TW/CW: sexual assault, rape
Often when we see stories of survivors of sexual assault in the news, there are plenty of people asking: why? On Facebook, on the news, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, you hear everyone asking: Why didn’t they report? Why didn’t they say something sooner? Why didn’t they come forward? Why didn’t they fight their attacker off?
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had her entire life put on display last year for this very thing. She accused Brett Kavanaugh, a then-nominee for Supreme Court Justice, of sexually assaulting her when they were in college. Anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone took to the media asking, why didn’t Dr. Ford report this when it happened? Why did she wait so long? Why isn’t she acting like someone who’d been raped? Why didn’t she say anything sooner?
A visit to the Instagram account @WhyIDidntReportIt may shine some light on this particular “why”. Created by two students at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, Ha Jung Song and Bowook Yoon, the now-Webby award-winning account allows survivors to anonymously share their reasons for not reporting acts of sexual assault:
I was told to be the bigger person.
Because he said he would kill me, and I believed him.
Everyone told me I was being dramatic.
Because I was scared they’d blame me for dressing “sexy”
He threatened to take away my child.
My mom would have been fired. He was her boss.
Because he said he felt like a monster afterward.
He led me to believe that I deserved the abuse.
Because by the time I realized what had happened to me and how it shaped my life, I had also learned that the world is not kind to survivors.
Why didn’t Dr. Ford come forward sooner? It could be for all these reasons, and more.
Survivors of sexual assault experience many lasting and damaging effects. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that 94% of rape victims experience symptoms of PTSD in the two weeks following the abuse. Thirty percent (30%) report symptoms as long as nine months after. Thirty-three percent (33%) of victims contemplate suicide, whereas 13% of victims attempt suicide. Overall, approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience “moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than any other violent crime.”
If you find yourself asking why someone didn’t speak up, instead ask: why do people commit sexual assault? Why aren’t they held accountable? Why does the justice system not punish accordingly?
Almost every day I see headlines that read:
Yet, we continue to see a bizarre and dissatisfying trend of light sentences for rapists. Why?
According to research by RAINN, out of 1000 reported rape cases, approximately 995 perpetrators will walk free. Of those 1000, 230 will be reported to the police. Forty-six will lead to arrests. Only five will lead to a felony conviction – and maybe as many as four of those will be incarcerated. Compared to other violent crimes, perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail. Out of 1000 suspects, 520 will be released (by posting bail or other reasons) while awaiting trial. Of those 520, about 70 will be arrested for committing another crime before their case is decided. Research demonstrates that perpetrators of rape are often serial criminals. More than half of all alleged rapists have at least one prior conviction.
Meanwhile the former fraternity president, the bus driver, and the teen girl’s captor all received plea deals. The last two will be required to register as sex offenders. The Delaware student – who was pre-med– was sentenced to six months of house arrest, two years of probation, and community service. The former priest was allowed to keep his job because, according to his board of education, “he did not engage in inappropriate conduct while [teaching].” The father who repeatedly abused his nineteen-year-old daughter? Well, the judge in that case acknowledged “the victim did not consent to sex with her father”, but “the girl may have been able to resist his assaults”.
Let’s take stock – if half of perpetrators are likely to re-offend, yet they are not serving any jail time, what is really stopping them from re-offending? They are free to live their lives. They get to go home and forget what happened to them, and often do not feel remorse. The justice system seems to ignore the fact that people who rape do not rape because of out-of-control sexual urges or mental illness. Rape is about power. Rape is about control.
Which brings me back to “why”. Why are we allowing perpetrators of sexual assault to get off so easy? Why are their futures more important than those of their victims? Why aren’t they held accountable?
The answer is, I don’t know. After being in this field for over five years, I still don’t know. I wish I had the answers. I wish it was as easy as going on Google or opening a book or making a phone call to find out these answers. When a victim sits across from me and asks why this happened to them, I cannot tell them. I cannot even tell them that their attacker will most certainly be punished.
While I cannot specifically answer why to any of these questions, I can answer another, which is, “what can we do?”
We can take action. We can volunteer. We can speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. We can shut down jokes about sexual assault, because they aren’t funny. We can call out people who support politicians and judges who are lenient with sexual assault charges, because otherwise, these laws will not change, and we will keep seeing lenience. In addition, we can ask our own questions. Instead of having the answers, demand them. Ask your local lawmakers what they will do to keep people who commit acts of interpersonal violence accountable for their crimes. Ask that they vote for legislation that protects victims of sexual assault. Ask why this rapist isn’t going to sit behind bars.
Eventually, asking enough questions will get us answers.