The Law is Not on Our Side

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Many brave writers have described what happened to them when they reported gender-based threats and violence to the police. Occasionally the outcome is positive, but often nothing at all happens and often something terrible happens.

Here are two recent examples I’ve read. The first is by Heina of Skepchick:

When the officer called me in, I was shaking a bit, but spoke as clearly and calmly as possible, presenting my evidence and voicing my fears. He responded with laughter.

Taken aback by his trivialization of the situation, I asked him if he could look at my evidence. I knew who the guy was, I pleaded. Couldn’t he, as an officer of the law, do something? Take the guy to task for threatening me somehow? At least take down a report so that if something happened, there was a record? He replied with an incredulous no to all my inquiries.

Out of the blue, he asked me if my picture included my face. I said no. He asked me how I expected to attract responses with a picture that didn’t include my face. Before I could respond, he answered his own question: it was a sexy picture, was it not? Feeling shamed, I was unable to speak and merely nodded.

“Don’t worry about it, then,” he chuckled. “Go home.”

What choice did I have other than to begin to gather up my things and prepare to leave? Before I could make my exit, though, he told me that he often visits women-seeking-women for the pictures, winked at me, and expressed his hope that he would see me on there sometime. Taken aback by the lechery in his tone, I half expected him to take a swat at my ass as I walked out the door.

The second example is even more jarring and painful to read, and deserves a strong trigger warning. It was a comment by EEB on a post of Jason’s, and Stephanie reprinted it with permission:

Two male detectives arrived at my house. I stammered out a request for a female detective; it was denied. (I learned later that they violated procedure by not accommodating the request.) They made me go through what happened. I was in excruciating pain and dripping blood but they didn’t want to take me to the hospital just then, and said the hospital “wasn’t ready” anyway. So I described the rape. Then they asked if I was taking any drugs. Well, just my medication. I thought it was strange that they literally spent more time asking about my mental health history and the types of medication I took, instead of the rape, but at the time, again, I was in shock, and not thinking much.

[…]Over the next few months, I submitted to multiple, horrific “interviews” that really felt like “interrogations” as time went on. I was also dealing with a serious medical condition at the time (I almost died; my intestines ruptured, but was almost certainly not a result of the rape, just bad timing). But I still believed in the system. I still didn’t want the man who raped me on the streets. I did everything they requested, answered every invasive question (the were really focused on my mental health history!), even got on the ground and acted out the rape for them, with the head detective on top of me acting out the part of the rapist. Not only was I absolutely hysterical by the time we were done, I’m positive that aggravated my PTSD for a long time after.

And after all that, I was called in for an “interview” to discuss “a new lead in your case”. They didn’t let my rape counselor in the room–again, against the law, I found out later! For about an hour (I think; my sense of time was not that great) they were no longer even pretending to be supportive. They accused me over and over of making it up. They had very flimsy “evidence” (which I won’t go into because it’s both complicated and ridiculous) but mostly it was their “instinct”.

Because I have a mental illness. Because I was hospitalized after attempting suicide. Because I “claimed” I had been sexually assaulted in the past. Because I was crazy, and he was sure I was just looking for attention. He had a bipolar ex-wife, you see, and she made his life a living hell. He told me how he understood mentally ill women, and how we need to create drama. How we’re liars, and we crave attention.

And over and over they accused me of lying. Alone in this tiny room with two large, angry men, I was doing everything I could to keep from having a panic attack. I couldn’t respond to what they were saying; again, I think I was in shock. And they threatened me with jail time, with a felony on my record, destroying my family, public humiliation (he threatened to call the papers–something he did anyway, because, quote, “the community needs to know there was no threat to public safety”). They said I would be charged with a false report, with terrorizing the public (there was a public awareness campaign initially after my attack, though I didn’t have anything to do with it. After the rape, I did everything I could to maintain anonymity, and only told two people–beyond my family and the cops–hat I was attacked. But…I did it for attention, which was why I didn’t tell anyone? I’m just sneaky like that, I guess!). Accusations, threats, anger, pounding the table, over and over and over.

The detective looked at me. His whole demeanor changed; he tried to seem kind, avuncular. “Tell me you made the whole thing up. This whole thing will disappear. Nothing will happen to you. You can leave, if you just tell me you made it up. Tell me you made it up and you’re sorry for lying, and I’ll let you leave.” I tried to hold out–but I didn’t last long. Honestly, at that point, all I wanted in the entire world was just to get out of that room. There are very few things I wouldn’t have done, if I could only leave. So I looked at him and lied. I said, “I made the whole thing up. I’m sorry.”

Through both of these examples, we see that women who are marginalized along other axes besides gender face additional injustice–cruelty, even–by law enforcement officials. Heina’s sexual orientation was used against her both by the man she reported for threats and by the cop who was supposed to be helping her. EEB’s mental illness was used as an excuse to abuse her, accuse her of lying, and ultimately coerce her into recanting her accusation despite overwhelming physical evidence that it was true.

The more intersecting marginalizations you have, the less likely you are to be treated fairly by the police. This is, sadly, nothing new at all, and it’s not limited to sexual violence (see: Trayvon Martin, stop and frisk, queer people being arrested for being queer). So why do people still insist that 1) survivors of sexual assault have a moral duty to report it to the police, 2) if the police do not prosecute a rapist, that means that no rape occurred, and 3) if a survivor chooses not to report, then they do not deserve any accommodations from their communities, and those communities must pretend that nothing ever happened?

EEB’s story, in particular, suggests that at least some false rape accusations are not actually false rape accusations. More research is urgently needed to determine how common this is, but my fear is that it is not uncommon. This story also shows how ableist ideas about mental illness–that people with mental illnesses are just “crazy” and “delusional” people who make shit up to ruin people’s lives–prevented a survivor from seeking justice and allowed a rapist to go free.

I used to be sympathetic to the idea that people should report sexual assault to the police, but I’m becoming less and less so. While I think we have an imperative to reform this system and make it work, for now, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for a survivor to choose not to report. If I were advising a survivor, I’m not even sure that I would feel comfortable encouraging them to do so.

And, dudes, next time you show up demanding to know why so-and-so didn’t report if they were “really raped,” I’m going to link you to this post. Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

The Law is Not on Our Side

22 thoughts on “The Law is Not on Our Side

    1. 1.1

      Well, if you’re referring to the post I think you’re referring to, the problem was that she seemed to think we were asking conference organizers to do the job of police officers. No, we’re just asking them to kick out assholes and stop inviting them too.

      1. She wrote that the ineffectiveness of the police is not a reason to avoid reporting to them. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of safety; she seems to think that victims have a responsibility to go to the police regardless.

        1. Please tell me there’s some back-channel discussing going on, because she’s just fucking wrong. On every fucking level.

          I’m trying to write a blog post on this whole reporting issue, but so far it’s been impossible to not go off on a cuss-laden rant, and I’m trying to avoid those these days…

          Miri, how do you avoid cuss-laden rants on this shit?

          1. Please tell me there’s some back-channel discussing going on, because she’s just fucking wrong.

            Well, I’m sure you already know this, but I can’t comment on what is said on our backchannel. 🙂

            Miri, how do you avoid cuss-laden rants on this shit?

            I’m not sure, but I suspect that’s tied in with why I’ve never gotten anywhere near burning out and why engaging with these topics helps me avoid depression rather than getting me more mired in it, as it does for many other people.

            Everyone’s brain works differently, and mine seems to work this way. I don’t consider it better or worse than any other way, but I like it.

        2. In the interest of transparency, this is what Maryam wrote:

          That the system is unfair or that violence against women is ignored are not excuses for disregarding available options and pressing for justice. If everyone decided to take things in their own hands, we wouldn’t have had positive changes in the law because people fought for and finally got justice that was initially denied. Trying the case on blogs and via boards of various organisations is not the way to get real redress and justice.

          Sooo… yeah. I got fed up and bailed the thread after reading that.

          1. Yeah, she’s strawmanning. Nobody expects conference organizers to punish their rapists for them. People DO expect conference organizers not to invite people to cons who have been accused of harassment/assault multiple times by multiple people. And since so few allegations end with convictions, it’s not fair to say that con organizers should only consider not inviting someone if they’ve been convicted.

  1. 4

    Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

    It’s something I’m almost painfully conscious of nowadays. I’m a white male, and I’ve never had an interaction with a police officer that wasn’t completely polite and pleasant, even when I’d done something wrong (speeding, expired registration, that sort of thing). I’ve never had my word doubted, and several times I’ve had the rules bent in my favor as a courtesy.

    But just this morning I was speaking to a coworker (a Native American woman) who some years ago was pulled over for going three miles over the speed limit, which ended in handcuffs and a night in jail for “DUI” – even though she hadn’t had a drink in over a decade and there was no reason whatsoever to think she was drinking (except, I suspect the color of her skin and the last name on her license). Another coworker, who is black, chimed in to mention that his earliest memory of a police officer was a cop pulling a gun on his father when his father approached the officer to report a crime. He added that he had never since had an interaction with a cop that changed his mind about the belief that they all seemed to be violent assholes. This despite the fact that he is a college educated professional.

    Are there cops that also treat white males like shit? Of course. Are there cops that treat everyone with respect? Of course. But the trends are so clear that you’d have to be blind not to see them. Unfortunately, many people ARE blind in this respect.

    1. 4.1

      In my 1L Criminal Law class, a large lecture class of about 120 students, the professor asked everyone in the class who had been stopped by the police for anything other than a traffic violation to raise their hands. Maybe eight or ten hands went up, including every black male in the room (4 or 5 of the students). When the professor asked people who had been stopped only once to put their hands down, only black male students still had their hands raised, all of them in the class but one.

      I’ve never had a better lesson in the privilege of being white, especially when it comes to interacting with police.

  2. 5

    It’s something I’m almost painfully conscious of nowadays. I’m a white male, and I’ve never had an interaction with a police officer that wasn’t completely polite and pleasant, even when I’d done something wrong (speeding, expired registration, that sort of thing). I’ve never had my word doubted, and several times I’ve had the rules bent in my favor as a courtesy.

    Same here. And the big eye-opener for me was watching some Philadelphia cops in action, and seeing how they treated everyone else. 🙁 I grew up respecting cops (Officer Friendly and all that) but now I have concluded that being a cop is an inherently immoral profession. I don’t trust them at all, anymore.

  3. 6

    I am an educated, hetero, cis, white woman. When I was groped by a strange man on the Chicago El I was more annoyed than traumatized. However, I reported it to two police officers– who were right there– immediately, thinking I was doing a public service. They grabbed the guy, we went to the station house, and the police were perfectly polite, respectful, and pleasant to me– while pressuring me to drop all charges. So I dropped the charges. There was no point in pursuing the issue if the police weren’t going cooperate.

    A year or so later, when I was much more seriously sexually assaulted by someone who was clearly attempting rape, I was bruised and shaken up. And I never even considered reporting the crime to the police. What would the point be?

    Frankly, I would be completely amazed if the incidence of false rape reports is anywhere near as high as 6%. My guess would be most date rapes never get reported at all, and in quite a number of cases the victim never tells anyone, let alone the police. So those rapes never enter the statistical base. 6% of reported rapes are false? It’s (barely) possible. 6% of all rapes? No way.

    1. 6.1

      Agreed. These numbers are certainly an underrepresentation of total figure even acknowledged in most of these studies. Folks with blinders on think it’s just a matter of fixing a few rules and pushing victims to somehow ignore not only these compelling stories (of which there are too, too many) but the mountains of data that corroborate them. They ignore the fact that it’s also a matter of making wholesale change to an entire culture’s entrenched perceptions that have a material effect on criminal justice.

      And may I say, I’m very sorry about your own ordeal.

      1. Thank you.

        But the part of that really still bothers me about that whole thing wasn’t about me. I had a mutual friend with the guy who tried to rape me– a woman who had decided very reluctantly to divorce her husband. She was using the loose group we all hung out in as kind of a support network as she got back on her feet socially and started dating again. The guy who later attacked me was one of the people she gravitated toward.

        And then, all of a sudden, she dropped out of the group. She told that particular guy that he was never to approach her in any way. And if she ever happened to enter a place where he was, he was to get up and walk out. Immediately. He actually complied with that. I watched him do it.

        It was really odd, so I asked the guy’s best friend what was going on. He said, “Well, you know she’s going through a divorce. She’s really angry toward men right now.” I thought it was strange, because she’d seemed more sad than angry about the divorce. And I couldn’t understand why the guy put up with her demand. But I accepted that stupid excuse without question.

        Right up until the guy walked me home to “protect” me– and slammed me up against the wall.

        I’m convinced now the guy either raped her or tried to. I think about accepting that bull about, “oh, she’s just angry at men,” instead of offering her some support. And I feel even sicker about that than I do about the guy’s attack on me.

        1. Thanks for sharing all this.

          You’ve also articulated perfectly why I’m so skeeved out by men who accuse feminists (or women in general) of “hating men.” It’s a way for them to deflect attention from their own bigotry and abusive behaviors.

          Whenever a guy tells me that I must “hate men,” I always want to say, “No, I don’t hate men; I hate YOU.”

  4. 7

    More people are coming forward with reasons why going to the police can be just as if not more traumatic than not reporting. Elyse from Skepchick posted today.

    Huge trigger warning for damn near everything:

    I made it through less than half before having an anxiety attack. I… can’t any more. Have to function, other people to care for, cannot care for them properly when stuck in a cycle of being repeatedly triggered then emotionally hung over. Out for the day or maybe the week. Take good care of each other, everyone.

  5. 8

    I swear some cops just join the force on the off chance that they get to traumatize rape victims.

    All said, the stories you provided match the experiences of most of the friends I’ve had who went to the police – the cops blew them off at best or were openly hostile, and often took advantage of the situation to get some kind of voyeuristic thrill of power-trip.

    The cops need to get the memo that women have zero confidence in them when it comes to sexual assault. Screw the ‘some bad apples’ reasoning on cops, the whole system is broken. After reading this, I would *never* bother to go to the cops since I have a history of psychiatric problems.

  6. 9

    Fuck the police. The police constitute a force that exists to preserve the extant power structures, which are unfair and inequitable in the extreme. While enforcing these structures occasionally leads to prosocial outcomes – because a number of our social norms that those who are empowered wish to preserve are actually prosocial – this still occurs as and only as a a function of the preservation of extant power structures. Police officers are not robots who perfectly execute computer code written in the form of laws (and even if they were, we often have conflicting laws even at a particular level of jurisdiction), they’re people. They’re people who have self-selected into positions of formal and physical authority and legal privilege. While some might be self-sacrificing people who wish to put their safety on the line to make the world a safer place for others, in a hyper-individualist culture that holds up a sociopathic rational actor as an ideal, it’s likely (and I would argue the case in practice) that the majority are going to be people who simply enjoy exercising power over others. These are, incidentally, the very last people who should be vested with power.

    Consequently, the police are an anti-social institution generally, and actively harmful to individuals – often, the very ones they are nominally there to protect – in far too many cases. In cases of sexual assault, where the particular privileges of police authority resonate so well with other axes of privilege that themselves serve to reinforce rape culture (broadly, authoritarian White masculinist patriarchal hegemony – there are officers-of-color, women officers, gay officers, etc. but the culture of policing is still very much defined by White patriarchy), both the institution and the individual officers face active disincentives to truly aid the victim/survivor.

    And, dudes, next time you show up demanding to know why so-and-so didn’t report if they were “really raped,” I’m going to link you to this post. Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

    I know there are people who aren’t at all unnerved whenever someone with a lethal weapon is around them, but I’ve never found the presence of someone with a gun who also has necessarily imagined and trained for circumstances in which shooting me would be a good idea to be comforting, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around how anyone actually could. Of course, I also don’t crave authoritarian control, and I know there are plenty of people who do – I suspect the group of people who feel safe around police officers contains a disproportionate number of people who crave strong authoritarian control of their lives.

    I’m so sorry for all the victims/survivors who have had trouble with law enforcement – my own issues have only even been in the context of me doing something ‘wrong’ – which is to say generally legal, but disliked by the police, mostly protesting and filming them arresting other people (also sometimes acts of civil disobedience, though there the point is to get arrested as much as anything, to create the media spectacle of, say, people being violently assaulted because we decide to sing on public property without a permit or the like). I imagine it is far worse to have had someone attack you and to be further attacked, mocked, or simply dismissed by the people who are supposed to protect you. While I don’t feel safe around cops, that’s more a function of my political views and my own behaviors – I’m not targeted on the basis of any demographic categories (my unshaven face and long-bandanna-wrapped hair mat result in a certain degree of profiling, but way less than if I had darker skin, for example). Thanks for sharing your stories so that those of us who have not experienced the kinds of awful treatment you have (and actually care about it) can better understand the problem; it shouldn’t be on you all to educate the world, and that makes me more thankful that you’ve decided to do so (also, I don’t wish to comparatively denigrate those who don’t share their stories – you need to look out for your own well-beings, and selectiveness in relating your experiences is absolutely your right, a right that’s perfectly fine to exercise, not that you need my permission/approval).

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