Reporting process, social stigma among reasons for underreporting of sexual assault

By Brittney Nadler

In eighth grade, Katie had a huge crush on a boy, and he knew it.

She was at a small birthday party with five other people when he asked if she wanted to go into another room with him. They kissed for a while when suddenly, he shoved her to her knees and forced his penis into her mouth.

Katie choked and cried but pretended like she was OK with it because she liked him so much. The next day, when she tried talking to him about what he did, he denied it ever happened.

“I started to realize that just because I liked him doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything wrong, and it definitely didn’t mean that I wanted to have oral sex,” Katie said.

All she can remember about him now is his first name — after so many years, she blocked everything else out.  

Katie never told her family because she didn’t want them to blame themselves, and after telling her friends at the time, they offered no support.

“(Some of my friends) thought I was lying and making it up. And they would still be friends with the person who assaulted me,” Katie said. “It was kind of like a slap in the face.”

***

As a society, many people have a very narrow view of what rape is, at least in terms of what is publicly known and talked about, said Molly McLay, assistant director of the Women’s Resources Center.

People don’t think that being raped is something that can happen to them in the context of a relationship or a date; it’s something that happens to other people and is done by strangers.

“I think there’s a lot of factors behind (not reporting sexual assault),” McLay said. “Each individual should have the right to define their experience in the way that they choose to. Any way that we can restore power to the survivor by allowing them to define their experience however they see fit, that’s something that’s restorative and helpful.”

For those who do report their assault, the process of dealing with police or other organizations can be retraumatizing, McLay said. Survivors are barraged with questions regarding what they were wearing, what they were doing and how they let the attack happen.

Going through the extensive process of a rape kit keeps some survivors from reporting their cases. During the examination, survivors often give their clothes as evidence for DNA and have to undress standing on a white sheet, McLay said.

Various parts of the exam include swabbing the mouth, vagina, penis, anus and any other areas that may have been scratched or bitten by the attacker. Photos may be taken of bruising or other injuries, and a small amount of blood is taken from the survivor to verify DNA.

Hair, including pubic hair, may be combed through for dead skin cells from the perpetrator, and nails may be cleaned if the survivor scratched the perpetrator.

“The part that a lot of people have the most worries about is the pelvic exam,” McLay said. “It is a swab to the vagina for a woman, and that is something that a lot of people see as pretty invasive. It’s sort of like getting a pap smear.”

If the area being swabbed is the same place the survivor was penetrated, being penetrated again by a swab can be retraumatizing, McLay said.

She said survivors have the option to refuse any part of the rape kit they do not want, and they can also revoke consent at any point before the end of the rape kit. Hospitals can hold onto rape kits for up to two weeks if survivors need more time to decide if they wish to carry through with collecting evidence.

While being examined, survivors will also be asked to tell what happened as the examiner writes down details of the event and marks spots on a body diagram for bruising, scratches and other injuries, McLay said.

***

Katie didn’t report her assault and doesn’t like to talk about it because it takes her back to the assault. 

“It’s a hard thing to talk about. You tell your friends and a lot of them don’t believe you to begin with. So you don’t want to tell someone who doesn’t know you personally if the people you trust can’t even trust you,” she said.

Katie left her friends and found a new group who believed her story and supported her.

“I’d rather have their support system than someone who doesn’t know me and is just spinning back information that they learned in school,” she said. “Each person’s case is different, and you can’t just look at it like I’m a subject. I’m a real person.”

Rick Stejskal, FYCARE instructor and graduate student, doesn’t believe the law takes the survivor into account for any crimes. The laws focus on the perpetrator and how they hurt society; laws are not meant to console the survivor, he said.

“The law has to be unbiased. It can’t go and show favoritism toward one party or the other,” he said. “Our judicial system is set up that obviously the victim isn’t going to go and get the care and compassion that (RACES) or the (Women’s Resource Center) would provide them saying, ‘I always believe you. It’s not your fault.’”

Stejskal said the justice system has to ask straightforward questions to be fair to both sides — something many victims don’t want to deal with.

Though Katie knows not reporting her perpetrator may allow him to attack other people, she said going through with a case would have dragged on the trauma.

“I don’t really remember much of it, and I would like to keep it that way,” she said. 

McLay said our society often talks about sexual assault in a way that blames the survivor.

“A lot of the time, victim-blaming is unintentional, but it ends up just framing it as something that the victim could have prevented,” she said.

Victim-blaming is when the survivor is seen as responsible for being attacked, McLay said, whether it was what they wore, how intoxicated they were, where they were walking, whom they were with or many other factors.

As a whole, the state of Illinois has some of the strongest sexual assault laws in the country in terms of recognizing different behaviors that constitute sexual assault, McLay said. Illinois was one of the first states to move away from the idea that sexual assault is solely vaginal penetration outside of a marriage against a woman, perpetrated by a man.

Survivors of sexual assault receive free medical treatment and evidence collection, as well as the option to see a rape crisis counselor whose records cannot be subpoenaed by a court of law.

“I think maybe where some injustice happens is in the discretion that is perhaps used by investigators or prosecutors in determining how to move forward with a case,” McLay said.

Prosecutorial discretion — the ability of the state’s attorney to decide if there is enough evidence to file charges on a case — means there is a small group of individuals who get to make the call. Taking a case that has enough evidence to be won is crucial.

“Sexual assault is hard because, especially on a college campus, it often comes down to was it consent or not?” McLay said. “There’s oftentimes only two witnesses: the perpetrator and the victim, and that is a case that is hard to prove.”

***

Katie believes the social stigma that accompanies a rape claim and the possibility of having no one believe you, or even having people hate you, prevents some people, including herself, from reporting their attack.

“If that person who raped you, if their friends find out (you reported them), maybe they’ll harass you,” she said. “You kind of just want to leave it, just let it be.”

In Champaign, Urbana and on campus, tickets for underage drinking cannot be given to those who report a sexual assault or who are sexually assaulted. For students who don’t know this, the fear of being ticketed prevents some reports, Kerri True-Funk said executive director of RACES.

“Alcohol is the most common date-rape drug used,” she said. “When we work with victims that are under the age of 21 where alcohol is involved in the situation, they’re much less likely to come forward to the police for fear of reprimand for their own behavior.”

Even after telling survivors they can’t be issued a drinking ticket, that information doesn’t necessarily help them decide to report. Sexual assaults are underreported to the police throughout the nation, including at the University, said Lt. Tony Brown of the support services bureau of the University Police Department.

The University offers multiple resources for victims, such as the Women’s Resources Center, RACES, FYCARE and the McKinley Health Center. University Police offer Rape Aggression Defense for women and Resisting Aggression with Defense for men. Brown said they also offer training programs and presentations upon request that educate students on sexual violence and its occurrences on campus.

As a survivor, Katie thought FYCARE covered material that students already know.

“I don’t feel like it’s a real representation. … Honestly, listening to FYCARE, it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable about my situation,” Katie said. “It would be more beneficial to have people talking about personal experiences rather than saying hypothetical things because people take serious matters seriously. 

“If they’re talking to someone who isn’t feeling the pain, then what’s the point of listening?”

Read part three next.

Brittney can be reached at [email protected]