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Rape is a horrific experience to endure, and the pain doesn’t stop when it’s over; the aftermath of rape can be traumatic, upending your life in both small and large ways. For many rape victims, it’s a struggle to even be believed, and that lack of understanding and compassion extends not just to supposed friends and loved ones or strangers passing casual judgment, but to the very people who are supposed to help rape victims.
Police, doctors, nurses, and other members of the system that’s designed to address reports of sexual assault may turn on a victim on a dime for failing to meet expectations about who victims are supposed to be, and how victims are supposed to behave.
That was certainly the case for Sara Reedy when she was forced to perform oral sex and then robbed while she was working at a fuel station in Pittsburgh. The gunman threatened her with death if she didn’t perform, so she “closed [her] eyes and just tried to get it over with.”
Then she did what you’re supposed to do after being sexually assaulted: She reported the crime to law enforcement. Initially her interaction went well, she says; the police officer who took her to the hospital was friendly and understanding. Once she got there, though, a detective, doctor, and nurse questioned her story and accused her of lying.
She went from victim to suspect, accused of stealing the money herself and fabricating a sexual assault to cover it up. Reedy was jailed, and although she was able to get out on bail, there was no job waiting for her. The only reason her trial didn’t go badly was because her assailant committed a very similar crime shortly before her trial, and when he was caught, he confessed to the earlier crime.
Sara Reedy had been telling the truth, as she’d insisted she was to friends, family and the people around her. As she’d insisted, in fact, to the crisis center that turned her away when she asked for help. In the aftermath of her abuse at the hands of police and the people around her, she experienced post-traumatic stress, had trouble returning to work, and couldn’t go back to college. Her life had changed forever as a result of the rape and how it was handled.
TAKING IT TO COURT
In 2009, she brought suit against the police department, and the matter was dismissed. That didn’t stop her from doing the same in 2010, and winning, with the help of the Women’s Law Project. Reedy didn’t just advocate for herself in this matter; she also testified before Congress in hearings that later resulted in a reform to the definition of rape, including men and oral sex.
And this year, she won a $1.5 million settlement to compensate her.
The initial facts of Reedy’s case are not that unique. In fact, they are disturbingly common. Many victims of rape are not believed by law enforcement because they don’t match expectations, and in fact, Pittsburgh tosses 34% of rape accusations on the grounds that they are “unfounded,” perpetuating the myth that women lie about sexual assault.
What makes her case stand out is that she refused to go down without a fight. Rather than accepting what happened to her, she took the ball into the police department’s court and made it clear that she wasn’t leaving until she saw justice, and she had a very clear vision of what justice was. The judge who ruled in her civil rights case made some important statements, noting that “sexual assault victims have ‘no duty’ to pursue counseling or to physically resist their assailants.”
SARA REEDY IS AWESOME
In debunking myths about rape, the judge sent a clear message to law enforcement and the nation as a whole; I wish all judges were this with it. Rape is complex. The circumstances of rape can be highly variable, chaotic and traumatic. Anyone can potentially be a rape victim, and victims respond in many different ways; there is no wrong or right way to be raped, or to handle a rape. And victims reporting the crime, doing as they’ve been told to do, shouldn’t be abruptly interrogated and turned into suspects.
Reedy’s justice was unusual. Many women in her situation fade away into the background, never being vindicated, let alone receiving any kind of compensation for their treatment at the hands of the justice system. I’m proud of her for standing up, for advocating for other women, and for smashing rape myths in the face. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and to persist through multiple years and numerous setbacks.