Guilty/Not Guilty and the Catch-22 of Seeking “Justice” for Sexual Violence

As I’ve mentioned before, I am unable to even potentially seek justice for my first sexual assault. My statute of limitations expired roughly a decade ago; I don’t have an exact date or time (or even an exact year, really—just a decent guess); I can give you only the barest of details about my attackers; the business in which I was assaulted closed long ago, so there’s no one who could even look for any tapes that might have existed (and even then, it’s pretty hard to track down a functioning VCR these days). I will never see a day in court to face down those particular demons.

But even if I could have that day in court, I don’t know that I’d take it, largely because I don’t know what I’d possibly gain from being there. Did my assault irrevocably alter my life? Of course. Can I put a dollar sign on that value when my assault is one of my first five concrete memories? Not so easily. And for me, searching my memories to make that determination would necessitate more emotional effort (and therapy) than would probably be wise for me at this point in time. I’m two decades out, and unless these men were definitively positioned in a place of power that could enable them to assault again, I’d probably want to keep living my life instead of upending it for an uncertain outcome.

This dilemma, in different forms and variations, plagues many rape and assault victims. We live in an era that’s quickly shifted from “do people actually prosecute rape?” to “YOU HAVE TO MAKE A CREDIBLE, WELL-DOCUMENTED REPORT WITH NO MISSTEPS THE SECOND ANYTHING HAPPENS TO YOU.” And though there are lots of hardworking folks on the front lines pushing for the changes that need to be made, the populace as a whole is still very resistant to believing victims who aren’t able to show up with eyewitnesses and DNA samples. There are a lot of factors at play there, but one always jumps out at me: on some level, most people do not realize that acts of sexual violence don’t always look violent.

Obviously, sometimes they do—aggravated rape and assault and intimate terrorism (a newer, clearer term for domestic violence) immediately come to mind. But sometimes it just looks like sex with a complication or two thrown in. A woman whose fight/flight/freeze reaction settled on “freeze” might not look too different, to the untrained or disinterested eye, than a woman who’s perfectly willing but is just having bad sex. As I’m writing this (reader, the month was June 2019), I don’t have cell service or internet to look for estimated stats, but based on what I know of my own peer networks and professional community, the vast majority of rapists do not think they’re rapists. They chalk up these occurrences as . . . I don’t know. Bad sex? Failed relationships? (Reminder: date rape and marital rape are also crimes. We even prosecute them occasionally!)

These folks—largely men—do not believe they would do this to someone. When they do, and their victim comes forward (even if only privately), it must be explained to them. In a way, the onus is on victims of rape and assault not only to prove the crime was committed but to convince their attackers (and, frequently, themselves, though that’s a separate issue) that what occurred was indeed a crime and should be treated as such. We have to prove that our pain and loss is worthy of acknowledgment and recompense, and for many of the folks I know, it’s easier to honor the hurt privately and focus on healing ourselves.

At its core, sexual assault is a crime of power, control, and opportunity. Or, put another way, an attacker decides their desire for sex (in any of its forms) supersedes their target’s bodily autonomy and ability to say no. And in many cases, they convince their victims as well. When victims are in the immediate aftermath of their assault, they can be scared or numb or hurt or confused or angry or hysterical (God, how I hate that word) or they can put on a brave face. We experience any (and sometimes every) emotion under the sun. There isn’t any one way to react that’s “correct,” and the justice system’s over-reliance on articulate, credible, well-supported victims disadvantages those who do not or cannot perform that role.

In reality, none of us are perfect victims. And those of us who pass muster and qualify as “close enough” need to remember that our job is to constantly advocate for our siblings who are angry and surly and uncooperative and who make mistakes somehow deemed more critical than ours. Still, our knowledge that imperfection leads to a lack of justice steers many of us—inarguably credible and otherwise—toward whisper networks and other means of making vulnerable folks aware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing around them.

Because, for most of us, it is easier to warn people away from rapists than to convince rapists that they have committed a crime. And frankly, that shouldn’t be our responsibility.

Thanks for reading! This blog is part of my writing for Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2020. If you like what you read (or got something out of it, or feel fulfilled/validated/educated), tune back in every Saturday at 8pm MST(/PDT). For more, join me on Patreon, or follow me on Instagram @ordinarilymeg.