The room might be furnished with beige carpet, peeling at the corners. It might be a bed-bunked dorm unit. It could be an empty parking lot with no walls. The space might include you and an alleyway stranger, a spouse of 15 years, a friend of a friend randomly encountered at a train station, a colleague after a holiday party.
I was one of the two people in that room. Recognizing that my experience as the survivor of rape extends far beyond that room has been pivotal in unlearning shame. Rapes are not individual acts of sexual desire and anger. Rapes are the materialization of power, dominance, and brutality that are perpetuated by a system rooted in oppression and disempowerment. People are assaulted because the dominant narrative tells us sexual violence is normal.
Survivors and their communities are given so few options and resources in the aftermath of assaults. While searching for answers and solutions, many of us have felt forced to rely on the reporting process. Reporting my sexual assault a few months ago was disorienting and lonely. My decision also felt oxymoronic when I considered how it conflicted with my strongest beliefs that adamantly oppose the criminal system and incarceration. Several times now, I have attempted to justify my decision to report. Perhaps I was desperate to have a voice in the clutter of silence over my trauma and there was only one mainstream option.
The most common reasons victims choose to report are related to prevention. In a survey conducted from 1994 through 2010, 28 percent of respondents who reported their assaults wanted to protect themselves from further crimes by the perpetrator; 25 percent wanted to stop incident recurrence and protect others.
It is natural for us to feel protective of potential future victims. While recidivism is relatively low for convicted or incarcerated perpetrators, only 310 formal reports in the U.S. are made for every 1,000 sexual assaults — with only 25 of those resulting in incarceration.
The inefficacy of the legal system is clear. We need to invest in new approaches that protect and prevent. What could create a culture that is focused on community, healing, and ending violence?
One community-based approach to interpersonal violence is an extensive toolkit developed by the national organization Creative Interventions. Here are three concepts I take from their work:
1. Improving supportive networks for victims is critical — beyond rape crisis centers, health care, and assistance with basic needs. Following the rape, I was unable to articulate or understand what I needed. I was told by others what would or would not help. Having more agency in decision-making after being assaulted centers the survivor, not the event.
2. Comprehensive sex education is necessary. Integrating lessons on boundaries, consent, gender roles, and healthy relationships into classrooms has shown significant reductions in sexual violence and harassment in school.
3. Rehabilitation is crucial. Creating accountability processes for those who commit harm could help ensure that cyclical violence ends. Who does reporting benefit? Are geographic housing restrictions for registered sex offenders successful in protecting communities? Does locking up an abuser for years resolve trauma for those impacted and contribute to safety, or does it simply serve as an isolating pause? Does punishment, or the threat of it, deter violence?
Finding solutions to effectively address sexual violence requires imagination that deviates from systems in power.
If he openly recognized it as sexual assault, developed a firm understanding of harm and healing, and committed to engaging in conversations and accountability processes, I think I would sleep better. For me, justice would not be about him changing as a consequence for his actions. Justice would be knowing that he is changing because he wants to change.
When I reported my assault, the cop stressed how there were just two people in the room where I was raped. Factually, this is true. There is also a crowd of people outside the room. The systems we have today keep the doors locked.
Through community-based interventions, prison abolition, adequate assistance for victims, and effective processes to prevent recurrence, I believe that every room — each unwillingly remembered by countless survivors — can collapse. For that, we need to build an entirely new house.
Kate Foley (they/them) is a contributing reporter to Minnesota Women’s Press. They wrote our story in March 2021, “Reducing the Risk of Deportation.”