On Tuesday October 27, Northwestern sent out an e-mail notification about a reported sexual assault against a student that occurred in Chicago. Less than a day later, another e-mail was sent with the subject line “Sexual assault report false.”
Rape and sexual assault, varying slightly in definition, are both topics on which people tend to hold very rigid and gendered views. Naturally, a false report of sexual assault stirs up quite a bit of discussion on campus.
As students picked apart the details of the story, everyone seemed to come to different conclusions. “Why would you be on the El alone at 1:00 in the morning?” was a common question, a classic example of victim blaming. Too often we rationalize that the victim was out too late at night, or that she (or he) was drinking too much that night, or “well, didn’t you see what she was wearing?” as if it gives the attacker some excuse in the assault. But the simple fact is that it’s wrong. The victim is never at fault when it comes to sexual assault, harassment or rape. In fact, victim blaming is wrong in the case of any violent crime. Regardless of the choices leading up to an attack, it does not give the attacker the right to invade someone’s body.
Dr. Donald Misch, executive director of health services on the Evanston campus, says that one of the reasons victim blaming is so common is because it fits into society’s “just world hypothesis.” Basically, people want to believe that they are in control of their fate and that the world is fair. “[People think] if we play by the rules and don’t take risks, then we won’t get hurt. So when we hear about incidents of sexual assault and rape we want to blame the victim for taking the risk,” Misch says.
While it’s hard to wrap your mind around a person claiming a sexual assault that never actually occurred, it’s even more troubling to think that an assault that did occur might be labeled “unfounded” by officials. It is important to point out that there is reality in both scenarios. The second email sent out to students had the subject heading of “sexual assault report false,” however within its contents, students learned that the Chicago Police Department determined the reported assault was “not a bona fide incident.” So is this a case of crying wolf or misplaced judgment by the police?
The answer is that we don’t know. The only people who know what really happened in the case are the ones who were directly involved: the victim and her alleged assailant. Other interpretations are formed from second-hand information of the incident, and according to Misch, should be “taken with a small grain of salt.” He says that, unfortunately, false reporting does happen and for the reasons that we might assume: as an alibi, for revenge or to garner support. Percentage of false claims on sexual assault statistics are varying and range anywhere from two to 40 percent. However, Misch likes to think that it happens “no more often than false claims of other crimes: between one and two percent.” On the brighter side, students didn’t readily believe that a person would lie about sexual assault, and comments like “it was just a bad one-night stand” (although distastefully) reflect this attitude. False reporting is not only illegal, but becomes detrimental to future cases by perpetuating skepticism against victims.
Sexual assault reports labeled by police and investigators as “not bona fide” are sometimes the results of such skepticism. For example, if an official determines that the victim showed no resistance to her (or his) attacker, did not show enough emotion during the interview, or did not report the crime in a “timely” manner, they may declare that the event did not qualify as a sexual crime. These conclusions are unfairly influenced by society’s perception of a “typical” sexual assault and manage to ignore its very definition: sex without consent.
Other reasons for ruling a case unfounded may be procedural: perhaps there is not enough evidence against the perpetrator or a witness refuses to testify. Remember, just because a case is unfounded doesn’t mean that someone wasn’t raped or sexually assaulted. The unfounding of cases does the most potential damage to the willingness of rape and sexual assault victims to participate in the legal system. In fact, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network approximately 60 percent of sexual crimes are never even reported. Facing the aftermath of a sexual crime is a difficult and emotional process for a victim, and finding skepticism when turning to the police is not exactly encouraging.
In response to what happened early last week, students should not let skepticism get in the way of sympathy. We do not know the whole story, nor do we know the personal experiences of the people around us. Someone you know may be struggling with a similar experience, and Northwestern needs to be an environment where people feel comfortable talking about sexual assault and rape without judgment.
Myrtie Williams is a contributor from Sexual Health & Assault Peer Education