Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault, in Their Own Words

Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault, in Their Own Words

by Marina Arnaud

Shame. Denial. Concerns about being blamed or disbelieved. Fear that disclosing sexual assault will cause more harm than benefit. There are so many reasons why 95% of women choose not to report a sexual assault to the police.

Although the widespread #MeToo movement motivated more survivors to come forward, sexual assault remains the most underreported crime in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, only 5% of sexual assault survivors report their experiences to police and only one in 10 sexual assaults reported lead to a criminal conviction. Another alarming fact: 19.39% of sexual assault reports are dismissed by police as unfounded.

With the goal to reduce barriers in the justice system for sexual assault survivors, YWCA Metro Vancouver partnered with West Coast LEAF on an innovative project supported by Department for Women and Gender Equality (formerly Status of Women Canada) called Dismantling the Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault. Our staff recruited and interviewed 18 sexual assault survivors* who generously and anonymously shared their experiences and insights regarding their decision of whether or not to report to police. Here’s what we’ve learned from the interviews:

  • One of the most commonly cited barriers to reporting among participants in the project was the fear of not being taken seriously by the police and other criminal justice system actors.
  • Fear of skeptical reactions from family, friends, acquaintances and community members was also cited as a strong barrier.
  • Some participants felt that their credibility was likely to be judged unfairly based on their appearance and occupation.
  • The threat of being disbelieved is particularly severe for women who are marginalized. Participants in this project observed that survivors’ accounts are more likely to be regarded with suspicion if they use drugs, are survivors of intimate partner violence, are racialized, have low incomes, have been charged with criminal offences in the past, or are single mothers.
  • When survivors are subjected to intersecting forms of discrimination based on multiple aspects of their identity, they may be met with even more intense skepticism.
  • Many participants emphasized physical safety issues as a factor in their decision-making about reporting, and some also shared concerns about their own or their family’s psychological safety.

Sexual harassment and assault can be an exhausting and traumatizing experience to recount privately, let alone publicly. It may lead to a wide range of repercussions in survivors’ lives, including safety risks and serious economic and legal consequences.

The report concluded that changes in the justice system and society are urgently needed to offer viable paths to justice for all survivors of sexual assault. Based on their own experiences seeking justice for sexual assault, the respondents identified the following directions for change:

  • Education for all system actors - Trauma-informed education for professionals engaged in all aspects of the criminal justice system.

  • Funding - Adequate staffing and staff training in the justice system and well-resourced survivor-focused services and supports.

  • Professional practices in handling sexual assault cases - Changes to justice system professionals’ decision-making practices and communication with survivors.

  • Improvements to criminal justice system processes and support for alternative approaches - Exploration of alternative programs and changes to courtroom practices.

  • Improved supports for survivors - Expanded social and health services, information for survivors and access to independent counselling.

  • Public education - Efforts to raise public awareness about consent and sexual assault, options for survivors, the risks and benefits of reporting and the steps in the justice system’s process.

“Much work remains to make reporting sexual assault to police a safe and viable option for all survivors who wish to pursue it. We hope that this report, and the lived experiences and insights of survivors that are its foundation, will guide and inspire some of that work. We believe that these women’s stories will energize and inform efforts to transform the criminal justice system to be more responsive to the needs of sexual assault survivors, in all their diversity.” [p. 10]

Read the full report: We Are Here: Women’s Experiences of the Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault

* Eligible interviewees were self-identified women aged 19 or older who had experienced sexual assault in BC within the last seven years, with no current police or court involvement related to the sexual assault.