Reporting Rape to Authorities Becomes Struggle for Survivors

By MANDY LOCKE

Television police dramas depict officers arriving at the scene of the rape - often a dark public park - where they meet a shaken young woman who describes with perfect accuracy the bearded man who raped her. After searching the park, the officers find the rapist, arrest him and the woman presses charges without hesitation.

Hollywood's depiction of the typical sexual assault and the survivor's response strays far from reality. Women often hesitate before contacting the police, and the attackers often get away.

As the Island survivors we introduced in last Friday's edition of the Gazette will tell, their responses to being raped and their decisions to seek medical and legal help vary dramatically. The names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Beth - a native Islander in her mid-20s - decided to report to the police immediately.

"When I was attacked, I didn't know what else to do at that point. When I went in there that night, I was in shock. No way, I can't believe this has happened to me. I thought, ‘This is hell,' " Beth remembers. "The guy behind the counter, I'll never forget this; his concern was the jackass who attacked me because of other issues they've had with him in the past."

Alex - a summer worker who believes she was given a date rape drug before her supervisor raped her - also went to the police.

"When I was in school, they had sessions about what to do in certain situations. I never thought to not go to the police. The next morning I was trying to put the pieces together, so that's part of the reason I went to the police. I didn't know what happened, so I thought if I told them parts of it that they could help me fill in the rest," Alex says.

However, most of the women found reporting to the police difficult and frustrating.

"I had to tell one officer one thing, and the next day he wasn't working, so I had to tell a different officer. But you've already said it; it's just who knows what and who's going to combine the notebook to get the whole story," Alex says.

Alex knew that her memory loss from the night posed a problem for investigators.

"Since I don't remember, that's a big problem for them. It was difficult. I don't know, they need evidence. I couldn't give them that. There weren't many positives from the police. They left me waiting, and I didn't know what was going on. It was waiting and more waiting," Alex remembers.

Alex, who left the Island to return to college, now waits for evidence from her medical tests. Even though she can't be as closely involved with the proceedings from the mainland, she still wants to move ahead with the investigation.

"To not go to the police is not going to help. It's not going to get the people to stop doing this to other women," Alex says.

While Beth and Alex reported the attack to the police immediately, other women hesitate because they fear being judged or blamed for the rape.

After Rose - a year-round Islander in her late 20s - returned home after being released from her attackers, her world seemed to be a completely different place.

"The first day, I couldn't go out of my house. I just went home and locked my door. I was shaky when I was driving my car. I was scared he was going to pass me. I was terrified to do anything outside of my home. I even had a hard time taking my trash out," she remembers.

"I was consumed with how I had reacted in that situation. When I looked back, I felt as if I had acted like a child - weak - just following orders - basically letting people do with me what they felt like doing. I was upset with myself that I had reacted like that. That was just my survival instinct at the time. I realize now I shouldn't feel bad about it," Rose says.

"You know rationally it's not your fault, but you don't feel that way. You don't want to be judged when you are judging yourself," she adds.

Rose also dreaded having to recount the incident.

"I just imagined stress. Going through the court and the police, you have to explain yourself to so many people. Then it's just out there," she says.

It wasn't until the rapist began trying to find her again that she agreed to talk to the police. While the police have a report, Rose has not filed a complaint.

"I don't think I could personally handle it emotionally. I think it would be way too overwhelming for me. Right now, I feel so confident that life will go back to normal. If I was to press charges, that would be way too much to handle. Having to tell the story, go before a judge and possibly face the people again," Rose says, trailing off, unable to complete the sentence.

But Rose now battles guilt over her decision not to proceed further.

"I feel like a complete ass for not doing it. He could do it again. Somebody else could get hurt. But at this point in time, I've realized I would not be able to handle it. It just seems very overwhelming," she says.

However, Rose says that reporting her repeated rapes to police has turned out to be a positive experience, and she attributes that to a female police officer who was not judgmental.

"Three men had just violated me. And to have to sit in front of a man and explain that - I wouldn't have been able to do it at all. Men and women think about things differently. There's more of a connection between women than with connecting with a man. I'm sure that a man would have been understanding. He might have been able to do just as good a job. But when you are sitting in a situation that is so stressful, you want to tell someone you can relate to. You might not be able to project out what you want to, because it would be a man sitting there," she says.

Beth, too, wishes more women had been involved in the process.

"Everyone I told was a guy. I didn't want to tell another guy. You see those guys [male officers] out in public, and you think, ‘He knows way too much about me,' " Beth says. But with only four female officers on the Island, not including the state police, the survivors' desire to work only with women often cannot be accommodated.

These survivors also noted that questions from the officers about their relationship with the rapist and the amounts of alcohol consumed felt intrusive and unnecessary. Simply the phrasing of a question changed the whole atmosphere of the report. While Beth was asked if she dated the person, Rose was simply asked to describe how she knew the man.

Rose is not alone in her decision not to proceed further. It's estimated that only 20 per cent of women ever report the attack. In addition, the number of rapes reported has declined steadily over the last decade.

Only four per cent of assailants are convicted and of those convicted, only one in four ever sees jail time. In addition to the potential trauma a woman faces as she recounts the incident, it's easy to see why many women are deterred from reporting the crime.

Yet, some of these women say the experience of reporting the crime gave them the control to move forward.

"The challenging part was having to tell everything in such a square matter. I was so nervous going through it. I would forget things that would happen. I would get times and places confused. We would take a break, and I would remember. In my mind, I want things to be just perfect," Rose remembers.

"Telling it and taking all the emotion out, and telling what happened physically, was really hard. After I told it, it felt really great having done that."

Beth also said the experience gave her perspective.

"I realized it happened to me, but I wasn't going to let it deprive me of a normal life," Beth says.

The survivors also noted the satisfaction of helping to prevent the assailant from violating other women.

"I can't change the world, but if I can stop one rape from happening, it would be worth it," Beth concludes.