By Lauren Hersh. Lauren is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families
Originally published June 4, 2015 in Lohud.
Sara was out with friends when she ran into a male acquaintance from school. After a quick conversation, Sara had a drink with the young man. Shortly after, she began to feel dizzy and sick. The young man offered to take Sara to his apartment where she could rest until she felt well enough to go home. Sara then blacked out. When she came to, the young man was penetrating her.
In the days that followed, Sara cycled through an array of emotions. Fear filled her days. Self-blame and anxiety kept her awake at night, as she tried to recall the details of the attack. For months, Sara's friends urged her to report the incident. But Sara worried that if she told, she might ruin her attacker's future or worse, she might face retaliation.
On a cold day in the fall, Sara learned that she was not alone. Her attacker had committed a similar crime on another classmate. Sara could no longer remain silent and knew that reporting the incident was the only option.
For Sara and so many survivors, the process of reporting a sexual assault can be painful, complicated and fraught with mixed emotions. For some, the potential public scrutiny of a criminal proceeding may feel daunting and frightening. For others, reporting the assault to their university feels safer, more confidential and less out of control. In the days and months that follow a sexual assault, students need trauma informed assistance and victim-based advocacy. They need to be empowered to analyze the situation and decide how to best to heal and possibly seek justice.
For some, the answer is filing a police report. For others, filing an action with university is sufficient. And even others feel that counseling and time makes the most sense.
Across the country, survivors and students have criticized colleges for the way they have handled sexual assault cases. Victim blaming, delay in the process and ineffective investigation have been identified as commonplace in many university processes. To date, 94 universities are under Title IX investigation to determine whether the school has failed to adequately address the issue of sexual violence on their campus.
Some, like Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, suggest that the solution is simple – eliminate the university from the equation and report the incident directly to the police, with or without the victim's consent. As a former prosecutor, I support law enforcement involvement. But as a lawyer and advocate who works with sexual assault survivors, I recognize that police involvement is not appropriate for every case and victim.
Police involvement often results in invasive investigations and a process that can last for years. Lack of physical evidence, absence of force and prior relationship of any kind often yield unfavorable results in a criminal justice system where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Even when a case is successful, numerous hours of scrutiny on a witness stand can be traumatic for even the strongest, most credible witness.
The reality is that most of these cases are messy. Rampant rape culture and society's deep-rooted stigma "what should she have done differently" creates a hostile environment for anyone who is seeking the courage to come forward. Excessive alcohol often exists in many incidents. For some students, they are ambivalent to the consequences. They are simply looking to feel safe in their school again and possibly protect their peers.
Sara has spent the last year putting the pieces of her life back together. Sara is one of the few student survivors to report her rape. Studies estimate that only 5 percent of campus sexual assaults are reported.
Recently, Sara's university found her assailant responsible for Non Consensual Sex. His sanction is pending. Part of Sara's healing has been the process of reclaiming control – that includes deciding if, when, with whom and how she will share her truth. For Sara, a criminal conviction was not necessary for the outcome to be successful.
It's safe to say colleges are stumbling as they work to create fair and effective policies to respond to a nationwide sexual violence epidemic. To date, the processes are far from perfect and require drastic reform to eliminate impunity and protect victims. But shutting down the college reporting system and eliminating an avenue for a survivor to report may in fact, further decrease the meager number of cases reported. Providing critical support and empowering choice in how to proceed are necessary in the road to justice.