Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime out there. It’s believed that roughly only 15-35% of all sexual assaults are reported to the police. That means that there’s at least 65% more sexual assaults happening that aren’t getting reported. That’s a staggering number.
According to RAINN, on average, there are 288,820 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. How many of those are women? In 1998, it’s estimated that 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape. Today, 1 out of every 6 women will be a victim of sexual assault.
It’s impossible to know all the reasons why women don’t report sexual assault because it’s an extremely personal decision. There could be a million different reasons coming from just one person and a million other reasons coming from another. There are, however, some common themes we see that pop up time and time again.
Women Not Being Treated as an Actual Victim Is One of the Biggest Reasons of Underreporting
It’s no secret that women are often not treated as a victim when it comes to sexual assault and abuse cases. There’s a lot of attention surrounding the idea that there’s a rape culture prevalent in our society that normalizes sexual violence and blames the victim, which is unfortunately a common theme we see today.
Brenda Tracy, an Oregon woman who often speaks out about her sexual assault case that was mishandled in 1998, summed up her feelings regarding the issue pretty succinctly in a Twitter post:
Everyone wants to know “if you were raped why didn’t you report it?” The real question is “Why WOULD you report it?”
Tracy’s statements came after the release of a Department of Justice report on Baltimore’s police department and their handling of sexual assault cases. At the time of the report, only 17% of the reported sexual assault cases to the Baltimore Police Department resulted in an arrest. That’s pretty low, so why aren’t more arrests happening?
Within the report, it was found that officers routinely questioned sex crime victims in a way that put the blame on the victims themselves, rather than the assailants. For example, officers would ask, “Why are you messing up that guy’s life?” and often suggest the victims were lying. One prosecutor was even caught calling a victim a “conniving little whore” within an email to a Baltimore police officer. If other police departments are following in the same suit, this suggests arrests aren’t happening because sexual assault victims aren’t believed to be actual victims.
Personal Relationships Are Also a Big Factor
A victim’s relationship with the offender can often have a strong effect on the likelihood of reporting. According to a report done by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, of the sexual assaults that are committed by an intimate partner or former partner, only 25% of those cases are reported.
When the offender is a friend or acquaintance, between 18-40% get reported, while when the offender is a stranger, the number increases between 43-66%. Let’s not forget that these numbers are only percentages of the already low percentage of victims that actually do report.
Fear is Another Big One
There’s a number of reasons a victim could be fearful to report a sexual assault. It could range from fear of retaliation (which makes up about 20% of the non-reporters), fear of being shamed by family and friends, fear of the justice system, fear that there’s a lack of evidence, fear of reliving the crime, or fearing that the police won’t do anything to help, just to name a few.
Fifteen percent of non-reporters cited they either didn’t believe the police would do anything or believed the police couldn’t do anything to help them. Often times, sexual assault cases can drag on and on, requiring the victim to continue to relive the crime over and over again. Even after going through the process of prosecuting an assailant and reliving the experience, lenient sentences are often handed out which only further demeans the severity of these crimes for the victims.
These lenient punishments seem especially prevalent of late. Austin Wilkerson, a University of Colorado-Boulder student, was convicted of sexually assaulting a helpless victim as she drifted in and out of consciousness. He was only sentenced to 2 years of work release and 20 years of probation—no jail time. This case received a lot less media attention than the Brock Turner case, another student who received a surprisingly lenient sentence for raping a fellow student.
RAINN reports that out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 assailants walk free. That’s 6 out of every 1,000 sexual predators receiving actual punishments. To top that off, sexual predators are less likely to see any jail or prison time than any other criminal. Those stats are extremely disturbing. It’s no wonder victims who don’t report fear it wouldn’t do anything to help.