COLUMN: Laws and stigma deny sexual assault survivors determinism

On March 1, the Georgia House of Representatives passed House Bill 51, which would not only place limits on colleges’ ability to investigate reports of sexual assault, but also require all cases of campus sexual assault to be reported to law enforcement.

The bill, which is still pending before the Georgia Senate’s Judiciary Committee, is already drawing fierce criticism from advocates for sexual assault survivors for the deeply detrimental effects it will have on survivors’ rights and pursuit of justice. Let’s call out HB 51 for what it is: a mechanism of control, plain and simple.

In many cases, sexual assault is rooted in the domination and subjugation of women, and of course, above all, the trivialization of choice and consent. HB 51 builds upon these themes by denying survivors determinism in how they pursue justice and requiring them to face law enforcement’s often unnecessarily invasive investigative process.

There’s a reason that experts and activists condemn requirements for reporting campus sexual assault cases to law enforcement. Such policies correlate with lower rates of reporting and, subsequently, lower rates of justice for survivors. It’s not uncommon for survivors to suffer from PTSD from their experiences or, at the very least, to feel uncomfortable being intensely questioned about deeply traumatic experiences and forced to relive the assault.

Law enforcement is notorious for subtly practicing victim-blaming in their treatment of survivors by typically asking irrelevant, undeniably sexist questions regarding female victims’ state of dress or behavior, shifting responsibility from male attackers to the female victims. It’s no surprise that some women who experience sexual assault would rather not be involved with police officers, who could very well either pin them with the trite, classic “asking for it” label or worse, brush them off as liars. In the same vein, male survivors may also be discouraged from reporting due to rigid and unforgiving standards for masculinity and sexist notions that it’s somehow impossible for men, too, to be sexually violated.

All of this relates back to HB 51, of course, because the bill would require anyone who wishes to report their experiences to university administration to also report to and cooperate with the police, regardless of whether or not they’re comfortable doing so.

But long before HB 51 was introduced and passed through the Georgia House of Representatives, and long before Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to promise to uphold current federal guidelines granting survivors more legal rights and autonomy in January, rape culture has systemically undermined and denied survivors determinism in how they choose to come forward, or of course, not come forward.

By requiring survivors, who have already been subjected to unspeakable abuse, to fit into a seamless narrative that is often a rigid caricature of patriarchal demands of women, we have given them no choice but to either model their behavior according to ignorant, unfair expectations of them, or face disbelief and even blame.

By regarding survivors with relentless skepticism, rape culture and the stereotypical narrative it requires of survivors  ignores how low rates of dishonest reporting, estimated by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to be just between 2 and 10 percent, are, and fails to acknowledge just how fundamentally different sexual assault is from any other sort of crime.

It’s not as if survivors are in a state of mind permitting them to collect evidence and immediately, without any hesitation, proceed to report their experiences. It may be no burden to call the police immediately after realizing one has been robbed, but for a possibly PTSD-afflicted sexual assault survivor who may be terrified of being blamed and ruthlessly unraveled by law enforcement’s stereotyping and scrutiny, it can take a good amount of time to be able to come forward — if they choose to at all.

Given these circumstances, in an ideal society, we would accept Obama administration federal guidelines, which lowered the standards of evidence required of survivors of assault, as reasonable; we would accept some lapses in time before reporting as reasonable; we would accept survivors’ choice to come forward only to a confidential panel at their university as reasonable.

But instead, we live in a society in which a dozen women could come forward after audio of President Donald Trump admitting — verbatim — to habitually “grab” women “by the p-ssy” without consent, and accuse the same man of sexually abusing them, only to be disbelieved because they didn’t immediately report their experiences. Perhaps they would have, if they believed there was any chance their claims would be taken seriously without a confession from Trump’s own lips, but even with this confession, their narratives were picked apart for other reasons ranging from petty to plain misogynistic.

And arguably worse, we live in a society in which one young woman could literally have people witness her rape, report to law enforcement immediately and still watch helplessly as her assailant, Stanford rapist Brock Turner, spends just three months in county jail for his actions.

This is the society we live in — one that gives women virtually zero reason to believe reporting their assault will be a positive experience for them or that their bravery and resilience in doing so will necessarily yield positive results. But as the unsettling early success of HB 51 reveals, we live in a society that will force them to report their experiences to law enforcement nonetheless.

Kylie Cheung is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs every Thursday.

1 reply
  1. Magnum P.I.
    Magnum P.I. says:

    How the fuck could anyone share this? I’ve been raped twice in high school and once in college. As a man, I understand the gravity of this issue. But I also have a cousin who has been falsely accused of sexual assault and kicked out of school for it (his ex was jealous that he slept with another girl a few days after they broke up so she made up a story). Schools shouldn’t handle this shit. Anyone who actually supports survivors of this terrible crime should advocate for them to be locked up, not kicked out of school under an extremely low burden of proof. You wasted money on an education.

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