With the revamping of its sexual harassment policy, the University has approved changes to how it investigates sexual assault on campus. In many instances, students, faculty and administrators have stood up in town hall meetings, committee hearings and in writing to discuss these policy change recommendations. The participants in these discussions often bring up the topic of a victim’s choice to report. When this topic arises, debate seems to attend more to the ethics and societal responsibility of reporting, rather than the personal impact the process of reporting may have on the victim.
When a victim reports a sexual harassment case, they enter the situation into the formal record of the authorities, whether the “authorities” are the school administration or the police. If a victim reports to the police, the accused could be listed in a public record of arrests, or eventually, sex offenders. If the victim reports to the University and the accused is convicted, the offense will remain on the accused's private disciplinary record. Therefore, reporting is often considered a way to protect other members of a community from harassment. It’s why convicted sexual offenders are reported on publicly available registries and why news publications find it necessary and appropriate to disclose the identifying information of people who are possible threats within their readers’ vicinity.
The idea of reporting as a social responsibility is often used as the argument to convince victims to report their cases and disclose the identities of their assailants to appropriate officials. This isn’t to say that I think that victims of sexual assault shouldn’t report their cases (after all, reporting early really can help other people and prevent them from going through the same thing). However, when a victim approaches you in confidence, using phrases such as “do it for your classmates” or even “you should stand up for your gender” —something I’ve heard far too often — doesn’t create a safe environment for the victim. Instead, it pressures the person, who’s most likely already struggling to understand and recover from a terribly unjust experience, into something that might hinder their recovery.
If a friend tells you about their sexual assault, immediately responding with “why haven’t you reported it yet?” makes the victim feel as if they have done something wrong. While in the context of reporting sooner is better, the conversation on reporting needs to take into account the readiness of the victim. We need to acknowledge that the reporting process can be just as traumatic for the victim as going through sexual harassment or assault. Reporting involves asking the victim not only to remember and retell the details of the experience but also to convince someone else that something terrible really did happen to them. If a victim knows that they live in a culture where people might minimize their pain and second-guess their facts, the decision to report can come at a risk to their health and sanity. While I do believe there is a certain amount of responsibility to report, that victim deserves to have their experience acknowledged with respect and sensitivity.
Furthermore, deciding on behalf of victims that being sexually harassed automatically translates into being responsible for taking the assailant to justice is taking away personal agency from victims. After all, when an individual goes through something like sexual harassment or assault, they may feel like something has been taken away from them — their voice and their will. The act of reporting should give something back to that individual; it should be empowering. The only way we can do that is if the culture of reporting shifts from just being “justice for society” to emphasizing “justice for the victim,” lest we subject them to a secondary victimization.
Community responsibility certainly is a noble virtue — one that every institution should commit to, if possible — but its definition does not include or demand that individuals lose their rights for the sake of others. Rather, it incorporates individual rights into its broader context — something that we should all remember the next time a fellow student approaches us with something incredibly sensitive and personal. The dialogue should not be that the victim “owes” it to society to disclose that information. Rather, society owes it to the victim not to have them experience that kind of inhumane trauma. We need to start removing pressure and blame from the victim and reassigning responsibility to the assailants and the culture that allowed this type of behavior to exist.
Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.