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Reporting Rape: More On The “Proper Authorities”

May 21, 2014

I’ve written more than a little lately about how rape survivors reporting to “the proper authorities” get stonewalled, abused and ignored.  I wish I had said all that needed to be said about that.  I have not.

[Content note, graphic description of the rape included]

Today’s story is about one particular survivor’s experience.  She’s using her name, and she refuses to be ashamed.  She is Emma Sulkowicz.  She took her complaint to the “proper authorities.”

The Administration

First, Sulkowicz went to the Columbia University administration, then the NYPD.  What happened?

  • Her best friend and chosen support person was disciplined by the school for talking about the rape in violation of Columbia’s nondisclosure policy- that is, their silencing rule.
  • The friend was required to write a “reflection paper” from the rapist’s point of view.
  • The university found the rapist not responsible, though she testified that he pinned her down and forced his penis into her anus with no lubrication.

He was found not responsible, so why do I think he raped her?  At least one other woman independently reported the man to the university for sexual assault, according to the story I linked, but other sources say there are at least two other women who reported him.  There’s rarely one roach in the cupboard, and most rapes are committed by serial rapists.

The Columbia Spectator has published his name.  They explained their reasons here.  He is reportedly one of the names that appeared on the fliers and graffiti at Columbia.  Jezebel has also published his name.


So after Columbia’s bullshit process failed her, she reported to the NYPD.  How did they treat her?  The police officer who reported to the scene, according to the Al Jazeera story, told her: You invited him into your room. That’s not the legal definition of rape.”  

You can read the story for the rest of what the NYPD did, but I want to bold that part.  This is a sworn police officer, making a statement that’s appalling not only culturally, but in its sheer, astounding legal ignorance.  The cop, at least according to the account in the Al Jazeera story I linked above, purported to make a statement about “the legal definition of rape” and just made up some good-girls-don’t moralizing bullshit where rape can only be illegal if it’s done by a stranger in a dark parking lot.  In addition to the cruelty and dismissiveness, the incompetence is breathtaking.

(Just for a grim, angry laugh, I’ll include here the actual statute:

§130.35 Rape in the first degree.

A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person:

  1. By forcible compulsion; or
  2. Who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless; or
  3. Who is less than eleven years old; or
  4. Who is less than thirteen years old and the actor is eighteen years old or more.

I don’t see anything in there about inviting the rapist to one’s dwelling.)

The Columbia Spectator story adds details:  she had had consensual sex with him earlier that night, but then he strangled her and anally penetrated her, which she told the police she did not consent to.

Sulkowics says to survivors, “If you want to go to the police, this is what to expect: You’ll be verbally abused. But at least no one will yell at you for not going to the police and getting verbally abused. Just take your pick.”  But it’s not only survivors like her expressing the view that the system isn’t working for rape survivors.  David Lisak,* the psychologist who started the research into undetected rapists and who regularly advises college administrators on rape, said that law enforcement has hundreds of years of history where any survivor without cuts, bruises or broken bones could expect nothing from reporting.  

I want to be fair to the people in the system here.  What we know so far is that Sulkowics said that her experience was searing and emotionally abusive.  We don’t know that they won’t do anything.  She just reported.  It is possible that the police are investigating, and despite the way Sulkowics was treated, they will find multiple victims, put together a case and prosecute.  It’s early enough to say that the way the police treated Sulkowics explains why many survivors don’t report.  It is too early to say they didn’t do anything.

The Judge

Sulkowics’s complaint, like that of almost all survivors, has never reached the punishment stage.   Columbia had at least two and possibly three reports about the same man but let him go.  The police report was recent, just days ago, and perhaps they will still make an arrest, but have not yet.

But even when a survivor reports to the police, the police make an arrest, the prosecutors file charges, go to trial and the jury convicts, it doesn’t mean that the rapist will actually go to prison.

In Indiana, David Wise drugged his wife without her knowledge, raped her, and filmed it.  Not once, but as a pattern for three years!  You would think that a person capable of this conduct – planned, premeditated, and keeping souvenirs — would be deemed so dangerous that any right-thinking judge would want him behind bars for a very long time.  But the judge, elected Marion County Superior Court judge Kurt Eisgruber, sentenced him only to home confinement.  By the way, he’s up for reelection this November.

Systems Are Made Of People

Police are people.  Administrators are people.  Judges, jurors, prosecutors … all people.  The laws are interpreted and applied by people, who bring to them their prejudices.  In a racist culture, the most perfectly written law will be applied and enforced in racist ways.  In a culture that refuses to take rape seriously, no matter what the statutes say, the actual behavior of the people who interpret and enforce those laws will reflect the refusal to take it seriously.  First degree rape is a Class B felony in New York, a really serious crime.  People in the system are simply not willing to say that that applies to people who don’t fit their preconceived notions, and there is no magic bullet to change that.  Changing the statute, training the police, giving the administrators incentives for transparency, there are lots of things to be done and not one of them alone will make all that much difference.  The rapists’ social license to operate is woven deeply into the fabric of how people think the world works: it is a specific set of threads in a very big and interconnected piece of culture.  Pulling them out, pulling them all out, one at a painstaking fucking time, is the work.  That’s what we have to do, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re not serious.

*I’ve done a great deal to popularize Lisak’s research both into the identity and methods of rapists who have not been caught.  It has filtered back to me that some people assume that I think everything he says is right, or that I somehow generally endorse him.  I don’t.  I don’t know him, I’ve never met him, I have not spoken with him, and I don’t have a good handle on what he tells consulting clients when the doors are closed.  He puts on his pants one leg at a time just like the rest of us.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2014 10:39 am

    I love this post and your work on this blog. I send your pieces to people often to help clarify questions they have. Your writing on this subject has really proved invaluable, and I want to thank you for that.

    I have a question though. You mention that the main reason why you believe Emma is because there were other women who were assaulted by her rapist. Obviously the research supports that most rapists are serial offenders. But, some aren’t. And raping one time is still an egregious offense that deserves to be punished. So what if someone comes forward claiming s/he was raped and there aren’t other victims who can corroborate that this guy is indeed a perpetrator? Does that mean we should believe her less? Of course I’m a big proponent of investigating each claim to determine if there are other victims out there, but what if we can’t find any? Then what?

    As much as I admire Lisak and his research, and WcWhorter’s Navy study, I sometimes wonder if the way they conducted their research (specifically the questions they asked) were a bit limited. Did you read this piece by Jamie Utt?

    • May 21, 2014 10:57 am

      I am familiar with Jamie Utt’s piece. There are a lot of limitations to the work done so far in this area; there are also people who have an agenda to attack the primary learning from it, which is that most of the rapes are committed by a small population of serial rapists. I don’t know Utt, though he and I traded a few emails at one point. I know others who have attacked the Predator Theory research, and their agenda is an illegitimate desire to tear down other activists, so I remain somewhat skeptical of the motives of attacks on the core of the Lisak/McWhorter work.

      When I say I believe Sulkowics, I’m saying that all we can do it form an opinion with the information available to us, and alter it if and when more information becomes available. I’m not saying that X fact or Y fact means I believe everyone who alleges that fact; or that I necessarily disbelieve anyone who doesn’t allege those facts. I’m just stating a view based on what’s available to me, right now. It would be great if we could rely on the university, or the criminal justice system, or indeed anything to without error figure out what happened and what didn’t between two people behind closed doors. But we can’t. No such system is foolproof. It has happened in history that there are false accusations and false convictions; and it certainly happens that there are true accounts that are disbelieved, stonewalled and rejected. So as to what to believe, we’re all on our own. Form your own opinion with the information at your disposal, every time.

      • May 21, 2014 12:34 pm

        Thanks for your response. Would it be OK if I emailed you? I wanted to ask you a few questions in a more private manner.

        In regards to your second point, I agree with you that we have to look at the information that is given to us. The problem though, as you eloquently put it, is that the information given to us is often entrenched in cultural biases. And for whatever reason, we assume that victims who come forward with rape accusations are far more likely to be lying than victims who come forward with accusations of other crimes, even though the research clearly doesn’t support that. And so there’s this tendency to dismiss these cases as ‘he said/she said’ when the victim in many ways, is key evidence in the case. Even if s/he hasn’t suffered physical wounds, that victim is often suffering the effects of being raped in the form of trauma. You can often diagnose an illness by the signs and symptoms it produces. So if a victim has a sexual encounter, and shortly thereafter gets diagnosed with PTSD and/or falls into a suicidal depression, than that is a pretty good sign that there was a lack of consent. Those symptoms can be evidence of rape in a similar way that a stab wound can be evidence that a victim was stabbed (RTS-rape trauma syndrome). And yet, universities and criminal court processes rarely bring this evidence up. And when they do, even that is often dismissed. In fact, Lisak himself went to provide testimony at a trial two years ago in Montana against the football player there on victim trauma (the survivor was suffering from PTSD), and the defense attorney argued that this was just a ‘crazy girl’ who was making things up. The jury agreed with the defense.

        I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look for pattern evidence to see if the offender is serial. We absolutely should. But there’s something that makes me feel a little icky about the fact that whenever I hear someone make statements that are victim blaming about someone who comes forward with a rape accusation, my gut reaction is to give them the serial predator information as a way to ‘prove’ that she’s telling the truth. It’s like all the victim evidence-her physical and emotional trauma, her testimony, the witnesses accounts that show the two were together, that put them at the scene of the crime, isn’t trustworthy in itself. No we have to have other people prove she’s right. And if we can’t find other people, then she must be lying (not saying you’re saying that fyi). As you reiterate in your piece, we place the onus on the victim to prove she isn’t lying in rape cases in a way we don’t with other crimes.

        This is me just waffling. I completely understand if we are at a place right now where talking to people about serial predators is probably more effective than discussing rape trauma, especially in a society that already stigmatizes mental illnesses and disabilities. But I’m reminded sometimes of the Audre Lorde quote, “You will never dismantle the master’s house by using the master’s tools.”

      • May 21, 2014 1:24 pm

        Yes, you can email me. I put it on the front page of the blog for just that reason. t525881 at verizon dot net

  2. aforale permalink
    May 21, 2014 12:32 pm

    Reblogged this on (My Blog, My Story).

  3. Kelly Moore permalink
    May 21, 2014 2:12 pm

    Love the post and love the dialogue between Thomas and listengirlfriends. I also am deeply invested in changing the way we speak about victim evidence, as if the victim’s testimony must simply be cancelled out by the accused’s testimony. An experienced trauma expert could and can credibly document if a victim is suffering the “bleeding wound” of having been assaulted and victimized, at least some of the times. We should be doing more to get this trauma evidence in front of juries, and educating people that this evidence counts.

  4. Kelly Moore permalink
    May 21, 2014 2:12 pm

    P.S. Thank you, Thomas!

  5. May 21, 2014 3:43 pm

    It’s crazy the way the system is. I know it keeps people from reporting. To me each time the system treats a victim of rape this way the victim is being violated again. Why report if it’s such a small chance the rapist will even have charges brought against then & you’ll be treated this way while going through major trauma? Just the thought of reporting a rape and being treated this way makes being raped worse than it has to be.

    When as a society are we going to decide that women being raped is unacceptable and treat it like the crime it is? When are men going to care more about the women in their life who have been actually been raped than the theoretical and unlikely scenario of being falsely accused?

  6. makalove permalink
    May 22, 2014 1:56 am

    I observe victim blaming and rape-denying interactions between sexual assault victims and police officers on a regular basis. A couple of recent examples I can recall:

    “So you were asleep on the couch in just your t-shirt and underwear? And you felt comfortable doing that, with [the assailant] in the house?”

    “It’s not like he forced you to get into his truck and drink a beer. You’re going to get a good, hard-working man in a lot of trouble.”

    The majority of sexual assault victims with whom I work do report, but I rarely get to participate in their follow-up to know the outcome of reporting, since I am currently primarily a SANE exam advocate. Sometimes people working in the sexual assault field can get overly focused on reporting and forget the toll it can take on victims. I myself opted not to report and heard all the criticism from friends and loved ones (and even strangers) for that decision. I try to provide accurate information to clients about the risks and benefits of reporting and cooperating with prosecution. Yes, I want more rapists off the streets. But my primary concern is the safety – physical AND emotional – of the victims I serve.


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