Why Not Report?
Reports of sexual violence once again fill our morning paper, evening news and social media feeds. While each case is different, common themes exist. One of the most enduring – and harmful – trends is the “why’s.”
Why didn’t she report? Why didn’t she report sooner? Why didn’t she fight back? Why was she drinking? Why was she wearing that? Why was she out so late?
Society treats reports of sexual assault differently. Survivors – rather than perpetrators – are expected to answer the “why’s.” They must prove the assault and justify their actions in a way we do not see with other violent crimes.
The pattern of placing responsibility on a survivor has existed for centuries and continues today even after more than two decades of progress, research and data driven by the Violence Against Women Act.
We believe offenders until multiple victims come forward as if multiple victims are a mandatory tipping point for action. We dismiss the violent attacks of young men by reframing their actions as youthful indiscretions. We politicize violence against women to shift conversations.
And yet, we still ask why.
Bill Cosby victimized more than 60 women – many who attempted to report his assaults years ago – before he was held accountable. Each survivor telling a familiar story of not being believed or choosing to not initially report knowing his reputation wielded immense power
Larry Nassar used his power as a doctor in the world of competitive gymnastics to assault at least 332 girls and young women. Two athletes reported Nassar in 1997 – the same year Nassar is named team physician and an assistant professor at Michigan State University and three years before he’s named a team physician for the 2000 Olympic Games. Their complaints were ignored as were many others until media stories in 2016 forced Nassar to be reassigned from clinical duties, leading to his eventual arrest.
Brock Turner’s victim was unconscious during her assault and endured a lengthy trial to receive justice. Even with a guilty verdict and recommendations for prison from the probation department, the judge decides that the victim’s testimony and recommendations of the probation department are irrelevant. Turner receives a sentence of only six months. Turner refuses to accept responsibility – suggesting the assault was consensual and blaming use of alcohol for his violence. Turner’s refusal to be accountable is reaffirmed when he challenges his sentence citing the lack of fairness in having to register as a sex offender.
Jerry Sandusky preyed on young boys from vulnerable backgrounds. An assistant coach reported Sandusky’s abuse in 2002 – nine years before he would finally be arrested. Sandusky’s reputation, and that of Penn State, was prioritized over victims.
Matthew Muller kidnapped a woman from her home in Solano County and later raped her while holding her against her will. After the victim was freed, she immediately reported the assault only to have law enforcement declare the accounts of the victim and her boyfriend to be hoaxes before having to backtrack and acknowledge the truth to her account. As Muller faces additional charges, he sought to represent himself – a move that would allow him to question his victim and to have access to the videos he filmed of his assaults. The fact that he has now requested a public defender is little solace and a powerful example of the re-victimization many survivors fear if they pursue justice.
Politicizing of sexual assault to shift focus from perpetrators and to discredit abusers is not a new trend. Survivor’s actions face scrutiny greater than that of the assailants. We dismiss sexual violence as youthful indiscretions or a misunderstanding. We look to the survivor in demanding the “why”.
If we are to build a community that does not tolerate sexual violence, we must ask the why’s of those who commit violence.
Why did you assault her?
We must ask the questions of ourselves.
Why didn’t I believe her?
Why do I place responsibility on the victim rather than the perpetrator?
We must commit to moving from why to what – what can we do and what needs to be different.
We must value prevention education beginning in grade school. We must educate all children about consent and the right to decide what happens to our bodies. We must instill respect for other’s and their choices as mandatory. We must empower those who are harmed to tell. We must believe them when they do.
We must believe survivors and understand that response to trauma may not “make sense” or even look the same in each instance. We must ensure all survivors have access to support that is survivor centered, culturally responsive, and trauma informed.
WEAVE has lived this reality for the past 30 years. As Sacramento County’s sole Rape Crisis Center, we have long been the safe place where survivors need not be asked why, and only hear “I believe you.”
For 30 years, WEAVE has been the safe place to say “me too”. We have been the place where there are no “why’s” – only “I believe you.” We cannot do this alone. We need your help in asking the right questions and creating the change we need and the next generation deserves.