In November 2017, students from universities in North Carolina’s research triangle completed a survey in response to a recent decline in sexual assault report rates. The results, when combined with testimonies of similarly aged non-students, shed light on what caused this issue and what can be done to solve it.
According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013, the rate of reported sexual assaults dropped from 59 percent in 2003 to 32 percent in 2010. A 2016 study from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network showed that the rate has been declining ever since.
Students at Duke University, North Carolina State University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill participated in a survey whose questions aimed to discover the reason for this decrease in disclosure to law enforcement. A majority of the students answered that law enforcement itself was the problem.
Sixty-four percent of those surveyed who had experienced an act of sexual violence and did not report it claimed that their decision to do so correlated directly to a distrust in the criminal justice system. Twenty-three percent feared some sort of retaliation from their attacker, 12 percent experienced self-blame, humiliation or guilt regarding the incident, and 1 percent had other reasons for not going to the authorities.
NC State student, Brittany Williams, 20, said that with the recent increase in brutality committed by white police officers on unarmed black individuals, it’s no wonder report rates have been dropping.
“As a black, queer woman, I do not feel comfortable going to the police when I could receive the help I need in my own community,” explained Williams. She stated that looking for help within an institution that has systematically oppressed and physically harmed people who share identities similar to hers would be “as crazy as calling up your attacker and asking him to lunch.”
A study conducted by the Oregon Department of Justice in 2011 found that African American women are 35 percent more likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetime than white women. They also found that they are less likely than white women to use social services, battered women’s programs, or go to the hospital following an act of sexual violence.
“Being a member of the LGBTQ community puts me at a higher risk for assault as well, since we are more likely to be victims of hate crimes which can sometimes take the form of sexual assault,” furthered Williams. The Human Rights Campaign supports this claim in their 2015 study showing that 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women.
Williams declared that what it really boils down to for women like her is the fact that even if they report these crimes, the chance of their assailants receiving justice is slim. In fact, a 2015 RAINN statistic revealed that 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual offenses will walk free.
Not every woman, however, is concerned with whether or not justice will be served. Many choose not to divulge these incidents because of the increased attention and pressure that would be placed on them and their case, should they choose to go public with it.
“The biggest difference I see in the sexual violence reporting system now versus when I graduated college in ’03 is the rise of media consumption in the youth,” said 36-year-old domestic abuse attorney Katherine Taylor.
She asserted that the increased chance of a victim’s encounter being broadcast as part of a university-wide scandal could be a factor in what has deterred many from speaking up over the last decade.
Valerie Farbe, 19, seconded Taylor’s notion that the media plays a role in whether or not a victim chooses to go to the authorities. A computer science major at UNC Chapel Hill, Farbe said that she personally would not tell the police about experiencing sexual assault on campus because of the “media backlash faced by girls who are strong enough to make a stand.”
“It’s not that I don’t respect them, I do,” Farbe said. “It’s just I don’t know if I could have my name on all those headlines.”
She expressed worry not only for the possible detriment to her social and mental health, but for applying to jobs in the future and having her name associated with something so “controversial.”
Taylor agreed with Farbe’s statement, adding that even if a company claims they don’t discriminate in the hiring process, having their brand associated with a national dispute is something many of them try to avoid.
As stated by Taylor, going through normal channels of law enforcement can take years and the prosecution must be extremely devoted to closing their case unless they want to speed it up with statewide or national publicity. She argued that depending on the financial standing, future goals and reputation of the victim, that may not be a possibility.
Data extracted from The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017 showed a 4 percent increase in unemployment from 2003 to 2010. Both Farbe and Taylor agreed that a student’s fear of not being able to find a job upon graduating college could have contributed to the decline in report rates over those years.
College students aren’t the only young victims not reporting sexual violence in America, however. Survivors from dissimilar backgrounds consider other factors when it comes to going to the authorities following an attack. For some, the mere thought of their aggressor’s response to being outed is enough to make taking legal action an impossibility.
“There are no words to describe how helpless you feel… when you know you have to do something about it, but there’s literally nothing you can do,” spoke a 21-year-old domestic sexual assault survivor from Durham, N.C., who asked not to be named.
This victim claimed to be living with her perpetrator at the time the alleged sexual abuse was occurring. She had no one to turn to who could have offered her housing or protection if she were to have told the police about the crime.
“I had no proof. You think ‘Oh it’s 2017, people know that people in relationships can be raped,’ but it’s not that simple,” she stated.
According to her, going to the authorities would have resulted in her partner being notified of the charges and her being physically punished by him for seeking the assistance of law enforcement.
After months of dealing with sexual abuse at home she sought refuge at the Durham Crisis Response Center, an emergency shelter that provides domestic violence help in Durham, N.C. The DCRC offered her “transitional individual housing” while she underwent the process of finding a job she could live off.
This woman said she thinks a big reason sexual assault report rates have been decreasing is because the establishment rates of places like the DCRC are increasing. They were apparently able to help her in ways she believed a police officer never could, namely by providing her with a place to stay and people to talk to who shared similar experiences.
Even though she was looked after by the DCRC directly following the escape from her attacker, she remains haunted by what he may do to her in the future.
“I got out of there. It was too good to be true, but I did, and if I brought it to the cops at this point it would just make him angry and he would probably come find me,” she explained.
The woman indicated that there are many young women out there like her who want to announce their situations but have factors such as housing and financial stability to consider before “poking the bear.”
Danika Pratap, a 22-year-old student at Duke University, said this woman’s story is not uncommon. A sociology major, Pratap has spent her undergraduate years concentrating on gender, race and identity in American society.
“There’s the barrier of proof; some women risk everything by going to the authorities in the hopes that they’ll be helped immediately, but that’s rarely the case,” Pratap said. She mentioned that there are other barriers, like language, that can prevent a victim from being able to report an act of sexual violence even if they wanted to.
The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project found that in 2015, 50 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population either do not speak English at all, or do not speak the language well. This presents a significant challenge when it comes to communicating with local law enforcement that could result in a victim being misunderstood or even dismissed by the police, said Katherine Taylor.
Taylor stated that immigration status can also be a deterrent for undocumented victims looking for justice in the U.S., who at times fear being deported over the continuation of their sexual abuse. This violence happens most often in the workplace and is especially recurrent among young women, according to the NIWAP.
“Blackmail-type situations are more common than you think. A migrant worker may be enduring assault, silently, at work because she’s afraid her attacker will report her to the government instead of it being the other way around,” Taylor said.
Taylor added that the decline in report rates since 2003 may be due, in part, to less immigrants disclosing their attacks. She reflected that anti-immigration policies such as the Secure Fence Act, which authorized fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border in 2006, contributed to a nationwide hostility towards foreigners that could have led to their reluctance to get involved with American authorities in any way.
“What we need is a police system that combines the instant relief and diverse resources available at places like the DCRC with an honest pursuit of justice that is just as instant,” said Pratap.
She acknowledged the importance of having these institutions separated for the benefit of victims who do not trust law enforcement altogether, but pushed the idea that they will never be trusted until they offer programs that help victims of all races and backgrounds past the “initial filing of paperwork.”