Given the emotional turmoil and shame attached to rape, it's hard enough for women to come forward once they've been sexually assaulted. Add in the all-too-common charge that these women are misrepresenting their experiences in the hopes of making money -- not to mention the ways in which the criminal justice system can be oddly sympathetic to rapists at times -- and it's easy to see why over half of victims never report at all. (For the record, most experts agree that false rape claims only account for between 2 and 8 percent of all accusations.)
Coming forward with a sexual assault allegation can involve many different courses of action, none of which are easy. The women most often accused of cynically trying to win some cash are the ones who file civil cases, in which the victim sues for monetary damages against his or her attacker.
There are many reasons a woman might seek civil litigation against her assailant. Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center, told The Huffington Post that a woman can file a civil case if the assistant district attorney or prosecutor decides not to move forward with her criminal case. This can be a huge letdown for victims, so they then seek justice in civil court, said Jessica Pride, a sexual assault attorney in San Diego.
Often, women will file a civil case if they lose a criminal case. Civil cases may be an easier route for victims, since the burden of proof is lower than what's required in criminal cases, where "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the standard. In a civil case, the jury essentially only needs to be 51 percent sure that the sexual assault did or didn't occur. It's also possible for a woman to file a criminal case and a civil case simultaneously.
Amy Edelstein, a social worker with the Staten Island Safe Horizon Community Program, told The Huffington Post that women who have been raped may be seeking monetary compensation after incurring medical and legal costs. They may have had to miss work or leave their jobs entirely because of depression or anxiety they experienced as a result of the attack. There are social costs as well: A woman who comes forward can face retribution from the person who attacked her, or even from her own family or community. These women are often publicly stigmatized, even if their allegations are substantiated in court.
Here's what a woman can expect in civil court if she moves forward with a rape allegation, in five
quick slow and painless exhausting steps:
1. Coming forward. The first step is seeking help from a professional and going over each detail of the assault with them. Women can call 911 or a sexual assault hotline in their area, or just walk into any hospital or police precinct.
2. Undergoing an invasive medical exam. If the assault occurred within the last three to five days, a woman is encouraged to have a forensic exam at the hospital, which can take up to four hours. The hospital uses a rape kit -- collecting or swabbing any hairs, fluids or fibers to look for DNA evidence that might corroborate the woman's story.
3. Divulging personal and sexual details. At this point, a woman can choose to file a civil lawsuit, even if she doesn't get tested with a rape kit. If there's no criminal case going on simultaneously, the victim will likely have to hire and pay for an attorney, and be required to give an in-person deposition under oath -- a grueling process that can take several hours. In criminal court, there's a law called Rape Shield that prevents the defense in sexual assault cases from questioning the accuser about her sexual history. However, Rape Shield doesn't apply in civil cases, so a woman can theoretically be asked by the defendant's attorney about her entire sexual history, any details of which can then be used against her.
4. Reliving the assault at trial. The only time an accuser needs to testify is if the case actually goes all the way to trial. (Like criminal cases, most civil cases end in out-of-court settlements.) The whole process of going through a trial can be incredibly traumatizing, as a woman's horrific experience is picked apart and questioned yet again. The victim has to retell her story -- this time in front of a judge and/or jury.
5. Often leaving with nothing. After all that, many of these cases don't have much physical evidence or any witnesses, meaning it can come down to a he-said-she-said standoff. Such situations often don't end well for the woman. As Slate's Amanda Marcotte put it in 2013, juries frequently subscribe to the logic that "the victim bizarrely preferred being publicly accused of being a slut and liar to quietly forgetting about a night of forced sex." The whole process can take two or three years of the accuser's life, to say nothing of the emotional toll it exacts.
And don't forget: Once a woman files a civil suit, the person she's accusing can turn around and claim the suit is defaming, malicious or frivolous -- and can file a civil suit of his or her own against the original accuser.
In many cases, Edelstein, Price and Pompelio all agreed, a victim who decides to go through the legal system isn't doing it for money. Rather, said Edelstein, such a victim is often in search of "a sense of justice that this did happen to her and that the person is going to be held accountable for what they did." But making an allegation of rape or sexual assault, and bringing it to civil court, is almost invariably an expensive, invasive, time-consuming process. It's anything but a get-rich-quick scheme.