Stop Telling Harassment and Assault Survivors To Go To the Police

Note: Yes, this is prompted by something that happened to me this weekend. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it applies to many events and situations, so I’d rather the comments section didn’t dissolve into a discussion of me and my specific (frankly rather mild) situation. I’m doing fine. However, the snark is on high for this post, so please do take what I just went through into account before complaining about my “tone.” 

So, let’s talk about when someone gets harassed or assaulted and they make it public (whether to friends and family or, like, public-public) and everybody always comes out with the same line: “Oh my god! You need to go to the police right now!”

Stop, rewind. Please stop saying this. I know it’s well-intentioned. I know you want us to be safe. Please stop saying it anyway. It does more harm than good. Let’s talk about why.

First of all, it’s unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice is frequently annoying, especially when it’s coming from internet randos I don’t even know and who shouldn’t presume to know me. As is often the case with unsolicited advice, it completely ignores my situation as a young woman who’s just started grad school and is terribly busy and has few social supports in the huge new city into which she’s only recently moved. Do I look like someone who has the time and resources to pursue a court case right now? If we’re being honest, I haven’t even had time to call my doctor and ask her to rewrite a prescription I need, let alone spend hours having a lovely tête-à-tête with a cop who tells me I was probably asking for it by being a woman and existing.

So I don’t need your advice. Sometimes people respond to this with “Yeah well if you didn’t want advice why’d you post it online?” Oh, you know, many reasons. In my specific case, it was to highlight a ridiculous flaw in Facebook’s moderation system, to bring attention to the abuse faced by virtually any woman who writes online about feminism (or does anything online, let’s be honest), and to get some emotional support.

Emotional support, by the way, is not (necessarily) advice. Emotional support is, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.” “You don’t deserve to be treated that way.” “How are you doing?” “Do you need some distractions?” “Whoever did this is a really shitty person.” “This wasn’t your fault.”

As I said, I’m personally totally fine and I didn’t need to vent to anyone or anything. But I appreciated it when people said things like this to me. Many victims do. You do not need to pile advice on us to show us you care! There are better ways.

Second, any person over the age of 5 is aware of the fact that the police are a thing that exists. We don’t need to be told to go to the police any more than a hungry person needs to be told that maybe they should consider eating some food. I mean, really, do these people think we’re not aware that we have the option of calling the police? (I’ll grant that maybe sometimes people may not know that certain acts, such as blackmail or death threats, are a crime. But sexual assault? And still.)

So if you tell me to go to the police, you’re sort of (unintentionally) treating me like an idiot. Yes, I know that the police exist. And guess what? A dozen other people already had the same idea you did, so if I didn’t know about the police before, I sure do now.

Third, going to the police is not effective. It’s just not. So you’re giving me advice that is not helpful. The stories of what happens to women who report harassment or assault to the police are plentiful and really sad. Yes, sometimes it works out well. But generally, either nothing happens, or the women get revictimized by the police. (Sometimes, the police also do this.)

I have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed and threatened with rape and death. At no point have I seriously considered reporting any of these things to the police. I am not an irresponsible or uninformed person, so please trust me when I say that I have good reasons for not even considering the police as an option.

Fourth, telling a victim over and over to go to the police sends a message. And, unfortunately, that message is generally not “I care about you.” That message is, “It is your duty as a victim to go to the police, or else you’re being irresponsible and immature and making me worry about you and failing to prevent your attacker from hurting others. You are not responding to your harassment/assault in the right way.”

Did you mean to say that? Probably not. But I’m telling you right now that this is how many victims are going to perceive it. When someone becomes the victim of a gendered crime (or any crime, but we’re talking about specific crimes here), that is a time to consider this person’s needs first and foremost. You may indeed be very worried for them. You may wonder what this means for you or others you care about. It is tempting to treat the survivor as though they and they alone hold the power to stop these crimes once and for all in their hands, and all they have to do is pick up the phone and call the cops.

It’s telling that many of the people who told me to go to the police this weekend and who received a curt response from me (curt, not nasty or abusive) immediately took it personally and lashed out, whining about how rude I was and how I didn’t appreciate that they were worried about me. (Keep in mind that these were total strangers on the Internet, not friends or family or anyone else entitled to my emotional energy.) Of course. Because it was about them, and not me, all along. It was about their understandable need to contribute to the conversation and feel useful and tell a young woman what they, as older and wiser adults, thought she needed to do.

At no point was there any acknowledgement from these people that I was dealing with fucking death threats and maybe wasn’t in the best emotional state to be sweet and cheerful about rejecting their unasked-for, completely unhelpful advice.

That’s how I knew it was never about me.

Fifth, law enforcement is a deeply problematic institution that some people choose not to willingly engage with. I won’t say too much about this here because it’s just too immense a topic to cover in a paragraph or two. But yes, I have some ethical qualms about working with a police force that, in my city, fines women for carrying condoms (must be prostitutes amirite?) and profiles people of color with its stop and frisk policy. Sometimes contact with the police is unavoidable, and I would obviously call them if I were facing an immediate risk of injury or death as opposed to some dumb random Facebook death threat.

Stop telling harassment and assault survivors to go to the police. Stop treating us like we don’t know what’s good for us. Stop acting like the police are a panacea to all the world’s evils. Stop making it about you. Stop. It’s our turn to speak.

The Law is Not on Our Side

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Many brave writers have described what happened to them when they reported gender-based threats and violence to the police. Occasionally the outcome is positive, but often nothing at all happens and often something terrible happens.

Here are two recent examples I’ve read. The first is by Heina of Skepchick:

When the officer called me in, I was shaking a bit, but spoke as clearly and calmly as possible, presenting my evidence and voicing my fears. He responded with laughter.

Taken aback by his trivialization of the situation, I asked him if he could look at my evidence. I knew who the guy was, I pleaded. Couldn’t he, as an officer of the law, do something? Take the guy to task for threatening me somehow? At least take down a report so that if something happened, there was a record? He replied with an incredulous no to all my inquiries.

Out of the blue, he asked me if my picture included my face. I said no. He asked me how I expected to attract responses with a picture that didn’t include my face. Before I could respond, he answered his own question: it was a sexy picture, was it not? Feeling shamed, I was unable to speak and merely nodded.

“Don’t worry about it, then,” he chuckled. “Go home.”

What choice did I have other than to begin to gather up my things and prepare to leave? Before I could make my exit, though, he told me that he often visits women-seeking-women for the pictures, winked at me, and expressed his hope that he would see me on there sometime. Taken aback by the lechery in his tone, I half expected him to take a swat at my ass as I walked out the door.

The second example is even more jarring and painful to read, and deserves a strong trigger warning. It was a comment by EEB on a post of Jason’s, and Stephanie reprinted it with permission:

Two male detectives arrived at my house. I stammered out a request for a female detective; it was denied. (I learned later that they violated procedure by not accommodating the request.) They made me go through what happened. I was in excruciating pain and dripping blood but they didn’t want to take me to the hospital just then, and said the hospital “wasn’t ready” anyway. So I described the rape. Then they asked if I was taking any drugs. Well, just my medication. I thought it was strange that they literally spent more time asking about my mental health history and the types of medication I took, instead of the rape, but at the time, again, I was in shock, and not thinking much.

[...]Over the next few months, I submitted to multiple, horrific “interviews” that really felt like “interrogations” as time went on. I was also dealing with a serious medical condition at the time (I almost died; my intestines ruptured, but was almost certainly not a result of the rape, just bad timing). But I still believed in the system. I still didn’t want the man who raped me on the streets. I did everything they requested, answered every invasive question (the were really focused on my mental health history!), even got on the ground and acted out the rape for them, with the head detective on top of me acting out the part of the rapist. Not only was I absolutely hysterical by the time we were done, I’m positive that aggravated my PTSD for a long time after.

And after all that, I was called in for an “interview” to discuss “a new lead in your case”. They didn’t let my rape counselor in the room–again, against the law, I found out later! For about an hour (I think; my sense of time was not that great) they were no longer even pretending to be supportive. They accused me over and over of making it up. They had very flimsy “evidence” (which I won’t go into because it’s both complicated and ridiculous) but mostly it was their “instinct”.

Because I have a mental illness. Because I was hospitalized after attempting suicide. Because I “claimed” I had been sexually assaulted in the past. Because I was crazy, and he was sure I was just looking for attention. He had a bipolar ex-wife, you see, and she made his life a living hell. He told me how he understood mentally ill women, and how we need to create drama. How we’re liars, and we crave attention.

And over and over they accused me of lying. Alone in this tiny room with two large, angry men, I was doing everything I could to keep from having a panic attack. I couldn’t respond to what they were saying; again, I think I was in shock. And they threatened me with jail time, with a felony on my record, destroying my family, public humiliation (he threatened to call the papers–something he did anyway, because, quote, “the community needs to know there was no threat to public safety”). They said I would be charged with a false report, with terrorizing the public (there was a public awareness campaign initially after my attack, though I didn’t have anything to do with it. After the rape, I did everything I could to maintain anonymity, and only told two people–beyond my family and the cops–hat I was attacked. But…I did it for attention, which was why I didn’t tell anyone? I’m just sneaky like that, I guess!). Accusations, threats, anger, pounding the table, over and over and over.

The detective looked at me. His whole demeanor changed; he tried to seem kind, avuncular. “Tell me you made the whole thing up. This whole thing will disappear. Nothing will happen to you. You can leave, if you just tell me you made it up. Tell me you made it up and you’re sorry for lying, and I’ll let you leave.” I tried to hold out–but I didn’t last long. Honestly, at that point, all I wanted in the entire world was just to get out of that room. There are very few things I wouldn’t have done, if I could only leave. So I looked at him and lied. I said, “I made the whole thing up. I’m sorry.”

Through both of these examples, we see that women who are marginalized along other axes besides gender face additional injustice–cruelty, even–by law enforcement officials. Heina’s sexual orientation was used against her both by the man she reported for threats and by the cop who was supposed to be helping her. EEB’s mental illness was used as an excuse to abuse her, accuse her of lying, and ultimately coerce her into recanting her accusation despite overwhelming physical evidence that it was true.

The more intersecting marginalizations you have, the less likely you are to be treated fairly by the police. This is, sadly, nothing new at all, and it’s not limited to sexual violence (see: Trayvon Martin, stop and frisk, queer people being arrested for being queer). So why do people still insist that 1) survivors of sexual assault have a moral duty to report it to the police, 2) if the police do not prosecute a rapist, that means that no rape occurred, and 3) if a survivor chooses not to report, then they do not deserve any accommodations from their communities, and those communities must pretend that nothing ever happened?

EEB’s story, in particular, suggests that at least some false rape accusations are not actually false rape accusations. More research is urgently needed to determine how common this is, but my fear is that it is not uncommon. This story also shows how ableist ideas about mental illness–that people with mental illnesses are just “crazy” and “delusional” people who make shit up to ruin people’s lives–prevented a survivor from seeking justice and allowed a rapist to go free.

I used to be sympathetic to the idea that people should report sexual assault to the police, but I’m becoming less and less so. While I think we have an imperative to reform this system and make it work, for now, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for a survivor to choose not to report. If I were advising a survivor, I’m not even sure that I would feel comfortable encouraging them to do so.

And, dudes, next time you show up demanding to know why so-and-so didn’t report if they were “really raped,” I’m going to link you to this post. Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

[blogathon] Restorative Justice for Sexual Assault

This is the eighth and last post in my SSA blogathon. It was requested by a reader. Don’t forget to donate!

[Content note: sexual assault]

Restorative justice is a word you sometimes hear in discussions about how to reform our criminal justice system. It refers to “an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender.” As you can see, it would probably look quite different from the system we have now.

Someone asked me to write about what restorative justice might look like from the perspective of a rape survivor. To be clear, I am not a survivor of rape, although I am a survivor of sexual assault. In any case, I can only speak for myself.

But when I think about justice, this is what comes to mind.

I would want a perpetrator of sexual assault to have to learn about the roots of what they did. It’s not as simple is “Sexual assault is bad, don’t sexually assault people.” I would want them to understand rape culture. I would want them to understand all of the factors that might have contributed to their decision (because, yes, it was their decision) to sexually assault someone. I would want them to understand that their socialization has prepared them to become a person who sexually assaults people, but that this can be undone.

I would want the perpetrator to listen to the survivor talk about what they want through (if the survivor is comfortable). This doesn’t need to be a face-to-face conversation, of course, and I don’t think that many survivors would be willing for it to be. It could be an audio- or video-taped recording. It could even be a written account.

If prison is involved, I would want the prison to be humane. Regardless of whether or not we switch to a system of restorative justice, prison violence (including rape) must be addressed. This isn’t (just) because I’m concerned for the welfare of prisoners; it’s also because violent environments are much more likely to create violent individuals. For both selfish and altruistic reasons, I want perpetrators to serve their sentences feeling healthy and safe.

I would want the perpetrator to receive help with integrating back into their community afterwards–with finding a job, getting a place to live, and so on. Again, this is not because I think they “deserve” help. This is not about what they do and do not deserve. This is about what will make them the least likely to offend again.

But enough about the perpetrator. What about the survivor?

I think it goes without saying that in a system of restorative justice, there will be no victim blaming. The past “behavior” of a victim should have no bearing on the outcome of a trial. Not even if they had been sexually “promiscuous” (whatever that even means) in the past. Not even if they are a sex worker. Not even if they have committed crimes. Not even if they are an undocumented immigrant. Nothing makes someone deserving of sexual assault, and nothing makes it not worthwhile to pursue justice following an assault.

In a system of restorative justice, a survivor should not have to pursue any legal action that they don’t want to pursue. If a survivor doesn’t want to testify, they shouldn’t have to. That’s what it would mean to prioritize the needs of the survivor over our desire to punish the perpetrator.

Hopefully, in a system that focuses on reforming the perpetrator rather than punishing them, community members would be much less likely to blame the survivor for “ruining” the perpetrator’s life–which, tragically, often happens now when survivors of sexual assault speak out. But in any case, a system of restorative justice would also help community members support and affirm the survivor. Friends and family of the survivor would learn–both directly from the survivor and in general–what sorts of challenges survivors of sexual assault may face in dealing with the aftermath of their trauma. Rather than blaming the survivor for their feelings and expecting them to “get over it,” community members would learn how to help them cope.

Of course, this is all probably incredibly naive and the cultural shifts it would require are immense. But that’s a bit of what it would look like for this survivor of sexual assault.

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That’s the end of my SSA Blogathon. If you haven’t yet, please donate to the SSA. Thank you for reading!