Elite private schools. The Ivy League. Country-club parties filled with drunken white teenagers. This is where the hashtag “WhyIDidntReport” came from.
While #WhyIDidntReport has made it clearer why many decide against reporting sexual assault—highlighting the shame, fear and immense social pressures weighing on survivors—some communities are baffled by the movement.
Among low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, undocumented folks, and queers, a more fitting response to this moment might be #DuhIDidntReport or #WhyICantReport. This is particularly true for people who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
“We all filter our realities through what we’ve lived,” said Alejandra Landin, the equity specialist at Restoring Our Communities, a program for formerly incarcerated students at Laney College in Oakland.
For many in marginalized communities, that filter makes people less inclined to report sexual assault, she said.
“There are many reasons that a person within an impacted community may believe that police involvement actually doesn’t solve anything,” Landin said. “Certain negative experiences with the police can lead to that.”
Shalita Williams, a college enrollment specialist in the San Bruno Sherriff’s Department, agrees. As a child, Williams witnessed the police beating up her father in her own home.
“So I knew I couldn’t depend on them,” she said. “I suffered from low self-esteem and depression, and I ended up in abusive relationships.”
Williams never reported the abuse.
She went on to spend more than a decade in and out of jail before enrolling as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. At Cal, Williams researched the paradox of the strong black woman and the fact that black women suffer high rates of domestic violence but do not report it because they want to protect their partners from law enforcement.
“Women protect the men that they are with,” said Williams. “Sometimes they put their safety ahead of their own. They don’t call the police because they don’t want their men of color dying at the hands of police.”
“But at the same time,” she said, “you’re thinking, ‘This is gonna kill me.’”
Even if people want to report a sexual assault, Williams said, people from black and poor neighborhoods don’t expect the police will come. If they do come, people don’t expect help.
“They’re dealing with it on their own because don’t nobody trust the police. They’ll probably end up beating you up too. Or getting you evicted. Or taking your children. Or not doing anything at all. Until you stop calling,” Williams said.
If reporting seems dangerous outside the prison system, it can be even deadlier for those who are locked up.
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake is the communications director at Just Detention International, a nonprofit working to end sexual abuse in prison.
“The conversation around #WhyIDidntReport is incredibly important, but it’s also a question of access. If you are in detention, not only do you not have access to those channels, but even if you did, you might face grave consequences for doing so,” Lerner-Kinglake said. “Reporting sexual abuse in a confinement setting is something that is incredibly difficult and fraught.”
Just Detention International gets 2,000 letters a year from people who are locked up and have been sexually assaulted in prison.
“What they tell us is that if they report, they face retaliation—often violent—or they are ignored or laughed at by staff,” said Lerner-Kinglake. “These are impossible choices that survivors face and understandably many choose to stay silent.”
Silence can be hard to shake, back in the community.
Landin, from Restoring Our Communities, talked about the lasting psychological effects of incarceration on her students, some of whom are so insecure that they even lack the “ability to recognize an experience that was wrong and a violation.”
What these individuals really need, Landin said, is to be seen as “someone whose needs and desires for healing are recognized and honored.” Which may not actually be so far off from what other #WhyIDidntReport survivors are asking for.