Being sexually assaulted is one of the most shame-inducing traumas that a person can experience. So it should be understandable that victims of sexual violence don't need or deserve to be further shamed for their decision about whether or not to report the crime. These decisions are very personal and often cause victims so much personal anguish on top of what they have already experienced. There are so many well-intentioned people who think that they know what’s best for the victim, but it is important to take a step back and remember that we want to empower victims to take back the power and control that was taken from them. We want to empower victims to make informed decisions for themselves. We all get to go home to our families and our loved ones, close the front door, make dinner, watch tv, etc., while the victim is the one who has to deal with the positive or negative consequences as a result of the decisions that they make next.
We all want to see perpetrators of sexual violence held accountable for their crime. We all want justice for victims. But what gives anyone the right to say what justice means for a victim and what gives anyone the right to tell a victim that they must report it? It is insensitive to tell victims that they don't get to decide what happens next.
The argument that it is the responsibility of the victim to protect themselves and others from being sexually assaulted is flawed and insensitive. No one is responsible for a perpetrator's behavior but the perpetrator themselves!
It can be extremely empowering for victims to go through the criminal justice system and to see their perpetrator being held accountable (if that's what ends up happening). We all want individuals who commit violence against others to be held accountable. However, it can sometimes be more traumatizing for victims to report... for many, many reasons. Fear being a big one. Fear of the perpetrator, fear of not being believed, fear that they will have to recount their experience over and over again, fear that nothing will happen as a result, fear that their name and reputation will be dragged through the mud, fear that they will face repercussions, etc.
There are countless wonderful, caring and dedicated police officers and prosecutors that dedicate their entire careers and lives and who are deeply committed and care about the well-being of victims and accountability and justice. I am a huge supporter of and have tremendous respect for the police and first responders and our criminal justice system.There are also wonderful and amazing victim advocates who are caring, kind, supportive and sensitive to a victim’s wishes. If a survivor seeks this route, there are countless people who will rally behind them to support this decision and help them through the entire process.
But there are other ways for victims to get support and heal and seek justice besides the criminal justice system. It is up to the victim to decide (to make an informed decision with information about options and support and resources) what path of justice is best for them. Opportunities for Transformative Justice and access to Restorative Justice programs as well as the Civil Justice system, such as Protection from Abuse orders and other civil remedies, safety planning with advocates, and support groups to name a few. It is also important to note that sexual assault victims can get medical care at their local emergency departments without having to file a police report, but that option will be discussed with you and your decision will be respected. There are also several options available for evidence collection and medical care from a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE/SANE).
While it is true that many survivors make the decision to report the crime of sexual assault in an effort to try to protect others from experiencing the same thing, there are many who carry guilt and shame for not reporting or for not coming forward and who may be feeling like it is somehow their fault that their perpetrator sexually assaulted or harmed someone else.
It is never the victim's fault if the perpetrator hurts someone else. The responsiblity to not sexually assault someone else lies fully and completely with the person doing the harming.
If you have or know someone who has experienced sexual violence, please know that you have options. If you are over 18 years of age, it is 100% always your decision about whether or not to report it to authorities. You are not alone. There is 24-hr free, confidential support available to you by calling 1-800-871-7741. There are caring advocates on the other end who understand. They will listen without judgement and will provide you with information, resources and options regarding next steps and will support whatever you decide is best for you.
*Important to note: there are mandated reporting requirements for minor victims/dependent and incapacitated adults and there are laws in the state and in the country that are in place to protect children/dependent and incapacitated adults. If you are under 18, or fall within a protected category, you can still get support, but the advocate will explain to you about their responsibility to report and there may be things that are out of your control that need to happen with regards to reporting to the authorities. We understand and will help support you every step of the way.
Written by Jenna McCarthy, Associate Director of SAC&SC
The Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center is funded in part by Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, United Way of Kennebec Valley, and your generous public and private donations.
In accordance with federal regulations, the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center does not discriminate in the access to or provision of its services.
For help, call us at 1-800-871-7741. Phone help is available 24/7.
Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center serves Kennebec & Somerset Counties.
SAC&SC is committed to providing support to anyone impacted by sexual violence, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or any other identity.