Sexual assault is unlike any other crime. Survivors need—and deserve—help from those who have studied the issue and received training in how to help victims most effectively. One of the most integral components to a survivor’s well-being is confidentiality. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault agrees, and their report offers an excellent explanation as to why this is the case: “if victims don’t have a confidential place to go, or think a school will launch a full-scale investigation against their wishes, many will stay silent.” In addition, “insensitive or judgmental questions can compound a victim’s distress.” Some victims require “time and privacy to sort through their next steps.” As such, campuses should “give survivors the help they need to reclaim their educations” such as “a confidential place to turn for advice and support.” We agree.
Many campus advocates have struggled to maintain and protect their ability to offer confidentiality. It should be a relief to everyone on all sides of that struggle to read the Department of Education’s clarification that yes, advocates are confidential resources. Confidentiality has been an issue partly due to the confusing collection of laws governing sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. It is also due to the widespread lack of understanding of the unique nature of this crime.
For centuries, the word rape was only whispered. Sexual violence was never openly discussed, rarely acknowledged as a problem, and then only as a sad and inevitable happening to a certain kind of woman. What most people knew was whatever they garnered from these whispers and furtive looks. Unfortunately, what most people know today is not at all accurate either, particularly those beliefs about survivors based on assumptions about how one would react if sexually assaulted.
In recent decades, activists and educators have worked to bring the subject of sexual violence out of the shadows and have public discussion of the realities of assault, increase public knowledge of the widespread problem, and support for survivors. The current national attention to the problem in the military and on college campuses is the result of that work.
Along with the advance in understanding of confidentiality comes encouraging progress in understanding the complexities of reporting. Ignorance about the unique nature of this crime was again a factor in the laws and policies—and interpretations of those laws and policies—used on campuses and in the military regarding reporting. And again the assumptions about how survivors feel, or should feel, contributed.
Many people believe that if they were assaulted, if a righteous crime has been committed, of course they would report it. The reality is quite different. When it actually happens, most people don’t report it. Survivors raped or assaulted by an acquaintance often don’t know what to call it due to the stereotypes and lack of education surrounding sexual assault. It can take some time for them to come to terms with what happened. Those that do tell someone, or report to authorities, are many times not believed and not supported.
A common assumption is that the only way to stop these crimes is to catch and punish the perpetrators, and victims of the crime have a duty to report to make that happen. But it’s not that simple.These cases rarely go forward to a conviction, not least because juries are comprised of people who have no understanding of the problem or knowledge with which to evaluate a case. Sexual assault is a societal problem, and we should not expect the survivor to solve it. We must all work to solve it and improving the criminal justice response is only a part of the solution.
The language in the Task Force report shifts the concept of reporting from the legal sense of the term to the sense of telling someone who can help with the survivor’s healing process, and now that someone can be confidential. It is widely understood by advocates and law enforcement that victims who are given time and informed support are much more likely to ultimately go forward with an official report and the criminal justice process. A campus must still take official action, but it is clear that the campus’ action can be apart from the individual case. We believe that prevention education is still the best action of all for learning communities to take in creating supportive, healthy places for their staff and students.
The language and explanations of the report are a huge leap forward for activists, educators and institutions. They offer hope that someday soon the need for confidentiality will not be as great because everyone will better know how to support survivors. And someday soon after that, sexual assault will be a rare occurrence.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence