Reporting Rape or Sexual Assault
Rape is a very traumatic experience. Once it's over, what you want is emotional support, comfort, validation, empathy, someone on your side. You can have it by reaching out to friends, family, hotline volunteers, therapy providers, or other rape survivors. Being a witness in a criminal investigation, on the other hand, has nothing to do with meeting this need, and expecting comfort or blind trust from the law enforcement is likely to make the process even more painful than it needs to be. The officers who handle rape cases are trained to not say outrageously insensitive things to you, but their goal is to collect evidence, build the case, and ensure a conviction, so that's what they focus on. There's nothing "validating" or "empowering" about being asked fairly invasive questions over and over while all you want to do is crawl into bed and forget what happened. Best case scenario, your initial report will lead to months of investigation, then a trial or a plea bargain; you will get the satisfaction of doing the right thing, a feeling of relief once the case is over one way or another, and sense of closure if it results in a conviction. Every country/state has slightly different protocols, but this page gives an overall idea of what happens when you report rape, so that you know what to expect and the process will be less frustrating or traumatic.
What if I choose not to report?
It's entirely up to you, there are no penalties either way. However, there are statutes of limitations in many jurisdiction, so this is a decision you won't be able to reverse after a point, and it will affect rest of your life. There are two things you might want to consider when making this choice. First, you can't tell your friends "Bob raped me last year," post about it on Facebook, or contact his friends or family about it, unless you reported the rape and Bob was convicted, it's slander/libel/defamation of character. Choosing to not report a rape means you won't be able to speak of it outside of your therapist's office or anonymous support groups, ever in your life. And the second thing to consider is that reporting crimes to the authorities helps prevent them from recurring. A lot of survivors feel guilt for not having reported, especially when they discover that the person who raped them has just raped someone else, perhaps their friend or relative.
What if they don't believe me?
The justice system is based on evidence, not on trusting your word. It doesn't matter what the police believe or don't believe personally, what matters is if they see enough evidence to try to convict the person or not. A common mistake of rape victims is trying to guess it themselves, googling information, and only talking to law enforcement once they have made up their mind on what "should" happen. As a result, plenty of people feel frustrated when they report rape but the police refuse to press charges, and plenty of cases aren't reported while they would have almost surely resulted in a conviction - because the victim assumed there wasn’t enough evidence. A much better approach is to just talk to the police and see what they say, rather than trying to figure it out yourself. The police are much better at gauging the possibility of conviction because they have training and experience, and at the end of the day it's their call to press charges or not. If they refuse to press charges in your case, it doesn't mean that they don't believe you, it just means they don't see enough evidence to work with.
How do I report?
To make the first contact, call your local emergency number or a hotline, or go to a police station or a hospital. If you were just raped, it makes sense to go straight to the hospital and get a rape kit done, and only then take a shower and think about whether you want to report the rape or not. This way you are keeping the option open to report later if you choose to. Many jurisdictions have statutes of limitations, i.e. deadlines for charging someone with a crime. If you're in the US, you can check the RAINN’s State Law Database for your local statutes.
Rape kit is shorthand for a sexual assault forensic exam: a doctor taking a look at you, taking photographs of injuries (if any), and swabbing for DNA testing. It's important to get the rape kit done even if you know the rapist, because they'll say "it wasn't me," and their DNA on your body is proof that it was indeed them. It's important even if the rapist was female (or male but didn't ejaculate): DNA is not only semen, it's also saliva, hair, or just skin rubbing off on you. In the US you don't have to report rape to law enforcement in order to receive a rape kit, and you don't have to pay for it up front. It might be covered by your health insurance, or you might be billed for it later.
The police station is an intimidating environment: you'll be sitting there for hours, answering many questions that might seem intrusive, irrelevant, or judgmental, and it can feel like you're a suspect being interrogated. It's crucial to keep in mind that the police officer taking your statement isn't shaming you or doubting your integrity. For example, "why didn't you scream for help?" is not a guilt trip, it's hunting for evidence. If the rapist gagged you (or forced you to stay silent by other means), it might prove lack of consent - but they can't ask you straight if that's what happened, because that would be leading you, putting ideas in your head, and if they do that your testimony might be thrown out of court. Just answer their questions, and keep reminding yourself that you're a witness, not a suspect, and are free to leave at any point. Ask for more privacy, less privacy, a break, a glass of water, a partner to hold hands with, or anything else that you need - they will accommodate. At the end they'll either tell you they won't be pressing charges (and explain why not) or they'll ask you for cooperation with their investigation and possibly trial. You have the right to refuse, or to go home and think about it. They might press charges even if you refuse to cooperate (if there's enough evidence to convict the rapist without your testimony), but that's rare.
To convict someone of rape, the jury needs to be sure of three things: that sexual contact did occur, that it involved this specific person and not someone else, and that it was not consensual. During the first interview the police heard your story and decided that it matches these three requirements. However, your word alone isn't enough because the defendant will say "it wasn't me," or "it didn't happen," or "she was eager and willing," and the jury won't know whom to believe. To prevent that from happening, the police need to find and document proof of your story, and that's what they are doing during the investigation stage: collecting and testing DNA samples, screening security camera footages, interviewing witnesses, etc. They'll occasionally check in with you, asking more questions, or what might seem like the same questions they've already asked before. This isn't mistrust or forgetfulness, they are trying to see if there's anything else in your story that you didn't mention during the first interview. Rape is a stressful thing, many victims can't focus very well during the first interview. The repeat questions can be annoying, but you need to remember they are on your side, and answer with as much detail as possible, never skipping anything even if you feel it's irrelevant. Once they recorded everything they could and feel they have a solid case, they will forward it to the prosecution.
Not all cases make it to trial. The defendant may be offered a plea bargain: a shorter sentence in exchange for admitting guilt. If they accept it, you won't have to testify. The trial is the most stressful part of the process for the victim, because the defense will try to create reasonable doubt by making you look stupid or like you're lying. There are laws to protect you from this, to some extent; for example, the rape shield law limits what they can ask you about your prior sexual history. Still, the experience is likely to be uncomfortable. It helps to look at the prosecution, not the defendant, and to keep reminding yourself that you're not on trial here, you're only a witness, and don't have to explain or defend yourself. The prosecution will talk to you before the trial, so that you know what to expect (and so that they know what to expect from you too). Use this opportunity to voice any questions or concerns you have - you may have the right to special accommodations of various kinds (e.g. not being in the same room with your rapist while testifying). If you're in the US, you can learn more about these rights and other resources through the Office for Victims of Crime.
Legal proceedings are a long and exhausting process. It helps to not be alone, and you're allowed to have someone alongside you, who will come with you to appointments, hold your hand during interviews, etc. You can ask a family member or a friend to support you, but the investigation can take months, and the police will be asking very detailed questions about the rape. It can be hard for you to talk of it in front of your mom or husband, and just as hard for them to listen to these details. That's why many countries have victim advocates - volunteers, usually rape survivors as well, who have been through the legal process, and are there to support you. It's a good arrangement: law enforcement is focused on prosecuting the crime, and a victims advocate is focused on your needs. Some of them work with the police, so a victims advocate might show up together with the detectives when you make the first report. Others don't, but you can get one by calling your local victims rights organization (the police detective you'll be talking to would have the number). It's important to remember that, while victims advocates might have some training, they aren't lawyers or psychologists, they are your peers, fellow survivors like yourself, and interacting with them is optional. If you don't want one, you don't have to talk to them. If you don't like the one you got, you can ask if there are others available, or ask a friend to support you instead.
Family and friends
It's up to you how much to tell and to whom, but rape isn't really something you can sweep under the rug. If you choose to report it, there will be multiple interactions with law enforcement that you'll have to explain to your family somehow. Whether you report or not, there's likely to be an aftermath of the trauma: depression, anxiety, nightmares, etc. You will need the support of your loved ones, and they will notice something is going on with you anyway, so it makes sense to tell them. Perhaps not all of your Facebook friends, but maybe mom, dad, spouse or long term partner, sibling, closest friend - the people closest to you. It will be hard for them to cope with the news, but it's even harder to be excluded from such a major part of your life, to not be allowed to be there for you. Kills the relationship. Don't try to protect them, you have enough on your plate as it is, let them help you. If they need support, they'll reach out for it.
~ Sigmund Freud
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