"Why Didn't She Go to the Police?" Rape Culture Runs Deep in Law Enforcement

Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.
Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.

Among the many things that a rape victim has to deal with is the decision whether or not to involve law enforcement. It's a personal decision and there's no right answer. While it's important for perpetrators to face some kind of reckoning for their actions and to keep serial attackers away from potential victims (though what that should look like is a complicated question on its own), there are many disincentives for women to take their complaints to the police. The very people who are charged with taking sexual assault seriously and holding perpetrators accountable are far from immune from the rape culture that infects society at large. 

Nobody is the "perfect victim." A new Justice Department report that excoriated the Baltimore police department for a long list of reprehensible acts highlighted the fact that in a majority-black city, the problem of taking sexual assault victims seriously is even more acute. Poor women of color who report assaults are dismissed, and the department displayed disgusting behavior toward transgender women:

One transgender woman, for instance, said that an officer who was ordered to search her had protested in disgust, complaining to a colleague, "I am not searching that." Then the officer turned to the woman and declared: "I don't know if you're a boy or a girl. And I really don't care. I am not searching you."

Even if you're more privileged than poor, black and/or trans women, the way you react in the aftermath or your sexual history can be called into question. A Justice Department official who supervised investigations into sexual assault in Puerto Rico, New Orleans and Missoula, MT, said, "We saw time and time again where women were discounted and officers would ask them: 'Did you have an orgasm? Was this regret sex? Do you have a boyfriend?'"

It can be assumed you're lying until proven otherwise. A prosecutor in Baltimore called a woman who reported a sexual assault a "conniving little whore," and a police officer responded by texting "Lmao! I feel the same." When you report a burglary to the police, they don't interrogate you about whether you're faking the whole thing or misinterpreted what happened. But sexual assault victims are often treated like criminals, with police officers trying to tear apart their stories.

In a stunning story reported by the Marshall Project, an 18-year-old rape victim was grilled and pressured until she told police that she had made up the account of her rape. They even went so far as to charge her with a misdemeanor for a false report. Later they connected details of the crime to other rapes in nearby states and arrested someone who eventually pled to more than two dozen rapes and associated felonies. If law enforcement in other jurisdictions hadn't made those connections, no one may ever have known that the woman had been telling the truth the entire time.

The evidence from your rape kit might never be tested. The federal government has estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits around the country remain untested. According to End the Backlog, law enforcement agencies often cite lack of resources, or sometimes don't fully understand the importance of rape kit testing and think it's only important in certain scenarios. Detroit has been leading the way in clearing out its backlog, and identified 2,616 suspects, including 477 serial rapists.

Police officers themselves have been implicated in sexual misconduct. The Justice Department report on Baltimore found that officers targeted sex workers and would "coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics." The Oakland Police Department is currently mired in a scandal that involves police officers raping an underage sex worker. Officer Daniel Holtzclaw raped black women, knowing that they were vulnerable and would seem less credible in a racist criminal justice system when accusing a police officer. The long history of brutality against communities of color means that there is not a relationship of trust between the police and many communities.

A conviction doesn't necessarily mean punishment. Many words have been written about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was given a light sentence for rape despite the fact that witnesses saw him attacking an unconscious woman. A similar case just played out in Colorado. If the assailant is a privileged white man, he's more likely to get a light punishment regardless of the evidence against him.

None of this is meant to discourage anyone from going to law enforcement to report sexual assault. There are surely many people in law enforcement who are doing their best to support survivors and prosecute rapists. Even though the Brock Turner case outraged millions, the bravery of the survivor in that case and the moving letter she read in court did tremendous good in taking him to task, educating others about the reality of sexual assault, and letting other survivors know they are not alone.

What it does mean is that we must reserve judgment and not assume that a woman who decides not to go to law enforcement is making up her story. We must believe women and acknowledge that they don't go through this onerous process just to frame a man or get revenge for a bad hookup. We must commit to work to change rape culture and the volatile mix of misinformation, racism and sexism that allows such attitudes to thrive, even among the people who are supposed to protect us.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.