Reporting Rape vs. a Woman's Right to Speak: I Won't Get Fooled Again
Issue #32, April 1997
Feminist anti-rape initiatives directed at the social contract afforded a rich opportunity for law enforcement to rehabilitate itself, to display its gentler role as protector of the beseiged citizen's body. [...] In helping to redeem the police and the law, rape sensitivity and legal reform demanded of the rape victim herself that she take an active interest in "confessing" and reporting the rape to the state authorities. "The victim support program will be designed to guide and direct women through the public or private agencies available to provide any counseling," the Conference of Mayors concluded. "The purpose will be to reduce trauma ... and to increase the likelihood of the victim's following through with prosecution ... Encouraging women to report assaults to the police should be a priority item for criminal justice agencies and citizen's groups" (National League, 1974)
— Pamela Haag, differences 8:2.
When they had sworn to this advised doom,
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence,
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin's foul offense;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin's everlasting banishment.
— Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, lines 1849-55
We won't get fooled again.
— Pete Townsend
On October 24, 1991 I made a decision to defend my life by not fighting back because the man who was assaulting me had a knife at my throat and if I had fought back I'd be dead. I know this to be true like I know my own name. By the time the police got to my house, there was blood everywhere, I had a dislocated shoulder and a dislocated hip and that's only part of what he did just because he felt like it. I cooperated with him because he was crazy, a foot taller than me and there is no question in my mind that when he left me on the floor of my house, tied up in telephone wire and stereo cords, he thought I was dead and that's exactly what he wanted me to be. I have scars on my neck, shoulders, back and face from that man, and I have scars inside that will never fully heal. But because I chose not to fight back then, I am alive today and can fight back now in the only way I know how: by using words and my truth to educate people about what rape really means and how it affects lives more than five years after the fact.
This particular experience of being raped was profoundly life changing, not because I was assaulted — I'd been assaulted before — but because in the course of that evening I came to understand that I was not, in fact, the kind of pacifist I had always believed myself to be and that if I had been given a secure opening (believe me, I was looking for one), I would have taken that bastard's life without a second thought. That was a hell of a discovery to make about myself, that I was capable of killing a person. I didn't know that until that night.
In the aftermath of being raped, it didn't occur to me not to call 911. I was bleeding and I was scared and I needed help. It certainly never occurred to me that silence was an option because I no longer know how to stay silent and because I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, I could articulate that truth more clearly in the first days following the rape than I could even a month following it. "Tell everyone" I said to a professor who wanted to know who she could share the news with, "I've got nothing to be ashamed of." Who or what taught me that I was wrong? that I was responsible? that somehow what I knew instinctively in the moment was something I had to go through hell to relearn months later? That's what confronted me as a result of both the rape and my decision to call 911 that was unexpected to me because that night, I simply assumed that justice as well as help was available to me. I made that assumption because I'd been told for years through women's centers and rape crisis handouts and through everything that I had learned over years of feminist activity that the justice system had changed and that it now served me in ways that it might not have 20 years earlier. I had forgotten that the work of the justice system was revenge and it never occurred to me that no one had ever inquired of me what I thought justice looked like.
In the movie Billy Jack, there's a sequence where Jean Roberts, the heroine and founder of the Freedom School, is sexually assaulted by the town bully's son Bernard. Bernard ties her down and rapes her while his buddy watches, all the while commenting that in spite of his bragging, he has never made it with a woman because he has trouble getting an erection. This time, however, he assures himself, will be different; and it is. When Jean is rescued by one of her students, she insists that the rape is a test of her commitment to pacifism and that her student can't tell either Billy Jack or anyone else what Bernard has done to her: she must "turn the other cheek" and learn to live with and accept what has been done to her. Her determination is to no avail and as anyone who has ever seen the movie can assure you, Bernard is finally killed by Billy Jack, while in the midst of having sex with a child. But there is no question that it's Billy Jack's revenge; the movie makes it quite clear in scenes leading up to Billy Jack's killing of Bernard, that Jean's priority would have been taking care of the thirteen year old girl.
Billy Jack was released in the early 1970's and contains what I believe is the first on-screen depiction of a rape from a woman's point of view. What interests me in this particular sequence of events is two-fold. First, it's a statement about the distance women have come since 1971 that a so-called progressive film would insist that a woman's best recourse is silence and pacifist acceptance; but second, and perhaps more importantly, it's a statement about revenge and its value in our society that I would rewatch this movie from a distance of 25 years and be angered by a scene which moved me to no end as a teenager. And yet still, this scene which moved me as a teenager now challenges all of my deeply held beliefs about what it means to be a victim of sexual assault as well as pointing up what society thinks being a victim means. For Jean, revenge is apparently of secondary importance and upon rewatching the movie last fall, I found myself asking questions I hadn't let myself ask myself in a very long time: Why did I report the rape and agree to press charges when I don't believe in revenge? And when did my right to speak out turn into the expectation and finally the demand that I report and press charges?
I need to make it abundantly clear here that I make a distinction between telling and reporting. I'm not challenging telling; in fact, I advocate screaming from roof-tops. What I am challenging are reporting laws, laws which make it impossible to get medical care or therapeutic care if one isn't interested in pressing charges, laws which benefit the justice system at the expense of those that same system purports to represent.
Six months after I was raped, the State of California executed Robert Alton Harris. He was the first person executed by the state in decades, and while today executions seem to generate little or no notice in the news, his execution was a big deal and everyone was talking about it, had a theory about it, was demonstrating against it or otherwise had an opinion that they were sharing vociferously. I'm not proud; I had an opinion too and I didn't hesitate to share it. Capital punishment offends me. When asked how I felt, my standard line was "how dare the state execute someone in my name. I do not give them permission to do that." The state, however, didn't ask my opinion, and Alton Harris was executed as planned.
What I was asked, which stunned and confused me, was whether the experience of having been raped had somehow had an effect on my opinion of capital punishment. At the time, I didn't understand why people made this connection and I absolutely didn't understand their certainty that being raped had to have affected my thoughts on state sanctioned murder. Rape, after all, is not a capital offense. I think now that the people asking me those questions on the eve of the first execution were asking if somehow the experience of being a victim of a violent crime had helped me get comfortable with the idea of capital punishment as just revenge. The answer is most adamantly no. But it's still not so simple as all that. For me, it's become a question of whether revenge works at all.
And make no mistake about it, the work of the justice system is revenge. It is punitive, mosaic law, eye for an eye activity that to me works only in the moment, but afterward is worthless. Once the act is done, nothing can undo it. We don't ever, for example, question someone's choice not to report a robbery; why is choosing not to report a rape such a no-no? In 1994 my car was broken into somewhere in the realm of 10 times; I only ever reported it once, and then only because the video store needed a report number to generate an insurance payment. No one ever asked me why I didn't report these break-ins. That question simply never came up. When I say I've been raped, "did they catch him" is almost invariably the first question I'm asked. What's the difference? Why is it that I'm allowed choice about my car and not allowed the same when it's my body that's been violated? Why is my car accorded more respect than I am?
Again, I'm not talking about silence here; I'm talking about contacting the justice system and reporting. In my mind these are two very different things. I may never report again, but I will never be silent. Where did rape crisis go wrong in getting in bed with the criminal justice system? Did a choice to go with the money divorce us from fulfilling our needs?
The night I was assaulted, I was put in a private room in the hospital, the one reserved by law for assault victims ostensibly so they will feel safe. As near as I can tell the major gift of my private room is that I can smoke here without going outside in my shift; my clothing has been confiscated as evidence. In fact, there is no "I" in this room: what I have become is evidence, of no intrinsic value at the moment beyond my body's ability to tell an evidentiary story that will lead to the arrest of the person who did this to me. The court case, should there be one, will be called The People of the State of California v. John Doe. I am only evidence. It is not my case. It is theirs.
Case in point: I have a series of bruises on my thighs and as those bruises age and become colorful the police want photographs of them as physical evidence and the investigator wants to know what gave me bruises in such an odd place. The police photographer gets his pictures; the investigator gets to discover that Perry was wearing 501's. I, however, still have ugly and painful bruises and can't sit down.
This is only problematic to me. I am not by myself an advocate of victims' rights. I've been criminalised before and being victimised does not impugn new status to me. The system doesn't care who I am or how I feel. That's my job. But my victim status makes it more difficult to do that job and that makes it my business; the system which is ostensibly responsible for taking care of me has requirements and one of those requirements is that I have to agree to press charges. Jean's option of staying quiet is not available to me if I also need the financial assistance that the state offers through victim's assistance.
For instance, at the time I was assaulted, I had only minimal health insurance. I needed major medical assistance. My choice was simple, and was presented to me materially in the hospital in the form of a hospital bill coupled with a police report with an agreement attached to it stating that if this man were caught, I would press charges and this admonition: if I agreed to press charges, the state would pay my medical bills, no matter how large they got. Faced with this material, how can I say no to them? I can't afford the hospital bills. So from minute one they had me: you want your face sewn back together? Sign here. It isn't enough for me to report the rape; I must agree to press charges.
In eighteen more months, I won't have to worry about Perry any longer. Of course, in 18 more months, he doesn't have to worry about me either since the statute of limitations will have run. In the interim, however, my life is circumscribed by police reports, victim assistance disability counseling, district attorney questioning sessions, HIV testing and SSI testing. I lose my job so we can add to this list SDI. My life is mine but my body and my experience are held hostage to the legal system. I am evidence.
I still resent that I had no choice in whether to press charges. I wonder at the people who on finding out that I was raped ask "was he caught" before they ask any other questions, questions like "are you okay?" The assumptions have certainly changed in the last 25 years; pacifism is no longer the only option. Now it's not even an option at all.
There's an attempt to make us all complicit in this shift. As a victim, I'm supposed to assume that things like victim's rights are different and better than my regular rights and I'm supposed to ignore that to have "victim's rights" my regular rights get disappeared. Even the local rape crisis center wants me to revel in my victim status, and its support system is based on that assumption. Only by embracing my status as a victim am I able to be empowered. It's an insidious system that's designed to keep me in line and in control under uncontrollable circumstances. The final and largest way they make me complicit is by insisting that it is somehow my responsibility if he should choose to do it again. "Press charges" we are told, "so he won't hurt another woman." As if by pressing charges we have somehow actually done something to change the fact of rape in the first place.
When I started writing this piece, I thought I wanted to write about revenge and how I didn't get it. What I've ended up with instead is the quite frightening conclusion that if this happens to me again, I'm not going to report it. How did I get here? And what does it mean that I, a self-identified radical lesbian feminist, have diverged so far from the expected feminist norm that I would advocate not reporting as a viable and even empowering option in the case of rape?
Revenge is what the state wants because arresting, trying and imprisoning the man who raped me would allow everyone the illusion that things have returned to pre-rape normal. I can never have that; no matter what happens to him. I have been raped and putting him in jail doesn't change that. Andrea Dworkin would say that the problem is that we have to stop rape altogether (and I'm certainly not going to argue against her) but what about the rape crisis system has allowed itself to be subsumed into the justice system — a system that supports itself at my expense?
Last fall I met someone in the flesh with whom I had only ever corresponded virtually. She's an artist of some burgeoning reputation and my partner and I met her for sushi dinner in the Mission and in the course of the evening discussed life, NYC, punk and art as well as things like impending marriage (hers), and dealing with worker's compensation (me). On the walk back to her studio I mentioned in passing that I had once been sexually assaulted. Without missing a beat, she said "me too" and proceded to tell me about it.
Sexual assault is becoming a universal language for women, not in the "we're victims, take care of us" sense but in the sense that no matter how little we know of each other, we have a common experience. The judicial system continues to support revenge based law that ignores what those of us who have been raped know: it's the structure of society that's the problem and imprisoning an individual rapist only gets the rapist raped, it doesn't change the fact that the next woman I meet might also have been raped and have a better idea what I need than the justice system that's set up to meet my needs ever dreamed of.
First I was raped by a man; then I was raped by the system; some people get raped by the press; but I continue to be raped by a social structure that insists that my rape is their property. My rape is my property and I'm taking it back. I'm taking it back by stating that putting someone in jail won't help me; it will only hurt him. Hurting him does nothing for me. The idea that it should is an illusion I now flatly refuse to accept. What will help me is if we all put the kind of energy into changing the world that we put into criminal justice. Changing the world and a system which makes assaulting me seem like a good option in Perry's mind is the kind of work that justice should be attempting, not incarceration and eye for an eye illusionary punishment that solves nothing.
After more than five years, all I have left is a scar on my chin. It's a small scar; the physician's assistant who stitched my face back together was quite good and unless I've been in the sun it's rather difficult to find. My partner barely notices it. I see it every day in the bathroom mirror. I like my scar. When the state offered to pay for surgery to remove it, I declined. I want this small talisman; it reminds me that my past is real.
Cynthia Hoffman is a graduate student in the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley. The week she was raped the Oakland Hills burned, the Grateful Dead played four shows in honor of Halloween and Bill Graham died. It is also the week that she finally understood Dante. Cynthia can be reached via email at email@example.com.