The 5 Ways Our Legal System Fails Rape Victims

There’s a very flawed mindset in our country that if a rape victim doesn’t report an assault, they either

A) Must not have actually been assaulted, or if so, not “that badly”
B) Don’t care about anyone else who may get assaulted by the same person
C) Are just too much of a coward to deal with what has happened to them

This kind of thinking is incredibly naive. Often, the reason that rape victims don’t seek legal counsel is because our justice system has failed them;  epically failed them. I don’t even know if ‘epically’ is a word. I don’t really care. For anyone who thinks that prosecuting a rapist is something they should pressure a survivor to do, I’d ask you to think twice. Yes, it would be preferable if every rape was prosecuted. I am in no way trying to ‘scare away’ sexual assault victims from reporting. What I do want to do is raise some awareness and understanding for the friends and family members and others who might be trying to help the survivor.

5 Ways the Legal System Fails Rape Victims

1 – Rape Kits
rape kit

After being assaulted, usually the first thing a person wants to do is take a shower, get away, and pretend nothing ever happened. They’ve been violated, de-humanized, hurt, and scared. Then directly afterwards we expect them to go to a complete stranger, who will poke and prod and scrape every inch of their body, inside and out, for four to six hours. All this to prove to a bunch of other strangers that they’re telling the truth about the rape.

You might be thinking, isn’t this process a necessary evil? How is this failing assault survivors? I do believe the rape kit is a necessary evil. The problem lies in the way in which these are done, and how they’re handled. Just last year, the federal government estimated that 400,000 rape kits were sitting untested in police and crime storage facilities across the country. Why is this happening? Largely because of underfunded police departments, and detectives who struggle with taking sexual assault seriously.

If you have been assaulted, getting a rape kit done is going to greatly increase your odds of convicting the rapist. It’s your choice whether to do it or not, and nobody should make you feel bad for reporting or not reporting it. If you’re not sure about reporting yet, you can have an anonymous rape kit done in many states. They’ll hold it for 90 days in case you decide at a later date to report the crime. Keep in mind, if you are underage, the people attending to you will be required to report the rape.

2 – You Have to Perform – For the Cops and For the Courtroom

You better act sad - or else
You better act sad – or else


You say you were raped? Now you and only you have to prove it. You have to make the police, the attorneys, the judge, the jury all believe this happened to you. So you better not mess up – but unfortunately, your brain is not on your side.

Many detectives have a hard time believing rape victims stories. There’s a good reason for this. Rape victims often seem like they’re lying when they recount their story. Why?

Explaining it would take a while, so if you want all the details click here. Basically, after you experience a traumatic event like sexual assault, the part of your brain involving decision-making and memory becomes impaired. This makes it a lot harder to recount what happened accurately and clearly. You may also experience something called tonic immobility – a sensation of being frozen in place or dissociative. This immobility may happen during the rape, which may make it seem to the detective that you didn’t resist the assault. This immobility may happen during questioning, which may make you seem more calm and stoic and unaffected than the officer expects.

A police officer, and the rest of the world expect rape victims to be emotional, blubbering messes. They expects sobs, and anger, and trembling. What they are often faced with is a calm-looking person who can’t seem to recount the event in any kind of linear form. They stumble over the details, they may say the wrong things and then later correct them, they may even laugh or make fun of themselves. This isn’t what you see on TV. This is much different. The rage, the fury, the anxiety, the fear, it’s all there hidden under the surface.

Police officers with no specialized training can often misread these signals, and antagonize victims as they zero in on discrepancies. In their minds they’re only doing good police work.

And then there’s the courtroom.

If you end up making it to a courtroom, you then have to convince the judge and jury of your rape. The same reasons that the police didn’t believe you are the same reasons a judge and jury may not. Getting sympathy is a major facet in turning a “he said-she said” rape trial into a conviction. The jury wants to see you cry, they want to see an emotional reaction. Many rape victims become immobilized and feel frozen when recounting the rape. This is one of the most intimate, horrifying things that has happened to them and now they are forced to share it with a room full of strangers. This whole process is almost as traumatic as re-experiencing the whole thing all over again.

3 – Your Reputation Will Be Dragged Through the Mud
stay away

If your case ends up making it to court, there’s a good chance the defenses argument will be to try to prove that you are a promiscuous person who “asked for it”. Things like your social media history, previous encounters, or any other number of criteria will be used to try to prove that you are a “slut”. Yes, there are rape shield laws and SOMETIMES these will protect you; but you can’t count on it. There are a slew of exceptions to rape shield laws, and courts are famous for applying these exceptions; putting the victim up for scrutiny in a number of embarrassing ways.  Shield laws, meant to protect you, can easily be bypassed and your entire reputation and sexual history can be put on display in front of a courtroom, in front of your family who’s there to support you. Even if you don’t have a previous sexual history, if you were a virgin, the defending attorneys are going to try to find ways to prove that you legitimately wanted to have sex, and they may go into graphic detail about things the defendant says you did that you did not do. People lie in court, and stories will be told to make you seem like you’re a liar and that you asked for it.

Families and friends of rape victims, be aware of how this situation often plays out. Only 2 out of every 100 rapists is actually convicted in court. You need to be supportive, trusting, and reassure your friend or family member that you don’t believe the lies that are being told about them. You may find out information, or your friend/family member may admit to something on the stand that shocks you. This isn’t the time to berate them for it. Just try to keep going and be as supportive as you can. A rape trial is incredibly traumatic for victims, so offering your support, not your judgment, is going to be essential.

4 – You Will Spend A Lot Of Time Around Your Rapist, His Friends, His Family
too many people

I don’t know about you, but to me, the idea of spending time in the waiting area of a pretrial hearing with the family of your rapist has got to be almost worse than the rape itself. People will glare at you, mothers and grandfathers may call you a whore as they walk by. You may find yourself sitting feet away from the man who raped you while your lawyers hash out details. Friends of your attacker may follow you home, egg your car, call your cell phone leaving creepy messages. You may have anonymous threats of retaliation. It’s incredibly scary. There are people out there who enjoy harassing rape victims.

A word of advice
It’s not a bad idea to change your phone number or stay at a friend’s house while court proceedings are in place. It’s also  not a bad idea, once everything’s over, to get away for a little while. This may not work for everyone, but for me it was a huge comfort to go somewhere where I didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone who knew my rapist, or living in fear of what they might do.

5 – A Conviction Is Highly Unlikely

Again, only 2% of rapists ever see a day in prison. Rape isn’t like other violent crimes. Judges and juries find it incredibly difficult to be 100% convinced that you didn’t consent to what happened. Studies have shown that evidence, whether it’s lacking or abundant, has little to do with the verdict — a lot of times what wins the case is how well a jury can sympathize with you. Otherwise, it often boils down to a “he said-she said” case with a hung jury, or you’re not even given a shot. Rape victims are basically required to perform for the jury in order to guarantee a conviction. 

In Conclusion

If you’ve been through a sexual assault, it is completely up to you whether to report it or not. Don’t let anyone push you into it or out of it. This is your experience. I don’t write this blog as a deterrent to those who’ve been assaulted. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like. I’ve had people push me to report, I’ve gone to the police and left feeling worse than before. If it were to happen again, would I report it? Yes. I would. Even with all the odds against me. Obviously, even if your chances are low, if you can convict a rapist you may save others from having the same experience you did. But it’s your choice. If you decide not to, it’s okay. Only you can make that decision, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. If you feel like it would be too much for you to handle right now, take care of yourself and your well-being. Get counseling if you can, and get support from family and friends.

Family and friends of rape survivors, if you want someone to report a rape, offer them gentle encouragement but don’t pressure them. If they say no, let it be. Try to help them to heal, or give them the space they need to do it privately. Keep in mind that reporting the assault can delay healing, and can be a very painful experience. If you’re a mom or dad, try to set up counseling for the victim either way.

What about you? Do you have any advice for people going through the aftermath of a sexual assault? If you have any thoughts please let me know in the comments.

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