Sexual Assault Victims Need to Believe They’ll Be Heard

“Over the course of my career representing assault victims, I’ve seen firsthand the harm caused by lack of awareness. I’ve seen survivors discount and downplay their experiences because they’ve been conditioned by society to question and even invalidate what has happened to them.”

Sexual Assault Victims Need to Believe They’ll Be Heard
A D.C. protest against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr)

April may be Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but every month—indeed every day—should be a time of awareness of the scourge of sexual assault and the pain inflicted on its victims.

Over the course of my career representing assault victims, I’ve seen firsthand the harm caused by lack of awareness. I’ve seen survivors discount and downplay their experiences because they’ve been conditioned by society to question and even invalidate what has happened to them.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the systems and processes that are supposed to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable. A common misconception is that a crime hasn’t occurred unless it has been reported to the police and the police have started an investigation or taken other action. If this were actually the case, I would not have any clients.

Victims must be able to believe, despite what our culture often tells them, that they have rights and that those rights are subject to legal protection. They must be given the tools and support to tell their stories and seek justice for their injuries. It is no longer acceptable to pretend assault doesn’t happen; we cannot act like the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Sexual assault happens at all levels of society and in every culture.

I once represented a woman who had been sexually assaulted by her rideshare driver. Even though she reported the assault to the local police the very next day, the authorities made her feel embarrassed, ashamed and like she had done something wrong, not been wronged. Rather than commencing an investigation into the assault, the officer had the gall to ask my client if the rideshare driver could possibly have thought that she was a prostitute.

Is it any wonder that so many victims remain silent? Should we be surprised that so many perpetrators remain free to assault other victims? It’s time to improve the systems already in place and to enact legislation that gives survivors the support, protection and justice they deserve.


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It begins with having conversations with the individuals on the front lines who are the first to deal with survivors. In my experience, I’ve seen law enforcement, even in the area of sex crimes, be a male-dominated profession, and the majority of police and detectives are men. These professionals need more trauma-informed specialized training to understand the unique trauma that assault victims experience. They have to learn to stop talking and judging, to simply listen.

Sexual Assault Victims Need to Believe They’ll Be Heard
Protests against sexual assault at Dupont Circle in D.C. on Feb. 6, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also time to bring more women into the room—both on the legal and investigative fronts. Just as I often see male detectives and investigators, I have also witnessed the field of civil sexual assault and abuse litigation dominated by male attorneys. 

When I arrived in New York City  during the early stages of mediations, I was involved with in cases related to the abuse by Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar of national Olympic team gymnasts, as well as women and girls at Michigan State, I thought the room would be full of other female lawyers, like myself, representing female survivors. But sadly, in the early days of that litigation, I was the only female lawyer present representing clients in a lead capacity.

I’ve found that many of the children and adult survivors I represent need a woman to talk to, just as much as children do. They need an Olivia Benson—the staunch defender of victims’ rights on TV’s Law and Order SVU—who can really hear what they’ve experienced and provide the empathy and support they crave. This is just as important for men who have been victimized as it is for women. Sadly, men have often been socialized not to disclose this level of trauma to other men.

Legislative reform is also important, but it’s happening slowly. New laws have been enacted in New York and New Jersey to revive statutes of limitations, but many southern states are still stuck in another century, with fewer legal protections for victims of sexual assault. There are just as many sexual assault survivors in red states as in blue states, and the amount of pain they suffer is no different. It’s time to enact meaningful laws in the southern states as well, including longer statutes of limitations that give victims the ability to seek justice in civil courts for their injuries, even when the time has expired for prosecuting a criminal case against their assailants.

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About

Michelle Simpson Tuegel has represented sexual abuse survivors in high-profile cases such as the Larry Nassar litigation against Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, and the U.S. Olympic Committee; sexual assault survivors at the University of Southern California; and clergy abuse survivors connected with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and nationwide.