Saturday, August 31, 2013

If we want sexual assault to be taken seriously, it is not appropriate to let victims decide to keep it a secret

On American college campuses, resident assistants have a duty to report sexual assaults brought to their attention. This is, of course, the only reasonable response since sexual assault is a crime, an offense against the public, not just an offense against the individual victim. To fail to report is to allow a criminal to remain at large and to do it again to others. If the crime were murder or robbery or aggravated assault, no one would hesitate to agree that it needs to be reported.

But when it comes to sexual assault, some resident assistants are conflicted. "Forced to choose between a student’s -- perhaps a friend’s -- desire for privacy and contractual obligations, many R.A.s don’t know what to do. . . . some have expressed a disinclination to report on students who’ve confided in them while working."

In addition: "Some victims do say they don’t want to move through campus procedures of meeting with administrators or filing a complaint, . . . in which case officials will determine whether allowing that would endanger others on campus."

If a student were physically assaulted, would the college engage in a "balancing test" to determine whether the assault might endanger others on campus? The very question is ludicrous. So why is sexual assault different?

Feminist Naomi Wolf has decried treating rape victims differently than other crime victims by shielding their identities. So, too, if we want sexual assault to be taken seriously, we need to insist that it is not an appropriate response to keep it a secret. Serious crimes need to be reported to law enforcement authorities so that they can be met with serious responses. We owe that to the people who will be victimized if the perpetrators aren't removed from society. If we tell women that any sexual assaults they report to a resident assistant will not be reported to the proper authorities without the women's consent, we are signaling that sexual assault really isn't a serious crime.

Keeping sexual assault a secret not only endangers other women, it perpetuates the shame that has long stigmatized the offense.  When we insist that sexual assault victims can keep their victimization a secret because a victim might fear that "no one will believe me," we only give her fears credence and perpetuate a cycle that has to end.