As Bill Cosby heads to trial for one of the dozens of rape allegations made against him, it’s a victory for those fighting against the culture of shame that surrounds sexual assault. But it’s not the only narrative—or type of victory—out there.
Though statistics on the actual prevalence of sexual assault vary, most agree that the statistics we have are woefully underreported. The U.S. Department of Justice believes that the majority (an average of 68 percent over the past five years) of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Though that may sound shocking, there’s a few reasons that’s the status quo.
For starters, no one reacts to a traumatic experience in the same way. And by now it’s well documented that when survivors do turn to the police, they’re often met with difficulties: Police officers can be too critical or disbelieving, the case itself often comes down to a (public) battle of opposing accounts, and few rapists ever see the inside of a jail cell. In fact, most statistics claim only two out of every 100 rape cases lead to the rapists seeing the inside of a jail cell, let alone a felony conviction.
In the case of Cosby it becomes clear just how prevalent the fear can be to stay quiet. Though whispers and even investigations floated around Cosby for years, it took a comedian bringing the issue to the public eye to really spark change. Since the routine went viral in October 2014, more than 50 women have come forward—most of them with stories from well outside the statute of limitations on sexual assault. Change is, theoretically, on its way to the clogged legal system, but in the meantime there’s a major disconnect between the legal system and the sexual assault going on in the community it protects.
Which is what makes proposals like that of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders so disheartening. When he proposes that all rape cases, even ones being investigated by colleges, should be sent to the police, it’s a bit tone deaf as to what the system can actually accomplish with its resources, and what’s really best for survivors living in the world we do now.
“Some campus rape survivors do go to the police and the courts, but many don’t want to submit themselves to a grueling process that’s highly unlikely to result in a conviction,” said Nora Caplan-Bricker for Slate. “Sanders’s suggestion would make it harder for victims to get justice, and would almost definitely deter many from reporting in the first place.”
For many survivors, real change comes from the community, not the courts. As editor Alexandra Brodsky writes for Feministing, some solutions are a lot closer to home:
Absolutely, it’s essential that students who feel like reporting to the police is best for them be able to do so. At the same time, school remedies, like dorm changes and tutoring, are crucially important for a survivor’s ability to learn. That’s why the anti-discrimination law Title IX requires schools to prevent and respond to sexual assault in addition to, not in place of, criminal law enforcement.
Without key interventions by their schools, many survivors won’t be able to continue their educations. An extension on a paper due the week after an assault might make the difference between a victim staying in school and dropping out. No police force can provide that kind of accommodation. Don’t want victims “sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them”? A school can often make that happen more quickly than a student can get a restraining order, particularly if he or she has trouble accessing a court.
Survivors report seeing similar results in professional circles as well. Buzzfeed News ran a feature on the sexual harassment and assault female comedians face in Los Angeles comedy clubs like Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and iO West, two of the city’s most established theaters and training centers. After discussing in a private group online, women took their concerns about certain offensive members to the clubs—and the clubs responded. As Buzzfeed reported:
Newer, indie theaters and groups quickly banned The Actor and other men, along with iO West. “Of course, we immediately removed the man from our theater,” iO West founder Charna Halpern said in a statement posted online. “I am a woman and these issues are serious to me.”
In October, iO West, which said about 1,500 to 2,000 students took classes at its L.A. theater last year, announced the hiring of a new human resources director tasked with overseeing the theater’s new, mandatory sexual harassment and discrimination policies, along with working on diversity outreach. Those initiatives were directly inspired by what happened on Facebook, said James Grace, the theater’s artistic and managing director. “You have to make everyone feel safe to create and perform,” Grace said. “We’re really trying to make a real effort to reach out and actively make people feel more included.”
Perhaps, over time, that groundswell of support can help survivors better navigate the court system as well. For now, it’s better than nothing.