The Choice to Be Silent
Trigger warning: discussion of rape.
Note: This post has been updated since its original publication. I just kept having more to say on the subject. Also, I’d like to amend “silent” in the title because while many survivors choose not to report, we are often far from silent about our rapes. This is about the choice not to report a rape to the police.
I am a multiple rape survivor. I have experienced what it’s like to report rape and I have chosen not to report rape. And although I want all rapists caught and punished, I fully support every survivor’s right to choose whether to report rape and I do not question any survivor’s choice no matter what. For me—and for most of the feminists I know—this is fundamental.
A recent post on Fiending for Hope discussed the choice not to report a rape as an act of self-care and something to be respected. She went so far as to suggest that survivors who choose not to report are courageous:
People that do choose to report their rapes are incredibly courageous and I support them so freaking hard. But those of us that don’t choose to report are no less courageous.
She didn’t claim that the choice not to report required the same amount of courage as choosing to report and face the consequences which will likely include being grilled about every choice she made leading up to the rape and immediately after. She merely stated that choosing not to report doesn’t make you less courageous. I agree with her (on all counts—read the piece if you haven’t) and will take it a step further: I believe that choosing not to report requires courage (of perhaps a different kind), and I don’t think that there’s a mathematical formula you can apply that will determine which survivor must display more courage. It’s not a contest, and every survivor must be courageous—sometimes just to get up in the morning and live our lives. But while choosing to report a rape may require the courage to deal with systemic abuse of rape survivors, choosing not to report—choosing instead to take care of yourself first and foremost—requires the courage to deal with the fallout when people hold you responsible for the rapist’s future actions.
Because there are still those who believe that a rape survivor owes it to society to report rape—as though by doing that we are protecting society from a rapist—and hold survivors who don’t report responsible for rapists running free. I saw some of this in the reaction to the piece in question—and to the quote above. The idea that a survivor might choose not to report a rape is, to some, not a courageous act but a cowardly one—one that leaves a rapist at large, and so, endangers others.
Fun fact: 97% of rapists never serve time. It’s estimated that about 46% of rapes get reported, only 12% of rapists ever get arrested, and only 3% go to jail. So how, exactly, am I protecting society by reporting my rape when the odds are the rapist will never see the inside of a prison cell? When, in fact, there’s a good chance that my rape kit will sit untested on a shelf for years—possibly decades?* How the fuck do you take a rapist to trial without testing a rape kit? You don’t. (Hence the 9% of rapists who get prosecuted.)
I don’t know the percentage of female rape survivors who report and are subsequently treated like criminals and interrogated about their clothing choices, how much they had to drink, how many sexual partners they’ve had and whether their attacker was one of them, whether the “sex” was actually consensual but they regretted it later…but I’m guessing the percentage high based on pretty much every survivor I’ve read or talked to. So when people say that a survivor owes it to the rest of us to endure this scrutiny and shaming even knowing that the rapist is going to walk free almost every single time, they are basically saying, “If you don’t run the gauntlet, you’re responsible for all future rapes this perp commits.”
A rape survivor is never, ever responsible for future rapes perpetrated by his or her rapist. I mean, the fact that I actually have to say that… But you know, I do. And for anyone out there who questions a survivor’s choice not to report, I’d like you to think about the following:
Would you support a rape survivor’s choice not to report a rape because…
…he feared for his life?
…she was drunk and can’t identify her attacker?
…his attacker threatened his family?
…her attacker is already on trial for another rape?
…his attacker was a family member dying of cancer?
…her attacker got hit by a truck right after the rape and so will never be able to rape again?
If you answered yes to any of these questions (or can conceive of any possible circumstance under which you would be ok with not reporting), then you support a rape survivor’s right to choose whether to report. And so, to question any survivor’s choice to report a rape is bullshit because you have no idea why they are choosing not to report and IT’S NONE OF YOUR GODDAMNED BUSINESS.
Out of three rapes, I reported the first two. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether to report the first time, but the second time I was afraid it wasn’t rape because I didn’t fight, and a police officer convinced me that it was indeed rape and took my report. Neither of these times did it ever occur to me not to file a report, so no particular courage was required for me to do so. I wasn’t out to save anyone—I was a mess and I did what people told me to do. What required courage was dealing with the aftermath of having reported—the disbelief, the betrayals, the trial in the first case where a public defender sputtered accusations at me, the 12-year-old victim, as I sat on the stand after months of build up. The third time circumstances were complicated enough that reporting seemed utterly futile based on my experience with the system. I did not display courage in choosing not to report; I just did what I had to do. But I wasn’t *more* courageous when I reported the previous rapes than someone who chooses not to simply by virtue of filing a report, and to say I was is bullshit. And furthermore, I can’t conceive for one second of holding a prior victim of any of the men who raped me responsible for my rapes.
Like Britni says:
We all have our own stories and our own reasons for making the choices that we make. It’s important to remember that survivors make the choices that are best for them– not the choices YOU think are best for them. And all of those choices are valid. All of them.
Rape survivors don’t owe anyone anything. They certainly don’t owe us their continued pain and suffering so that we as a society can blame them for their rapes and lament the ruination of their rapists’ lives and ultimately let the rapist go free most of the time. They don’t owe us that.
I am a multiple rape survivor. I have reported rape and I have chosen not to report rape. Both choices ultimately required courage and still do. Every fucking day of my life.
*True story: To the best of my knowledge, one of my rape kits has been sitting untested on a shelf in Texas since 1981.
UPDATE: The #WhyIDidntReport hashtag on Twitter, which was started by @ethiopiennesays soon after I posted this piece, saw tens of thousands of tweets from survivors sharing their stories of why they chose not to report their rapes. If you can read their stories and walk away believing survivors have a duty to report or that reporting somehow equals justice, then there’s very likely nothing anyone can say that will change your mind.
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
- Choosing Not to Report a Rape as a Form of Self Care (Fiending for Hope)
- Stop telling survivors they must report to the police (Feministing)
- Study suggests police systematically undercount rape reports (Feministing)
- 97 Out of 100 Rapists Receive No Punishment (RAINN)
- Carceral Feminism Will Not End Sexual Violence (Fiending For Hope)