My Body Is More Than a Crime Scene: #WhyIDidntReport and What I Learned from Talking About It
Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence and sexual assault
Years ago, I returned home from a regular day of high school with my mother and three siblings. We approached our front door and my mom felt instantly that something was wrong. I remember fear hanging thick in the air we breathed, the five of us unsure whether the person who had broken into our home was still there. And so my mother did what almost 30 years of living in the US told her was best: she called the police. Over an hour after she called, they finally came. And I didn’t feel any safer.
I walk around New York City now, a 23-year-old Black woman, and the police still do not comfort me. I am a subject of suspicion, a walking target, one of many who are more likely to be assaulted rather than helped by the police—even and especially if we find ourselves in the face of violence.
And so I wonder: why it is that well-intentioned advocacy organizations like RAINN, government officials, and even college administrators are increasingly and exclusively relying on the criminal justice system to fight a problem it perpetuates? Is it not sexual violence to forcibly sterilize women of color inmates? Is it not sexual violence to gain skyrocketing profits from the incarceration and (subsequent rapes of disproportionate numbers of Black & Latino men who commit non-violent crimes?
In a must-read piece for Feministing, writer and anti-violence advocate Wagatwe Wanjuki wrote that we should “trust survivors of violence…to know what is the best way for them to heal.” At its core, the pressure placed on survivors of violence to report or be seen as bad victims is another permutation of the victim-blaming we are so quick to dole out in lieu of holding perpetrators accountable.
Inspired by Wagatwe’s call to center the voices of victims and survivors themselves and frustrated by the trend of carcerality in anti-violence movements, I tossed around the idea of having a larger online conversation about why exactly it is that we’re often so reluctant to engage the criminal justice system or any formal reporting process after an assault. At first I didn’t think I had the emotional energy for that forum. Some of my close friends knew I was a survivor, but was I really ready to share that trauma with all of cyberspace?
The longer I sat with the idea, the more I knew I needed to open up that space. I felt like the conversations about reporting demands were a bit fragmented—there were folks discussing their concerns about being re-traumatized by police and courts, others still discussing prisons as an instrument of (racialized) violence, and so many more seemingly disparate reasons for not wanting to rely on this one method for justice. I didn’t think those reasons were unrelated at all, and it felt important to have somewhere to coalesce them and really flesh out what was happening—and know we’re not alone.
When I first tweeted about the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, I didn’t expect the sheer volume of responses. I set out wanting to just create space for people to share the bitter stories they have swallowed. I figured if I could encourage a few people to share theirs and actually feel safe doing so, that would be enough.
But that’s not what happened. Perhaps because of my statistical knowledge of rape culture, I should’ve known, but who would ever guess the profound injustice of over 15,000 tweets from survivors, victims, and allies? Who could know that over 600 people would submit their stories anonymously via Tumblr so they could engage the conversation without having to show the world their faces? I saw thousands of people come together online before my very eyes to share the reasons they didn’t want to—or simply couldn’t afford to—rely on the criminal justice system. And that was powerful.
Over and over, I read and posted anonymous stories that echo the same haunting truths:
“I didn’t report because the first person I told didn’t believe me.” “I didn’t report because my perpetrator convinced me it wasn’t really rape.” “I didn’t report because the cops were and are even more violent toward me than my perpetrator was.” “I didn’t report because everyone told me men can’t be raped.” “I didn’t report because no one I know has ever seen justice even if they did report.”
I had always known our reporting system is broken, but until this moment I’d always blamed myself for not having gone to the police with my story. Was I naive enough to truly believe they would have taken the words of a black teenager seriously, years after my assault? No. But that’s how internalized victim-blaming works: it doesn’t depend on facts or logic—the shame insists we silence ourselves.
But we’re talking back—and we always have been.
#WhyIDidntReport is by no means the only survivor-led movement to combat the ugly realities of rape culture that continue to traumatize us well beyond our assaults. In the past month alone, multiple movements both on- and offline have come forth with one unifying trend: we are demanding that people listen to—and actively center—victims and survivors of violence. Stop talking around us, above us, and down to us. Just listen. We have untold stories lurking inside our bodies, and we cannot share them until we are safe.
A few weeks ago, 23 Columbia students filed a federal complaint, more than one hundred pages long, alleging violations of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act, against their university. Students at Brown and other anti-violence advocates stood in defense of survivor Lena Sclove and demanded the university take responsibility for a multitude of injustices, not the least of which was allowing her assailant to return to campus while Sclove was still attending. More recently, the US Department of Education opened over 55 investigations to review complaints that various universities violated Title IX in their handling of campus sexual violence. Even Reddit is engaged, now actively recruiting moderators for a subforum dedicated to Title IX.
For the entirety of April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, anti-violence advocates Andrea Smith, Suey Park, and Save Wiyabi Project compiled resources and hosted discussions about decolonizing the anti-violence movement in the hashtag #DecolonizeSAAM. The conversations created space for victims/survivors, allied advocates, and anyone interested in both learning about and discussing the multiple ways the anti-violence movement itself actively perpetuates harm. Specific topics included colonial violence, carcerality and militarism, the non-profit industrial complex, and anti-Blackness.
#DecolonizeSAAM and other movements remind us that the way we hold one another even in the context of anti-violence work is hierarchical; it does not weight all survivors’ narratives equally. If we tell ourselves this doesn’t contribute to folks feeling unsafe when sharing their stories, we are lying. There is no universal victim narrative or survivor story. Indeed, women of color are disproportionately affected by sexual violence—and less likely to be believed when talking about it.
What would a world in which all people felt empowered and supported to share the tyrannies we swallow every day even look like? What would it look like to envision justice outside the prison-industrial complex? I don’t have those answers yet, but I do know that we won’t get there until we commit to hearing the voices of people who know sexual violence most intimately. We won’t shape any meaningful policy or practice unless we center the needs and wants of the person whose life is affected most. We won’t get anywhere in this movement unless victims and survivors can chart their own paths toward healing—on their own terms and in their own words.