Much has been written about how sexual assault survivors are often re-victimized at the hands of police officers and the legal system. As the tragically light sentence received by Brock Turner for his three felony convictions for sexual assault demonstrates, even when the victim is sympathetic, with clear evidence, and with a jury conviction, a woman can still be re-victimized by a judge who believes her violation is less significant and deserves less punishment than the average jail sentence for tax evasion.
In my job as a college chaplain, my work is to help students find some sort of foothold in a destabilized world. It’s a privilege, and a responsibility. Survivors of assault come to my office seeking sanctuary, a place to tell their story, and gain some sense of control. Very often, as they talk, I have the sense that their lives have become unfamiliar to them.
After an assault, the world that was once routine and safe has become destabilized, and their lives no longer feel like their own. Things that were benign yesterday hold the potential for violence today. Things they believed about themselves yesterday no longer make sense in the face of this horrible violation. The loss of power and control over their own self-image is palpable.
Until we have a justice system that can carefully and sensitively hold the healing of assault victims, I can’t presume to know that reporting an assault is the right thing for any woman.
Too often, finding space for healing and recovering a sense of self is only possible when the victim is given time to process her trauma. This can mean delaying or ignoring pressure to report a crime. A victim-centered approach to sexual assault care allows the woman control over when and if she reports. It allows her to retain some sense of control over her life in a moment when the rest of her world can feel as if it is spiraling out of control.
Because of news like the Brock Turner case, students know what awaits them in the justice system — and they almost always, in my experience, choose not to press charges.
Sometimes students are terrified of the questions they will be asked by school authorities, police detectives, or opposing counsel who they fear will hold them accountable for their own rapes due to alcohol or other mitigating factors. Sometimes students are scared that their communities or families will think differently of them when they learn of the violation. Too often they fear that their most precious relationships, those with intimate partners and close friends, will be affected, especially in small communities where the rapist and victim are known to all. The reasons not to report are complicated, unique to each individual, and myriad.
Title IX requires that nearly all college employees must report disclosures of sexual assault. Mandatory reporting protects institutions from liability and keeps them in compliance with federal guidelines. On balance, Title IX has been a good thing for college women — it holds colleges and universities accountable for making sure that someone is listening to the needs of their vulnerable students and advocating for them. Mandatory reporting means that no one can make a personal decision that the disclosure they’ve been privy to isn’t real or isn’t serious enough to report. Systemically, this is a good thing.
But individually, mandatory reporting does not always feel like a step toward justice. It can also mean another loss of control for the student, who has already suffered too many losses. After a student discloses their story of assault, that story is required to be reported to an administrator, who then must take action. In a perfect scenario, that administrator uses good judgment and has adequate training to help the student pursue only those actions for which the student is prepared.
In a less-than-perfect scenario, the student suddenly has the power and weight of an institution pushing them to report a crime. The opportunity to heal and recover on the students’ own terms — the opportunity to find themselves and make sense of their new world — has been pushed aside.
Counselors are exempt from reporting disclosures of sexual assault. Most campuses have counseling or medical services where students may go to confidentially share stories of assault and seek help.
And my students are lucky. They have a college chaplain who, by virtue of my ordination as a Christian minister and my role as a pastoral care provider, can offer them the opportunity to tell their story on their terms. I provide them support and a safe place as they re-familiarize themselves with their own life and help them regain a sense of their own agency.
As I hold my college students and their stories in prayer, I often fight my own urge to ask them to report. The incredible injustice of rape makes me livid and I want so badly for my students to receive some sort of vindication for the wrong done to them. I try to remember that the only person capable of assessing what a victim needs is the victim herself. Some are ready to walk into the onslaught of the justice system in the hope of receiving some sort of public vindication. Most are not.
Sadly, the justice system we have in place to report and to prosecute sexual assaults rarely holds the promise of that justice. So, I sit with my rage and recognize that my job, and the job of everyone who hears a disclosure of sexual assault, is to ask the victim, “What do you need? How can I help?”
My job is to help a student remember that she is created in the image of God and that no assault can remove or tarnish that basic fact of her humanity. My job is to help her reclaim her story so that she can go boldly into the world to proclaim the truth of her own life as she sees fit.
Until then, I try to create spaces and moments of healing for women to articulate for themselves what they want and need. I hold my thirst for justice at bay trusting that the righteous anger I feel will be most powerfully vindicated when the victim herself is the one who can forcefully tell the story of the injustice done to her.