Students walked through the parking lot on their way to class while I sat in my car and dialed the number the reporting officer had given me the day before.
“Make sure you call, and call again if you have to,” he told me. “They’re not going to pursue it if they don’t think you care.” Be a good victim.
I did call and after giving my case number I was transferred to the detective assigned to my case.
Real life is not like television -- I know this. Still, I had no idea how disparate reporting sexual assault in reality would be from what I’d seen on TV. Olivia Benson is a myth. The idea of an empathetic, fiercely passionate sex crimes detective whose first priority is justice for victims may only exist on television. Certainly, there are officers out there who are better than others. However, in my own experience and during my year as a Victim’s Advocate, I haven’t seen any police work worthy of applause.
I've watched more than 300 episodes of "Law and Order: SVU" and I can’t remember seeing a case like mine, although in real life my story is not unique. Like many young women who experience assault, I didn’t know what to call my experience. I thought of it as a misunderstanding, a lack of communication, anything else because if it were rape that would make me a victim and my ex-boyfriend a rapist. That only happened to other people, women who walked home alone at night in big cities.
I only accepted that I’d been raped when someone else told me so. Several months after the relationship ended, I’d turned 20 and started dating someone else. I asked my aunt to meet me at a café. I wanted to ask her how to get birth control without my mom knowing (apparently I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder that is Google). I tried to explain to her that I’d never really had sex while also explaining what had happened between my ex and I.
“Lauren, that sounds like rape.”
People say all the time they feel like they were punched in the stomach and it sounds kind of unrealistic, but I believe it. I’ve felt it many times, including that moment.
Months before, I’d lain in my ex’s bed while he climbed on top of me. I’d said “no” over and over again, or that I wasn’t sure, or not ready. It didn’t matter what I wanted.
I lay there looking past him at the ceiling. I remember thinking: “I don’t know what the difference is between this and rape.” I couldn’t accept that there was no difference. Instead, I lay still, like a corpse, and knew he didn’t care that there was a consciousness inside this body. I would never be anything more than a collection of convenient holes created for his enjoyment.
But I stayed with him. I was 19, depressed, and petrified to be alone. It’s amazing what you’ll tolerate when you’re empty and someone says they love you. Who else would ever want you?
Once I accepted what had happened as rape, I had to figure out what to do about it. There is no training course or handbook for what to do when you’re assaulted, especially when you don’t realize it until months after the fact and never told anyone.
I knew almost beyond a doubt that nothing would happen to him. There was no evidence and I hadn’t told anyone. Still, I wanted what he did to me on record. I was confident that if he were ever denied sex again he’d do the same thing. I wanted to protect the next girl. I hoped if I reported, she might have a stronger case.
Through a roundabout, confusing process, I ended up going to the Women’s Center on campus (Grand Valley State University, where both my ex and I attended) where they explained my options and gave me some resources and confirmed that I had in fact been raped, then the Counseling Center, and finally to the YWCA where I sat with a young, attractive officer from Grand Rapids Police Department. All of this happened in one, exhausting day.
The officer was respectful but told me I couldn’t use euphemisms while telling my story. As an advocate, I’ve never heard this rule and I’m not sure it’s actually true. This meant that while telling a complete stranger about what another man had done to me, I had to use words like penis, vagina, ejaculation, you get the idea. I was not comfortable using those words in my everyday life, let alone in this situation.
He asked who put what where, who wanted what, what positions out bodies were in, how many times it happened. Afterward he gave me the number to call.
The next day, I called the detective assigned to my case, who I’d later find out was the head of her department. I slunk down in the driver’s seat and waited for some reassuring words or a little empathy. At first, she basically reiterated what I’d already told the reporting officer. Then she asked what I assume are her standard questions.
“Had you been drinking?” she asked. It was probably your fault.
“No.” At that point I’d never had anything to drink.
“Are you sure?” Liar.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t drink.”
“Why did you keep going back over to his place?” she asked. “Why did you go back to his house, what, 15 times? If this kept happening…” Obviously you wanted it.
I realized I was being interrogated. The reporting officer just took the facts, but this was questioning. This is when I knew they weren’t going to believe me. I just mumbled and told her I didn’t know.
“Do you know the difference between something you didn’t want to happen, and something you regret?” You’re trying to ruin his life.
“Yeah, I do know the difference actually,” I snapped. At the time, I didn’t know that only three percent of rape allegations are false. She should have.
“Did you try to escape?” she asked. “Or run to a phone?” If you didn’t, it wasn’t rape.
“No, and I didn’t realize I had to do either of those things for you to do your job.”
I started shaking. What happened to protect and serve? What happened to believing and supporting the victim? I didn’t know why I’d believed in the idea of a kind, compassionate detective who would believe me and stand up for me. It was fiction.
“Can you tell me what sexual activities you’d done before this?”
“You told the officer you’d never had sex. Can you tell me what you’d done before this incident? Oral sex? Digital penetration?” Whore.
“Uh, yes?” How was this relevant? Olivia had taught me about the Rape Shield Law. I thought my past sexual experience, limited though it was, didn’t matter.
“So, what’s the difference between those things and sex? Why are those things okay but sex isn’t?” Slut.
“Seriously? Because I was okay with doing those things but I wasn’t okay with having sex,” I told her.
She continued asking questions while I tried not to cry. I was shaking, with anger and frustration and disappointment. This is not how I imagined this would happen. I knew it would be hard but I thought she’d be on my side. She didn’t have a reason not to believe me.
“Well there’s probably not a lot we can do unless he confesses,” she said.
“So does that mean you’ll have to talk to him?”
“He’s probably not going to confess to me,” she told me. “Usually, we’d have you call him, or meet up with him if you feel comfortable, and record the conversation.”
“Nothing is going to happen to him unless I call him?”
“There’s not a lot of evidence here.” Because you weren’t really raped.
“Okay, so would I have to schedule a time to come into the station?” I imagined myself in an interrogation room next to a detective, making the call on some kind of fancy police recording equipment.
“No, you can just record him on your phone. A lot of people just use an app or something.”
“What do I say to him?”
“Well,” she said. “You know him better than I do.”
I was on my own. If there were any chance for him to face even a shadow of justice, I’d have to make it happen myself.
I hated this woman. I hated her and her shitty police work, her accusatory tone, her lack of empathy. Don’t they have sensitivity training? Or was that another myth from television? Olivia Benson did not teach me that victims had to investigate their own cases. For more than a dozen seasons, I’d thought that was the detective’s job.
A few days later, I did make the call. I didn’t feel like I had anyone else to turn to, and didn’t want to be alone, so my then-boyfriend agreed to stay with me while I made the call.
My ex denied everything and told me I was absolutely wrong, that nothing I claimed had ever happened. He also threatened to sue me.
Afterward, the only thing my then-boyfriend said was: “It sounds like you both…did some things.” You’re making it up.
I called the detective to let her know what had happened.
“He said he’d sue me if I ever told anyone. Can he really do that?” I asked.
“Not if what you’re saying is true,” she responded. Since you can’t prove it’s true, he can sue you.
She told me to burn the recording onto a CD and drop it off at the police station.
In the meantime, I’d gone back to the GVSU Women’s Center to make a report with the university. The Victim’s Advocate suggested speaking to someone from campus police who was apparently really good at working with victims. He’d be able to tell me my options. She dialed for me and explained the situation before handing me the phone.
An older man whose name I don’t know asked me a few questions. So many questions and it still wasn’t getting easier. He seemed kind and understanding, but helpless.
“It happened off-campus?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “We both go to GVSU but he lives off-campus. It was at his apartment.”
He took a long, deep breath.
“Unfortunately, because it wasn’t on campus there’s not a whole lot we can do. We can change your class schedule if you like so you don’t have to run into him, but that’s about it. It’s not in our jurisdiction.” This is not our problem.
It made sense, I guess. Police departments have jurisdictions they work within. It probably wasn’t as cut and dry as "The Dukes of Hazzard" made it seem, but still, I could understand.
After dropping off the recording to the police station, I never heard back from the detective. Eventually, I emailed her demanding answers. She informed me that the District Attorney decided not to pursue the case and she was sorry I didn’t get the result I wanted.
A year ago, I went through training to be a Victim’s Advocate at the YWCA. I learned to handle crisis calls and help victims through rape exams and reporting to the police. I didn’t want another woman to have the experience I did. During training, we toured the Grand Rapids courthouse and police department. While at the courthouse, we had the opportunity to meet the District Attorney and ask questions. The DA said that the police always get in contact with the accused person and question them.
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “Are you saying that every time a victim reports, the police always go speak to the person who is accused?” He confirmed that was procedure. Every time. Just not for me, apparently. You don’t matter. Not to us.
Our tour guide at the police station was the very same detective who’d “handled” my case. Just like at the courthouse, part of the tour was dedicated to questions. She was explaining that often they have victims call their assailant and record the call to use as evidence.
“What do you do next if that doesn’t work?” I asked. I clamped my hands between my knees to keep them from shaking.
“We try other methods.”
“What other methods?” I asked.
“We look for other routes.”
I’d later be asked to apologize to the detective for my inappropriate and aggressive questions and body language.
Three years after first reporting (a few weeks ago, in real time) I couldn’t stop thinking about my dead end case. Ever since I’d heard about the 55 Title IX investigations and the Yes Means Yes law in California I’d been skeptical about how GVSU had handled my case. I found the wording of the Yes Means Yes law online, which stated that it applies to assaults on or off campus as long as a student is involved.
Curious, I checked GVSU’s website and found the section about campus assault. At the time I reported, I never thought to look. It states: Victims of sexual assault that occur on university property and/or by another Grand Valley State University student may file a Judicial Referral Form with the Coordinator for University Judiciary.
I felt sick. They’d lied to me. Reading this confirmed what I’d already believed: No one was trying to prevent and prosecute rape.
I emailed campus police asking questions about the policy and what GVSU is supposed to do when students report assault. The new chief of police responded, saying she’d like to talk to me in person. Wasn’t there some kind of policy she could just copy and paste for me? Or a boilerplate response for questions like this? Or was she afraid to be locked into an answer?
I asked her to just email me saying I couldn’t make it to campus. After a few days, she responded with answers that could have just been taken from the website. This is when a Huffington Post article came out listing an additional 30 universities being investigated for Title IX violations. GVSU made the list.
Now, her hesitation made sense. After mentioning the Title IX investigation to the chief, she agreed to give me any further information I needed via email, or meet with me, or anything else I’d like. Honestly, she seemed completely sincere in trying to help me figure out what went wrong. She said she’d look through their records and find out what happened.
The chief did check and get back to me. There are no records with GVSU campus police that I ever spoke with them or ever told them I was raped. Not only did they not comply with their own policies, they essentially acted like it never happened. You do not matter.
I couldn’t believe they just made it all disappear. Apparently, you can’t just call campus police and tell them you were raped. You have to make it very clear that you want them to actually write it down.
The GVPD police chief was able to obtain my police report. When I told her I wasn’t able to meet with her when she’d said she was available and asked her to answer my original questions via email, she wrote, “GVPD handles criminal complaints that occur on our campus. I cannot explain what an officer told you in 2011, relative to the off campus incident. As I explained, we do not have a report on file.” She also reminded me that she had “spent a great deal of time trying to help [me] and be respectful of [my] privacy.” If I needed further assistance, I should contact the Women’s Center, Dean of Students office, or Grand Rapids Police Department.
My story doesn’t make good television. There’s no scene of me sitting in the back of a courtroom, watching my rapist’s face sink as he hears the verdict and being dragged away in handcuffs. I don’t get to fall asleep at night knowing he got what he deserved or that women are safe from him now. I don’t even get the little satisfaction of knowing that people believe me.
What my story does, even anecdotally, is show that we still haven’t figured this out. We still don’t know how to treat victims, we don’t show them respect, and we don’t protect them. When women are brave enough (and trust me, it takes courage) to report, they face enormous backlash, far more than I had to experience. Until we learn how to treat victims, and actually teach people what it means to consent to sex, we’re condemning 1 in 5 women in this country to stories similar to mine.