Removing the Stigma from a Survivor’s Decision to Report or Not

by JayTee Barbour, STAR Medical Advocate

A 2017 survey done by the FBI showed only 23% of survivors of sexual assault file a report with law enforcement.(2) That means that 3 of every 4 survivors didn’t. So why don’t the vast majority of survivors report?
“See something, say something” is the phrase branded into our minds. If you see a “bad person” doing something wrong, call the cops and they will take care of you; it is what they are there for, what the justice system is set up for. But, when 75% of adults 3, and 93% of juvenile sexual assault cases 1 are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows, that term “bad person” gets complicated. The shocking truth that only 4.6% of reports led to an arrest, and that 9 in 1000 cases even make it to a prosecutor, makes it difficult to maintain faith in justice through law enforcement.(2)
Sexual assaults like other violent crimes are traumatic, but they are also deeply personal and complicated in a way that sets them a part from other violent crimes. Findings from the FBI study reflect just how personal this trauma is in the five most common reasons women choose not to report(3):
1. Fear of retaliation
2. Belief police would not help them
3. Belief that it was a personal matter
4. Belief their case was not important enough
5. To protect the perpetrator
If you’ll notice three of those reasons are rooted in a lack of faith that law enforcement would be able or willing to them. The actual process of reporting can take hours, or even days, if you are asked to make multiple statements. It’s an extension of an administrative process that can be cold and retraumatizing if handled improperly by an officer who is not trauma informed. The effects of trauma can also lead to fractured or lost memories that can be discouraging for survivors who want to report but feel their testimony would not be helpful or believed. The feeling of loyalty to a perpetrator who is a friend, partner, or family member can outweigh the other reasons the survivor may have reported otherwise. Or maybe in this moment when their autonomy has been stripped, their body invaded, and their lives catapulted into chaos, the survivor just wants to feel okay again, and that just does not include filing a report.
Regardless of the reason for reporting or not reporting, that choice is the valid choice of each survivor. It does not make them any more or less entitled to resources for recovery, or speak to their moral character. Survivors don’t owe us anything, but we as service providers, criminal justice professionals, friends and family, and society as a whole owe them patience and understanding as they begin to work through the lifelong effects of an assault.

  1. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000)
  2. i. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2016 (2017); ii. Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Incident-Based Reporting System, 2012-2016 (2017) iii. Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Incident-Based Reporting System, 2012-2016 (2017); iv. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2009 (2013).
  3. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 (2013)

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