Reporting Rape: More On The “Proper Authorities”
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.”
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:
- By forcible compulsion; or
- Who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless; or
- Who is less than eleven years old; or
- 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.
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.