right here with you. If you feel comfortable doing so, I invite you to share your story in the comments below. Just know that you are not alone, and you are a survivor.

3 thoughts on “Why Sexual Assault Cases Often Go Unreported

  1. B.

    I’ve been raped twice (once each by a separate diff man on 2 separate diff unrelated occasions if that makes sense) but I never saw the point in reporting it. I don’t see why “statute of limitations” should exist. If someone committed murder, and they aren’t caught for fifty years, why should the crime “not count”? And why not with any crime? With me, I just saw it as something men do. Every single time a woman ends up having sex, when she didn’t want to, it is rape. So most men have raped hundreds of times in my estimation.

  2. Barbara WardBarbara Ward Post author

    Thank you for sharing, B. <3 I agree with you, and in some ways the idea that reporting would be pointless had definitely crossed my mind when I was deciding whether or not to report. In my case, my attacker never did anything when anyone else was home (obviously) – when the rest of my family was there, he treated me with animosity and "humor" that made the situation even more painful. Once I did finally have the courage to tell my family what happened, they protected me far better than the law would have, so there was no point there, either. In the end, the only reason I even made the informal report was because the counselor at my high school found my blog where I had briefly talked about it, and she was a mandatory reporter – otherwise, I probably never would have.

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