My law partner and I have spent over twenty years helping women through the legal system – many who have been sexually and physically abused. I have spoken hundreds of times on the topic and the question I am most frequently asked is “why don’t women report the violence?” or “why don’t the women just leave?” I have written about my frustration with this question in other blogs – my frustration that this is the question that is asked instead of what I consider to be the much more relevant question: “why do men rape and commit violence against women?” However, setting that question aside, the question of “why don’t women use the system to stop the abuse” is a difficult to answer. It seems so simple: a woman comes forward, tells her story and justice is done. Unfortunately, in reality, so many other factors (most irrelevant to the question of consent) come into play. Below is a painfully illuminating statement written by a young woman who reported her abuse and tried to use the justice system to punish her rapist. Reprinted with permission from the author, her words provide a unique insight into the experience of a rape victim and give us all an opportunity to learn from someone who has been through the system. She is telling her story. We all need to listen.
Today My Rapist Walked
A few hours ago, I got a call from the prosecutor I was assigned to one and a half years ago, telling me the man who raped me was acquitted on counts of both rape in the first degree and kidnapping in the first degree. Today my rapist walked. When I was a senior in high school, I went upstairs with a 19-year-old man. He was someone I had been ‘upstairs’ with before. Though we’d never slept together, we’d been intimate on different occasions throughout high school. He was older, a pothead, well liked by the popular crowd. That night when we went upstairs, he asked if we could have sex. When I told him no, he did not listen. I said no repeatedly, and he raped me.
Last week, a year and a half later, I testified for a total of ten hours. I sat in a courtroom, across from the man who raped me, and told my story as his family and friends looked on. I kept my composure as the two defense attorney’s acted out the rape on the floor in front of me, and the courtroom laughed. I did not cry when the defense attorney screamed at me, questioned why, the first time the man raped me, did I kiss him afterwards? And I did not yell when I responded that when the man who raped me said he would not rape me again, I believed him, because he was my friend. I did not get up and walk out when my feminism, my involvement in theatre, and the fact that I don’t always wear underwear came under fire in a room full of strangers. I sobbed when the defense attorney asked me what I had lost, and all I could say was “myself”.
The jury members deliberated for less than an hour. They looked past the photos of me taken that night at the hospital- of the blunt force trauma I suffered on my vagina, the lacerations, and the bruising. They looked past the testimony of my friends who told the courtroom that I sat in my car that night and screamed in pain and fury for a full five minutes before telling them I was raped and injured. They looked past the fact that for a full year I couldn’t be home alone, terrified of my rapist coming back and doing the same, if not worse. They looked past the SANE nurse who did my rape kit, the sergeant who took my police report, and my mother who had to sleep by my side every night for months, and saw my rapist for, admittedly, what he is: A scrawny, rich white boy from the suburbs of Cleveland, who wouldn’t last a week in jail. So they let him go.
I assume they let him go because the concept of someone giving consent to foreplay, but not intercourse, was beyond them. Because many of them came from a time, a generation, where women were not to be sexually empowered. Most of all, though, I don’t think the jury could reconcile with the idea of sending a wealthy white man to jail, for that is a threatening concept in itself. White men, who come from ‘good’ families and higher education, can rape too? What an uncomfortable, vicious truth those jurors had to face.
My situation is unfortunate, but not spectacular. In my first year of college, I have met seven other survivors of sexual assault, (probably more who did not confide in me), none of whom elected to press charges. There’s a reason people run from the judicial system–it is imperfect at best. What I wanted, more than anything, was to walk away from the process and say to those women, “It works. Survivors, go out there and tell your story and fight for your body, your soul, and your peace of mind. Your attacker will pay for what he did to you.” I can’t say that, though. I was re-victimized by the judicial system time and time again. Granted, I chose that when I decided to press charges. I chose, albeit without knowledge of the severity, to be mocked and screamed at by grown men and called a liar and a slut because I believed in what the judicial system promises in its very name- justice.
The system is broken. Though there should not be, there is a devastating difference between ‘not guilty’ and innocent. My rapist, acquitted, will go back to college where he will learn, imbibe, and date. But he will still be a rapist. He is ‘not guilty’, but he is far and away from innocent. The truth is race, class, sexual orientation, and sexual preferences are all considered in a rape case, when the only matter of relevance is the absence of consent. The justice system is not the best place for rape victims to go for help. In fact, let’s call this as it is, the justice system has never been a place for women to find justice. Look at Anita Hill, Tailhook, the fact that the Equal Rights Act is coming up on 100 years since its reposition, and we are still waiting on five states to ratify it.
Things have gotten better, but the system still lives leagues and leagues away from the justice it promises. I am not exceptional. I am a side effect of a diseased process that has been effectively silencing people for centuries. We cannot heal through the system; it is not designed to help us. So, how do we heal? How do we punish those who learn through our legislation that they can rape without accountability? We speak out. We create our own system of honesty, truth, and social accountability. We tell our stories loudly, and boldly, with the knowledge that we are powerful and in control of ourselves. We tell the world who did it, how they did it, and we teach them through shame that, though they may have controlled our bodies for a time, they will not control our minds. The system is broken, but we are not. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so let’s raise awareness.
Let’s make the world aware of how weak the justice system is, and how strong our voices are. Tell your story.
Our system is listening.