For sexual assault survivors, what does justice mean?

Victoria was a freshman in Spring 2016 when, after returning to her dorm from a night out with friends, she found herself locked out of her room.

An acquaintance offered to keep her company in his room. Initially, they spent time getting to know each other — but the conversation became uncomfortable when he made a lewd remark about her volunteer work.

“He ended up doing some inappropriate things like throwing a condom at me and saying some pretty concerning things,” Victoria said. “He ended up taking off his pants and as soon as that happened, I knew things were going to go really [badly].”

Fortunately for Victoria, now a sophomore and asked that her real name be withheld for privacy reasons, somebody entered the room before the situation could escalate, and she left. Emotionally distraught and shocked, she reported the incident to her resident assistant. She received emails from Title IX officials at USC, but ignored them for months.

For three months, Victoria remained silent before opening up about her experiences with sexual misconduct to Title IX — a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and assault — investigators. As a volunteer health educator for teens, Victoria knew about the issue of sexual misconduct, but didn’t fully grasp the gravity of its consequences until she experienced it firsthand.

While awaiting the outcome of her Title IX investigation, Victoria contemplated what would happen to her perpetrator. Would he receive a fair punishment? Would his punishment fulfill her desire for justice?

Not all survivors of sexual misconduct choose to prosecute their perpetrators to achieve justice.  Many survivors decline to speak out, fearing they will be discredited or blamed. And even with a multitude of resources and treatments available, recovery can be painful because survivors are required to reflect on their experiences, however painful or traumatic.

Problems with reporting

Sexual assault, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, can be any form of coercive or non-consensual sexual contact, which includes unwanted sexual acts including forced intercourse, forcible sodomy and attempted rape, Sexual misconduct is a non-legal term that encompasses a broad range of actions, including sexual assault, harassment, exploitation and intimidation.

Anne Munch, a Denver-based attorney specializing in sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking cases, said some survivors choose not to press charges because they feel intimidated by lengthy legal procedures.

“Sexual assault is the most underreported crime that we have,” Munch said. “Only about 20 percent of sexual assault victims report to some sort of authority [according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network statistics for female college students]. So clearly they’re experiencing concerns and barriers around coming forward after something terrible has happened.”

Victoria said she decided not to report the incident when it first happened because she didn’t feel it was significant enough. She also said she felt intimidated by the Title IX procedure, which would require her to recount her experience in detail. However, she eventually realized that she needed to address the reality of what had happened.

“I had every right to be concerned and to feel threatened and to think it was not OK that he did what he did,” Victoria said. “Also, I know what the Title IX process is like — that was the biggest part. I’ve watched documentaries; I’ve read about it; I’ve talked to people who have gone through it. I wasn’t in the place those previous months to do that.”

She confronted her feelings through therapy, and found that getting professional help allowed her to understand she didn’t have to be broken by her experience.

“I really didn’t want to be labeled as any sort of victim,” Victoria said. “I didn’t want to put myself in that emotionally vulnerable state.”

During the last week of April 2016, Title IX investigators began looking into her case. The investigation lasted until the first few weeks of summer. And as it unfolded, she was disappointed that investigators did not express deeper empathy for her.

“There were a lot of times where I felt like the Title IX investigator and coordinator were trying to scare me out of certain things, telling me, ‘He would get suspended and he could get expelled and you need to know that,’” Victoria said. “[They told me] during his [hearing] that he was crying the whole time — things that were kind of irrelevant.”

She doesn’t think the perpetrator of the misconduct received an appropriate punishment — which she anticipated, but still felt dismayed by.

“Because he didn’t actually get to rape me, there wasn’t much they could have done,” Victoria said. “He got one semester of mandatory counseling, which I really don’t think was enough.”

The Title IX office declined to comment on Victoria’s investigation.

Other forms of justice

For those like Victoria, seeking justice can be an elusive pursuit. While some believe in taking legal action, others may turn to alternative solutions to find closure.

According to Munch, victims of sexual assault and misconduct find ways to actualize their personal definition of justice.

“I’ve known lots of survivors [who] really feel like they want to be heard in court,” Munch said. “Even if they lose their cases, they still want the opportunity to tell [people] what happened to them and look the defender in the eye and do whatever they can to try to get the system to work for justice.”

However, some survivors do not believe legal justice is fundamental to a full recovery. Some simply choose to never take action.

“I’ve known others — many, many others — who simply can’t do that,” Munch said. “Some, quite frankly, never really admit what happened to themselves for years or decades or maybe never. So there’s a whole spectrum of how survivors seek to rebalance and recalibrate their lives after such a startling event.”

Tara, a junior at USC who declined to use her last name for privacy reasons, said she found greater stability after she was sexually assaulted by helping provide a safe space for survivors to share their stories and recover from trauma. As the president of Trojans Against Sexual Assault, Tara has worked with campus organizations to create programming for survivors, as well as campaigns on sexual assault prevention.

Tara, who said she was assaulted as a child by a family acquaintance during a trip to India, understood what it felt like to be helpless, afraid and isolated — not knowing who would believe her story, and not knowing when she could finally feel secure. This experience propelled Tara to communicate with sexual assault survivors. By supporting others through their struggles, she felt less alone and realized what happened wasn’t at all her fault, ultimately empowering her to move forward in life with a mission in mind: providing a voice for survivors like her.

But unlike many students who have the resources to report their assaults, Tara did not have the ability to hold her perpetrator accountable. Because she never revealed this secret to her parents until her sophomore year of high school, she now realizes he will never receive punishment for his crime. Now, she is cultivating her own form of justice: living without fear, cynicism and dejection.

“For me, justice came through my empowerment,” Tara said. “It came from understanding that [the experience] isn’t who I am. I’m not going to be defined by something a sick man did to me — I’m going to be defined by how powerful and strong and intelligent I am, and by how I’m going to help other people.”

Working in the community

After the incident in January, Victoria continued her advocacy with USC’s Sexual Assault Task Force, a committee that works with students to improve the University’s approach to sexual assault education. In addition to reviewing sexual misconduct policies in the SCampus student policy manual, she has worked closely with a fraternity president to develop a new sexual assault curriculum for the greek system. But despite her contributions, it wasn’t until she found the courage to reveal her story to other survivors that she discovered a sense of justice.

“Justice doesn’t even mean a Title IX case for me,” Victoria said. “Justice is having every story heard — unfiltered.”

Victoria now values the importance of each survivor exercising their own voice to combat misconceptions regarding sexual assault and misconduct. She encourages survivors to abandon feelings of shame and fear — and to feel comfortable with sharing their experiences.

Victoria and Tara both acknowledge that survivors possess their own definition of justice. And while there are many different outcomes to survivors’ approaches, those who choose not to pursue legal action can still recover and regain full control of their lives.

“Nobody has the right to silence [survivors], and they should never be silenced,” Victoria said.