By Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer of NSVRC and PCAR
Following the announcement of a mistrial in Bill Cosby’s criminal trial, we’re reminded that while the criminal justice system is an important venue for survivors to seek justice and healing, it cannot be the only one — and it cannot become more effective in a vacuum. We all have a role to play in making our communities safer and more supportive of survivors. Only then will survivors find real justice.
The Cosby trial demonstrated the widespread challenges encountered by victims of sexual assault and prosecutors across the country. This case is merely the latest high-profile example of how misconceptions about sexual violence are used during court proceedings to incite doubt in the minds of jurors. The American public often expects victims of sexual assault to behave in ways that are frequently different from how they actually behave.
Ultimately, we — the people who comprise the juries that decide the outcomes in sexual assault cases every day — are the justice system. It is one of our most important responsibilities as Americans. It is therefore critical that trials are as fair, impartial and untainted by preconceptions as possible.
How do we do that? For one, we must all do our part to learn the well-established truths about common victim responses. For example:
Most victims never make a formal report to law enforcement. When the assailant is a person in a position of power or trust, reporting is even more unlikely.
Many victims wait weeks, months or even years before discussing with anyone what was done to them. When victims do begin to discuss the victimization, it is often through a slow, deliberate process of revealing parts of the full story. This is especially common in cases of non-stranger sexual assault.
It is common for victims to resume their normal lives as if the assault didn’t happen — they go to work, go to school, keep appointments and may continue to socialize with the assailant. Many victims experience intense disbelief, particularly when the offender is someone they knew well and trusted. Victims who are in denial or trying to avoid the full psychological impact of the assault actively try not to draw attention to the one thing they are trying to avoid – and that explains why they also often do not seek medical care, collect evidence or provide a statement to police.
Traumatic events during which a person fears for their life or body such as sexual assault, combat in war, street violence and domestic violence, or even a head-on car collision create biological changes that alter the way the brain turns sensory information into memory. These changes result in incomplete information being stored out of sequence, meaning that when a person attempts to retell their experience, inconsistencies are not only common, they are to be expected.
When intoxicants are used during the assault, gaps in memory are even more likely, and fears of how others may react to learning about the use of drugs and alcohol can increase a person’s feelings of shame and doubt, and ultimately result in silence.
We all must do better in understanding and anticipating the true nature of sexual victimization and traumatic response when victims share what has been done to them. We must stop expecting victims to behave as they do on television and in the movies. Instead, we must give victims the opportunity to find support and safety in our communities. When we do so, we will see it reflected in the courts.
We are the justice system, and we all have a role to play in addressing sexual assault.