If a survivor is told they should report their sexual assault, what are they really being asked to do?
by Christine E. Wengloski
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, on average, 68 percent of survivors of sexual assault choose not to report their assaults to law enforcement. The choice to not report is not a failure of the survivor to protect their* community from a violence perpetrator, but a complex decision made even more difficult by the effects of trauma.
Statistically, out of every 32 reported rapes (one form of sexual assault), only two of those perpetrators will ever face conviction of a felony (source: RAINN). In reporting and recounting their assault, a survivor must endure a great deal for only a small chance of their perpetrator’s felony conviction.
The aftermath of a sexual assault is different for each survivor. The effects of trauma from a sexual assault can affect a survivor’s relationships, career, health and mundane aspects of daily life. Telling a survivor to report their sexual assault forces a survivor to potentially invite invasive questions from law enforcement and the stigmas surrounding public disclosure of their assault.
For a survivor, reporting sexual assault can remove privacy and force reflection over the assault. Law enforcement will ask questions not only about the most immediate traumatic event(s), but will also inquire about personal details surrounding relationships and lifestyle. Questions that are invasive and uncomfortable are often necessary for law enforcement to gather sufficient information to write reports or gather evidence to make an arrest. Despite the necessity of recounting this information, revisiting the emotions and sensations of an assault can be a difficult and intense experience for a survivor.
Throughout the reporting process, answering the same questions to multiple law enforcement officers may cause the survivor to feel as though they are reliving the incident over and over again, causing retraumatization. While repeating their story, the survivor may be fearful that law enforcement officers will doubt them and/or accuse them of lying. Without a clear understanding of what legally qualifies as sexual assault, survivors may even begin to doubt themselves. Even if their story is clear and fits the definition of sexual assault, the survivor may be anxious over whether there is enough evidence to progress with the case. If there is not enough evidence to proceed, all of their disclosure and retraumatization may feel futile.
If a survivor chooses to face the challenges of sharing the intimate details of their assault (and more) with law enforcement, reporting could still yield other consequences. Survivors may know their perpetrator and fear retaliation. The individual reporting a sexual assault could worry about being charged, themselves, due to the circumstances of the assault (i.e. the involvement of drugs or alcohol).
Keeping these barriers to reporting in mind, we can begin to understand the level of complexity involved in making the choice to report a sexual assault. We should ask ourselves: if a survivor is told they should report their sexual assault, what are they really being asked to do?
At YWCA of Richmond, we believe it is no one’s choice to be sexually assaulted. To restore a survivor’s autonomy, we respect their choices within their circumstances. Our programs for survivors respect their decisions and assist with successful navigation of the path they choose to empowerment.
As we begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we encourage you not to place another undue burden on survivors of sexual assault. If a survivor discloses, we listen and start by believing their story, then ask what they think their next step(s) should be. It is not a survivor’s duty to report their assault, but it is our duty to support them.
If you or a loved one have experienced sexual assault and want help, you may call the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline at 804-612-6126 for free, 24/7 and confidential assistance and resources.
Christine “Chrissy” Wengloski is an Government Advocacy Intern at YWCA of Richmond. She is passionate about eliminating barriers that exist within the criminal justice system for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. As a YWCA of Richmond intern, Chrissy advocates for legislation that supports survivors and provides training to first responders on domestic violence and sexual assault.Chrissy graduated from the University of Richmond with a degree in Journalism, and is pursuing her Master of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University.
*Note: YWCA of Richmond uses gender-neutral pronouns, using they/their as both singular and plural.