Reporting Sexual Assault: Combating Stigma and Empowering Survivors

The #MeToo movement has led to an increase in the reporting of prior sexual assault and harassment. Many of these reports have been for assaults occurring years earlier. Time lapses between offense and report vary, but when victims do report, they rarely report to law enforcement. Connie Chung’s recent revelation of an assault that took place 50 years ago is an example of this. The reasons sexual assault victims choose not to report or delay their reporting are numerous, but include victim blaming, shame, guilt, exposure of their private life, not wanting to hurt their family or the perpetrator’s family, fear of retaliation, denial, and many more. The increased reporting of sexual assault has shed some light on what professionals refer to as the dark figure of crime, or the crimes that are unreported to authorities. The decision to report a sexual assault should be one made by the victim. However, as we have seen time and time again, delays in reporting are often used by perpetrators “prove” it never happened, casting doubt on the victim’s credibility, reinforcing the reasons the victim stayed silent, and further contributing to sexual assault’s place as the dark figure of crime.

The purpose of this post is to help victims of sexual assault combat this societal bias and provide supportive suggestions to sexual assault victims. Perhaps one might be found useful, perhaps several, but as the pervasiveness of sexual assault has become more apparent, useful tools that give power to the victim’s experience are needed.

  • Considering documenting the incident as soon as possible in a way that will be seen as credible later. This might be something as easy as sending an email to oneself or to a trusted friend. Such a statement could also be signed in front of a notary without fear of it being reported. Be as objective, but as descriptive as possible in the documentation including time, place, descriptions of clothing and behavior, and context (date, acquaintance, etc).
  • Save important physical evidence such as the clothes you wore, phone records, GPS information, or photographs with time stamps of any injuries.
  • Tell a trusted friend and ask the friend to document the event for you.
  • Confide in a doctor, therapist, lawyer, or other professional. Documentation in a medical record is seen as more reliable than the reports of friends or relatives and professionals are required by law to keep your records confidential until you give them permission to release them. Ask the professional to include specific details of your report.
  • Consider calling a rape/sexual support hotline. They can provide information on services and support for victims of sexual assault. Some organizations offer victims support as they navigate the legal system and decide on the best course of action such as whether to submit to a physical forensic evaluation or report the incident to law enforcement. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) has operators available 24-hours a day and also provide a live chatfeature as well.
  • Be familiar with local resources and make sure your minor children, both boys and girls, have this information available as often children are afraid to even tell their parents when they have been assaulted, particularly if the perpetrator is someone known to them, a romantic partner, or if the teen was doing something a parent would not have otherwise approved of. For example, Austin is fortunate to have the SAFE Alliancewith the 24-hour hotline 512-267-SAFE (7233). The SAFE Alliance provides advice, support, and even a free confidential medical forensic exam at SAFE’s Eloise’s House for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Find an online chat room or Facebook group to get support from others who have been through the same experience.

For too long, the norm has been to stay silent and suffer alone. Victims may not always feel like it is in their best interest to report an incident immediately following. However, a sense of empowerment can strike at any time in a victim’s life and having the information you need when that moment comes can be comforting when you are ready.