December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 9 min read
Across the globe, the majority of rape and sexual assault goes unreported. In Canada, for example, experts estimate that over 90% of all rape and sexual assault is never reported to authorities, and in the US, that number is still quite high at over 60%.
But while reporting sexual assault certainly has its benefits, victims should not feel obligated to report their experiences to authorities. In fact, many victims choose not to report for very legitimate and logical reasons.
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Many instances of sexual assault and rape go unreported simply because the victim does not have sufficient information about how the reporting process works. If a victim doesn’t know who to call, what to expect from the process, or whether they’ll face a financial burden by pursuing legal action, the chances that they’ll choose to report are far lower.
To learn more about how to report and what to expect from the process, check out our article “Where, When, and How to Report Rape or Sexual Assault.” If you’re interested in other legal options beyond reporting to the police, check out “Legal Options for Victims of Sexual Assault and Rape.”
Assuming that a victim is fully informed about their legal options and how the process of reporting works, there are still many legitimate reasons why reporting might not be the right path for everyone. We’ll go over a few of these reasons below.
Reporting rape or sexual assault to the authorities is the first step toward building a case against a perpetrator and pursuing legal action. So, for victims who want to follow this route, reporting makes sense. However, if a victim is not interested in pursuing legal action against their perpetrator, reporting probably isn’t the right decision.
While it’s easy to wonder why a victim wouldn’t want to pursue legal action after being raped or sexually assaulted, there are plenty of potential reasons, ranging from the personal to the political. Regardless of why a victim wants to avoid the legal system, they are absolutely entitled to this very legitimate choice.
The process of reporting sexual assault involves recounting the story of what happened several times over to a host of people the victim has probably never met. This can include police officers, judges, juries, attorneys, advocates, and more. Unfortunately, people working within the criminal justice system don’t have the best reputation for believing victims of sexual assault, which can make a victim’s role in the reporting process emotionally distressing or even traumatizing.
If a victim is entirely uninterested in sharing their story with others, particularly unsympathetic strangers or authority figures, then reporting might not be the right path to take.
While reporting sexual assault or rape enables a victim to pursue legal action against a perpetrator, the likelihood that a report will lead to an arrest or conviction isn’t very high.
Across Canada and the US, police reports of sexual assault have between a 20% and 50% chance of resulting in an arrest and criminal charges. After that, the chances of those charges leading to a conviction are far lower – about 12% in Canada and only about 7% in the US.
For victims aware of these statistics, the harrowing process of navigating the legal system as a sexual trauma survivor might not seem worth the odds.
Unfortunately, not all survivors of sexual trauma are free from the violence of their abusers. Depending on the relationship between a victim and a perpetrator, the victim may have to think strategically about the potential costs and benefits of reporting.
If the person who assaulted you is your partner, a member of your family, or someone in a position of authority in your life, the risk of facing retaliation or further abuse should be considered. Of course, abusers should not have the power to dictate whether or not a victim reports their experience of abuse. But unfortunately, not all victims have the freedom to make these decisions with full autonomy.
At the end of the day, victims who don’t report sexual assault or rape to the authorities have their own reasons, and that’s okay.
If you feel hesitant about reporting due to circumstances in your life that aren’t represented on this list, you still deserve to make your own decision. Although many survivors find that speaking out about their experiences helps their healing process and can bring about a sense of empowerment and control, not everyone will feel drawn to the idea of speaking out — and that’s okay.
Before we finish up this discussion, let’s take a look at some common myths about victims who don’t report sexual assault. Dispelling these myths is an important part of understanding that all victims deserve to make their own decisions.
One of the most common myths about victims who don’t report is that they must not be “real victims.” As we discussed above, there are plenty of legitimate reasons why a victim might choose not to report, and it has nothing to do with what did or did not happen to them.
Another damaging myth that comes up in cultural conversations about sexual assault and rape is the idea that victims who don’t report right away must be making up a story. This is deeply incorrect. There is no demonstrated correlation between the severity or veracity of a victim’s experiences and when (or if) they choose to report.
Similar to the myth discussed above, the idea that victims who don’t report their experiences must not have had it “as bad” is entirely false. There is no correlation between the severity of someone’s assault and whether or not they choose to report it. In fact, it could be argued that victims with particularly harrowing experiences might be less likely to report due to the emotional toll and trauma associated with the process of sharing one’s painful story.
This myth is a classic example of “victim blaming,” wherein a victim of violent crime is reframed as the one at fault. Of course, choosing not to report sexual assault or rape does not mean that the victim was a willing participant in the act. As discussed, victims who do not report have plenty of legitimate reasons to make this decision, and it does not mean that what they experienced was not actually sexual assault.
For more on this topic, check out “Victim Blaming: What It Is and How to Cope.”
Because we live in a culture that glorifies the legal system, many people believe that reporting sexual assault to the authorities is the only proper way to handle these types of situations. This is incorrect. In fact, many sexual assault survivors who do end up navigating the legal system face significant emotional and psychological struggles due to the re-traumatizing nature of these processes.
Between therapy, support groups, community support, and personal healing practices, moving on from sexual assault or rape without involving the legal system is 100% possible — and, for some, preferable.
For tips on how to heal from a traumatic experience, check out our article “Your Step-by-Step Guide to Recovering From Sexual Trauma.”
Regardless of what you decide, having full control over your decisions is a crucial part of healing from trauma. Despite pervasive myths and problematic attitudes about sexual assault victims and reporting, whatever decision you make should be based on your personal circumstances, values, and needs. It’s okay to take your time and come to the decision that feels best for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
Despite pervasive myths to the contrary, it’s entirely okay for victims not to report sexual assault or rape to the authorities. In fact, the vast majority of victims do not report for a host of reasons ranging from the personal to the political. However, some victims might not report due to a lack of information about the reporting process, in which case, access to sufficient information is extremely important. Reasons that a fully informed victim might choose not to report their assault include not wanting to pursue legal action, being aware of the limitations of the legal system, fearing retaliation from an abuser, or simply not wanting to share about their painful experiences. The idea that victims who choose not to report are less legitimate or that their experiences were less severe is a myth. All victims deserve to make their own decisions about whether or not to report sexual assault.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.