It’s common for sexual assault survivors to question whether or not they should contact law enforcement and report their assault. While many believe that a survivor should report their assault right away, and may even be frustrated by a survivor’s hesitancy to do so, there are many reasons why a sexual assault survivor may not immediately report the crime.
Sexual assault takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on a survivor, who may still be processing what happened, and may not be totally ready to handle retelling their story. In a study by the National Institute of Justice, 42 percent of “physically forced” victims who did not report their assault to the police said they did not make a report because they “did not want anyone to know.” Despite the fact that assault is never the survivor’s fault, someone who has experienced sexual assault may still feel concerned that they will be blamed for their attack.
As Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) explains, survivors may feel embarrassed that the assault happened in the first place. Not every law enforcement officer may be understanding or empathetic of a survivor’s position; reporting can feel invasive and extremely difficult. While some survivors may feel reporting their experience to the police will help them seek justice against their attacker, it is important to remember that survivors do not have complete control over this process. Fortunately, survivors can seek medical attention whether choosing to report or not, however when a report is made, evidence can be used to assist in identifying the perpetrator.
Reporting sexual assault starts with having a law enforcement officer document the case with a written report where they assign a tracking number to the crime. The officer can meet you at any location of your choosing, including your home, or the hospital. It is very important for a survivor to be very clear in the information given to the officer. While providing the most comprehensive, accurate details of the crime is helpful, it is important to remember that survivors often may have distorted memories of the event, particularly if they disassociated themselves while the assault occurred. A survivor has the right to to tell an officer “I don’t remember,” or “I’m not sure,” without any penalty, judgement or suggestion that the assault did not occur.
A police interview can take up to a few hours, depending on the case’s circumstances. Questions often include the timeline of events, what (if anything) was said, whether there was additional physical assault or injury, if weapons were used, and any descriptive features that were noticed about the perpetrator. Additionally, the officer will likely go over the events of the assault repeatedly with the survivor when writing the report, but this extensive questioning is intended to gather as many details as possible, in order to make the strongest case against the attacker. Information gathered is then given to a detective who will review the same information, once again with the survivor. All survivors have the right to stop the report at any time, not complete the report or request a break if the questions become overwhelming. Officers and detectives are required to comply with this request without pressuring the survivor in any way.
A survivor is not obligated to report their assault, and there is no legal barrier to reporting an attack months later. Choosing not to report does not mean that a sexual assault is invalid, it simply means the survivor chose not to report. For those who do report, evidence is better preserved if collected recently after the event. Sexual Assault Forensic Exams (commonly referred to as “rape kits”) help to preserve items including DNA samples, clothes worn when the attack occurred, hair, saliva, and other evidence that could help to support a case of the survivor chooses to file a report. A kit can be completed prior to making a report, allowing the survivor time to assess their interest in pursuing criminal charges. Some states have statutes of limitations, which can prevent prosecution if the crime is reported after a certain period of time, so speaking with an advocate in your state can help a survivor best determine their options. Local rape crisis centers often offer sexual assault victim advocates, who will accompany a survivor to the hospital, and police station and during the interview process.
Note that certain third parties -- such as teachers, educators, and health professionals -- must report an incident of sexual assault against a minor to the police due to mandatory reporting laws. For example, if a minor was sexually assaulted and they talk to a guidance counselor about the incident, the counselor is legally obligated to report that disclosure to the police.
Reporting sexual assault will not change the past, but for some, a report can help survivors seek justice and being the healing process. To report criminal sexual assault, call 911, visit the emergency room, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE to be connected to a local rape crisis center. For those who are not interested, or unsure if they are ready to report, additional methods of healing and support can be accessed through your local crisis center, or by calling the above hotline. Remember, you have options, and the only person’s opinion that matters in how your move forward, is your own.