Discouraged to report in the midst of recovery

Why one girl decided not to report her sexual assault

Madeline Heinke.
This article talks about sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.
 
The first time I was asked if I wanted to press charges, I sat in a social worker’s office in Kingston General Hospital. 
 
In that moment, I could imagine police at my door, unwanted attention from my neighbours, friends and the media, and worst of all, sitting in a courtroom where my story, my experience, would be degraded and dismissed. Horror, disgust and fear flooded me all at once – and it felt like I was still underneath him, trapped and waiting for it all to be over. 
 
I had no idea what to expect if I made the decision to file my sexual assault with the police. But I knew the statistics were against me – that institutions like the criminal justice system typically benefit male-identifying individuals, that they would value the story of a student who simply got himself into a bad situation and dismiss the story of a girl who chose to wear a short skirt, a low cut top and who had too much to drink.
 
Rape culture on our campus told me it was normal to get drunk and go home with a guy. That girls who wear little clothing ‘deserve it’ or are ‘asking for it.’ Although knowing little about what was going on all around me in the moment, I was sure of one thing: I was not ready to be painted with this brush and to withstand the criticism that sexual violence victims often face.
 
So I said no.
 
The second time I was asked, I was having my rape kit examination. The day before my birthday, I sat in a chair where my blood was drawn, pictures of my bruises were taken and I was tested for STIs. I felt naked, vulnerable and afraid, and most of all, weak.
 
I couldn’t remember how my bruises got there, why my skin was marked with bites or why my wrists ached every time I picked up a pen. I didn’t know if I couldn’t remember what happened because I was drunk or if I did remember, but was subconsciously choosing to suppress it. 
 
The nurses who performed my kit informed me this was common for victims of trauma. Often, what happened is so horrific that your body’s natural instinct is to distance itself as far away from the event as possible. As well as this, being under the influence of alcohol, I couldn’t have consented to sex. 
 
Despite this, I said no. Who would be believe me if I couldn’t even remember what happened myself?
 
The last time I was asked if I wanted to press charges was six months after my rape kit exam. Time was running out for the hospital to hold onto my kit and for physical evidence like the condom, my clothing and my assailant’s DNA to have any value. 
 
Even though it had been six months, I still didn’t know what happened to me. At the time, I was experiencing depression and anxiety. I often felt flooded with self-hate that led me to hurting myself. I would sporadically seek out help – from peers to calling counselling services at Queen’s. I would make appointments but cancel them at the last minute or decide not to show up at all. I still couldn’t accept what happened, I was still running away.
 
When I remembered the events of my assault, nobody asked if I wanted to file charges. It was one and a half years later and it was too late.
 
I blamed myself for so long and made excuses for not confronting what happened. When I eventually entered a relationship with someone who made me feel loved and valued, I learned it was time to understand why I would have anxiety attacks when I heard a belt unbuckle or why I felt like I couldn’t breath when I heard the words ‘sexual violence’ or ‘rape’. 
 
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I was put into contact with a counsellor who specialized in surviving trauma. With her support, and that of my loved ones, the bits and pieces of the day that once triggered me were revisited – but this time in a safe environment where I could understand it and see that it wasn’t my fault.
 
Finding this strength, courage and resilience did not happen in the six months I was given to pursue a criminal case against my assailant. Often times I regret it, repeating the thought that my perpetrator walks freely pursuing his career and possibly targeting others. But these thoughts only spur the self-hate and loathing that took a year and a half to overcome. 
 
Every victim and survivor’s experience is different and recovery can take anywhere from a day to a lifetime. But we still face a criminal system that expects us to stand in court where history has shown we may be re-victimized and made to recount a story we might not remember, understand or may still blame ourselves for. 
 
I have to believe there’s a better way; maybe public officials are conscious of these flaws in how justice for survivors is secured or how marginalized groups that face systems of oppression like homophobia, sexism, racism and ableism, continue to experience increased rates of sexual violence. But it’s a waiting game to see any sign that they’re aware of it, or at least, care.
 
For the time being, we can provide unconditional support for victims and survivors of sexual violence, refer them to resources and always encourage them to share their stories. It’s my hope that some of us will make our voices heard at the decision-making level and eventually sit in the positions that will make a difference for victims and survivors to come.
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