Everything you need to know about reporting your sexual assault
From your school’s Title IX office to court
by Katie Way
Talking about sexual violence in the abstract is hard. Talking about the sexual violence you’ve personally experienced is even harder.
And making the decision to pursue "justice" in whatever form after you've been harassed or assaulted kicks off a chain of incredibly challenging, triggering, painful events, but it can also make for excellent closure.
But according to survivors, reporting your rape or harassment is nowhere near mandatory.
babe spoke to one woman who reported her sexual assault through her university. She opted to remain anonymous, but was candid about her experience with the reporting process, and emphasized that reporting is a deeply personal decision. In the interest of full disclosure, she is also a personal friend of mine.
"If you wanna pack up what happened and not look at it again, because basically reporting is a lot of looking at it again, then you shouldn’t have to,” the woman said. “You don’t owe it to anybody to do it, because it’s not on any single person to monitor a predator’s behavior.”
If you do decide to begin the reporting process, there are concrete steps you can take. Here’s an outline of what to expect when you officially report sexual violence.
1. Accept that it happened
The first step to reporting is accepting that you were harassed, assaulted or raped.
Coming to terms with that has been done to you and the fact that it was and is not your fault is absolutely vital moving forward, because the rest of the process is a barrage of questions and explanations.
Wherever your experience falls on the “spectrum” of sexual violence, know that it is valid.
“The biggest advice and the advice I do give people is that what you’re feeling is valid because you’re feeling it,” the survivor babe spoke to said. “If you have a sexual interaction with someone and everything was fine and consensual and nothing was wrong with the situation, you would not come out of it feeling like there was something wrong.”
2. Accept that not everyone is going to believe you
It’s also important to know that not everyone is going to believe you. The person who raped, assaulted or harassed you probably has friends. They might have a partner. Or they could be someone in a position of power, like a massively successful Hollywood executive or a president, as a few random examples.
Some people won’t believe you because it’s inconvenient. Some people think it's in their interest to presume a person they know or love is an innocent victim of gossip and false accusations, rather than a predator.
But the numbers are on your side — Only 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault allegations end up being false reports, according to a 2010 study. And the truly important people in your life will be on your side too.
3. Tell some trusted friends — heavy emphasis on trusted
If your friends are good friends, they will support and believe you when you disclose that you have been sexually harassed or assaulted, especially when you let them know that you’re wading into the reporting process.
But be careful who you disclose to, because people are selfish and often prone to knee-jerk reactions at the disclosure of sensitive information, like the fact that their friend raped you.
The woman we spoke to described her rape to another girl who was dating a guy in the same fraternity as the anonymous woman’s rapist. The other girl was quick to invalidate the anonymous woman’s experience.
“I told her his name and then I’m pretty sure the exact words were some stupid thing like, ‘Oh, really? But he’s such a nice guy! Maybe not sexually, but you should give him a second chance’” she said. “And that was almost worse than someone outright saying “I don’t believe you,” because more than anything it was just like that wasn’t bad enough.”
But according to the anonymous woman, all of the important people in her life believed and “protected” her as she processed her trauma.
Also, as an important side note: YOU DON’T HAVE TO TALK TO THE PERSON WHO ABUSED YOU. It's not your responsibility to consult them, question them, or try to corroborate your accounts. You have your own agency, but be aware that someone who already assaulted or harassed you is liable to gaslight you into thinking that it wasn’t really a big deal, even though your mind and body are screaming otherwise.
4. Seek counseling
Going directly to the authorities might, at surface-level, seem like the next logical step. But in reality, the reporting process can be scary and involves digging up a lot of trauma. In order to navigate the official reporting process, turn first to experts in sexual health or sexual assault, like your school’s women’s center, if you’re reporting through your school, or call a hotline for somewhere like RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline, to speak to a professional.
“Whether you’re reporting to the police or to the school, there are definitely people who know the ins and outs of that specific reporting process,” the survivor said. “They can help you determine what you want to do and what is going to be best for you.”
If you decide moving forward with the official reporting process is the right move for you, your counselor can help point you in the direction of the appropriate authorities.
5. File an official complaint
Most workplaces and all colleges have offices designed to handle complaints about harassment or assault. In a work environment, these cases are handled by the Human Resources Department.
Most HR departments have their own set of standards, but they generally model themselves after the guidelines set by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Those can be found here.
If your workplace doesn't have an HR department, try reporting the incident to your manager. If your manager is the abuser, try going above their head, and confide in some of the people who work at your level. If it’s happening to you, it could very well be happening to your coworkers and it’s harder to invalidate a group than an individual.
If the abuse took place at a college or was perpetrated by a college student, then the college's Title IX office or office of student life will be your go-to for reporting. Filing a report and naming your assailant means that, under federal law, your school has to launch an investigation.
The woman that babe interviewed about reporting her assault had a positive experience with her school's administration, since the rape took place in a fraternity associated with the university. That doesn't mean the reporting process was easy for her — she still had to relive and dissect her sexual assault, and she had to read her rapist's denial of guilt, which she said was the most painful part.
But her school's office of student life redacted the documentation of her testimony, her rapist's testimony, and the witness testimony appropriately and kept her in the loop about the proceedings. Eventually, they found her assailant guilty and he was expelled.
She did not pursue the case further through the criminal justice system, partially because she didn’t report her assault until more than a year after it took place, and partially because she didn’t trust the police to handle her case correctly.
6. Report it to the police
babe spoke to a police sergeant with over twenty years experience working in one of the ten largest cities in America, with five of those years spent as a sex crimes detective.
The officer strongly recommended that victims of sexual assault call the police as soon as they are attacked in order to preserve as much evidence as possible.
Text messages or social media correspondence between victims and their assailants, physical evidence on clothing, evidence left at the scene of the assault and evidence collected off of other objects like phone screens or inside vehicles are all key to building a case, according to this police officer.
He also described the exam conducted by a trained sexual assault nurse examiner at a hospital that involves collecting physical evidence of the assault from your body after you come into the station.
The officer emphasized repeatedly that victims of sexual assault should feel comfortable calling the police, and that the police would do everything possible to make the reporting process as comfortable as possible. "We want victims everywhere to know: hey, the police are the good guys, call them," he said.
When it comes to reporting harassment, the officer said that if someone is behaving towards you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you should still report it to the police even if their actions aren't "felonious."
"If something seems like it's wrong, it's probably a crime," he said. This includes incessant calls or text messages and workplace harassment.
7. Take it to court
The final step reporting someone else for sexual assault or harassment involves officially pressing charges. If you're pursuing this case in criminal court, you'll have to coordinate with the district attorney and will be legally required to testify, according to attorney William Way. Way is also, full disclosure, my dad.
If you want to file a charge in civil court, however, you will have to find and hire an attorney to handle your case, but you will not be required to face your assailant. Someone cannot be sentenced to jail time if they lose a civil suit, but they will be required to pay money as recourse for their transgressions. According to Way, it’s best to find a lawyer who has experience prosecuting people for sexual assault or harassment.
“For a civil sexual harassment case, you want someone who has handled those cases in that court, state or federal,” Way said. “Don't hire a personal injury or bankruptcy lawyer for a sexual assault case.”
One you’ve found a lawyer you want to represent you, you’ll undergo an interview process during which they’ll determine whether or not you have a case. If so, you can retain their services and head to court.
Way reiterated that the strongest cases have strong evidence: “fresh complaint to police, scientific evidence from clothes or body fluids, photos of injuries, witnesses who overheard or heard close in time after attack,” he said.
8. Remember not to let the outcome invalidate your experience
Because of the patriarchal society we live in, rapists are still deemed worthy of sympathy by certain people in positions of power, which means that even if you do everything right, justice still might not be served.
And even if the reporting process leads to your desired end result — jail time, expulsion, firing or social isolation for your assaulter — you might not feel better.
“I’m glad I reported, because he did end up getting expelled, and I think even if he hadn’t ended up getting expelled I think the reasons I reported are kinda beyond that,” the anonymous woman said. “I kind of voluntarily took on the role of ‘that’s it, he’s not doing this anymore,’ but if I had been forced into it, I don’t think I would have been able to do it.”
Know that just because your abuser made you feel like you were powerless by taking advantage of you doesn't mean it's true. You can regain control and you can fight back. We believe you, and we believe in you.
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