I read “It Happened To Me: I Was Raped By My Tattoo Artist” with the dry-mouthed discomfort of knowing there is no right thing to say in response. But then I read the comments. And while there might not be any right thing to say in some situations, I do believe there are definitely wrong things.
“He is probably doing this to other women.” That’s the thought, right? It’s the fear that motivates us when someone tells a story like that one. It's scary because it's so plausible, because sexual predators, especially successful ones, don't change their behavior patterns -- they continuing preying on women around them. We remind ourselves of this maybe in part because it makes us feel less alone, like we have more control.
Like Emily’s cab driver story.
That’s a good example, right? Emily told her story, and it sparked someone else to tell HER story. That's a very powerful thing. Because now there is a network, and more people who have been victimized by this guy have somewhere to turn where they can hear that it wasn't their fault.
But I also want y’all to remember the follow-up piece, where Sophie Saint Thomas reported the assault to the police and it didn’t go well. From a cab company that refused to give her the driver’s name to a police officer who questioned her loudly and in public -- Sophie’s experience was unpleasant and completely run of the mill. Even so, her conclusion is that we must do everything we can do “catch and stop” sexual predators.
And, in the face of a day's worth of relatively minor trauma, I can understand that conclusion. It's a conclusion that speaks of women feeling empowered -- women who will not remain silent in the face of their victimization.
If that is the position in which you find yourself after a sexual assault, I -- and, I am 100% sure, the other xoJane folks, including Jane herself -- am here to support you.
But we fail each other profoundly when we ignore that not everyone is in this position.
Sexual assault -- of any sort -- has intense and personal ramifications for every individual. I don't just mean emotionally. I'm not trying to minimize the emotional distress that Sophie felt when being shamed by that police woman. But there are many reasons why someone might not want to report being raped -- and they should never be erased.
People who report rape -- especially women who belong to vulnerable populations (women of color, poor women, disabled women, trans women, very young women -- not to mention people who live at the intersections of these identities) -- are scrutinized in our courts and in our popular media. To report a rape can mean being further victimized by not just the victim-blaming system but also by the support structures we thought we had in place, like friends and family and school social circles. It can mean losing a job along with a reputation. It can mean being called a liar and it can mean being accused of ruining young men's lives.
Beyond that, only 3% of rapists ever spend a day in jail. If your rapist is someone known to you (and it's likely that they are), reporting can actively endanger your life. Even if your rapist is not known to you, reporting means making yourself vulnerable in a way that many people cannot handle after an already life-changing violation, especially when there is so little hope of justice. You only have to do a search for "rape" here on xoJane to see read reports of how that all-too-often works out.
And if you are serving in the armed forces, odds are high that your rapist is friends with the person you'd report it to -- or that the person you'd report it to is your rapist.
Rape is the responsibility of the rapist -- no matter what any given person was wearing, no matter how drunk that person might be, no matter what party that person might be at. The person who was raped does not bear the responsibility for preventing their own rape.
Similarly, people who have been sexually assaulted are not somehow responsible for preventing their assailant from assaulting other people.
This is, I am sure, going to stand in conflict with how a lot of people feel about basic human decency. And, all other things being equal, yeah, I come down on the side of preventing harm to others in whatever way I can.
Which is why, also because of basic human decency, I will not advocate for heaping even more "shoulds" on the shoulders of those who have been sexually assaulted.
To be as blunt as possible: People who have been sexually assaulted do not owe other people shit. Their only responsibility is to take care of themselves in the best way that they are able. Hopefully, they have actually supportive people around to help take care of them. Hopefully, they have the resources, whatever those resources might be, available to feel safe again.
But my hope does not override my realism; many people do not have those resources. And when folks insist that rape must be reported to prevent rapists from preying on other people, it increases the already unreasonable burden on those who may be struggling.
Our system is bullshit. Guilting people into subjecting themselves to it in the hopes that the system will change sacrifices the well-being of the very people who have already been failed by our rape culture.
It's not like this is done maliciously. Everyone is scrambling for something to do in the face of an awful thing, I get that. But pressuring victims is not a compassionate course of action.
In some ways, it feels like a Catch-22 -- if we don't report sexual assault, no one realizes how extensive the problem is and nothing changes; if we do report sexual assault, we are disbelieved and mocked and shamed and interrogated and blamed. And nothing changes.
I don't know what the solution is. But I don't think it rests in making serial predation feel like our own fault.
Here it is as plain as I can say it: If you have been raped, you do not have any obligation to any other woman to report your rape. It is not your fault you were raped. It is not your fault if the person who raped you rapes other people. That, too, is the fault of the rapist.
If you choose to report after a sexual assault, I support you. That is a brave and meaningful action.
But if you choose not to report? I am also here to support you. You are not failing other women. Your only responsibility is to take care of yourself.
Because the last thing the victim of a sexual assault needs is a damn guilt trip.