No easy choice: How student survivors of sexual assault manage the maze of options before them

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck
Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck Buy this photo

By Haley Goldberg, Magazine Editor
Published October 29, 2013

Disclaimer: This article contains detailed information about sexual assault. Content may be emotionally upsetting or triggering to some people. Please read with caution. No one should cope with sexual assault alone. Use the resources here to find support.

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(Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck)

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We sat on the cold concrete floor between the bathroom and front door of a luxury apartment on campus. It was one of the first nights of summer before our senior year, and we had left the bar on South University abruptly when my friend insisted she had to leave, visibly upset. Leaning back against the wall, she caught her breath and began to tell her story, stressing that few people knew.

It happened her freshman year in the fall, and he was an acquaintance and fellow student. A night out led to her looking for her friend, which led to him suggesting they should check in his room. There, he raped her.

She described to me her initial actions after the assault happened, speaking slowly as if unpacking a memory she had tried to tuck away: She made her way back to her residence hall, a journey that still isn’t crystal clear, which she attributed to her body’s natural defense mechanism and not alcohol. She was sober when it happened.

She told her closest friend soon after, and the friend didn’t believe her. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents, go to the police or go to the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center for help. So she kept quiet, not wanting to seem weak even though she felt powerless. She tried to move on.

That summer night was the first time she saw him in person, three years since the assault. She had seen his face the fall of her sophomore year in the background of a video highlighting his athletic team, played on the big screens in Michigan Stadium.

At the bar, she confided in another friend about the situation. That’s when she found out the same male student had allegedly sexually assaulted another woman on campus, too — a friend of a friend. She didn’t know if the other assault happened before or after her incident, but she began blaming herself for not reporting the rape to the police, a fresh layer of guilt falling over her.

I looked at her, watching the wheels in her head turn anxiously as she weighed the options of what happens next. It was easy for me — someone unfamiliar with sexual assault — to say what she should do: Turn him in. It seemed simple. He needed to face the consequences of his actions.

But the decision isn’t black and white; it isn’t “turn him in to face justice” or “let him go free.” For student survivors of sexual assault, it’s much more complicated.

Part 1: One in four

My education on sexual assault began, like most University students, at freshman orientation. In between selecting courses and learning how to use the campus bus system, the statistic, “Over a five-year stay, a college woman’s risk of experiencing a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault is between one in five and one in four,” is shared repeatedly. The numbers come from the SAPAC website, calculated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000.

While about 20 to 25 percent of the female student population will experience a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault — and 10 to 20 percent of men will be sexually violated in their life, according to most research — it’s often unknown that the crime is one of the least likely to be reported to law enforcement.

“This is one of the most underreported crimes on our campus, on campuses nationally and in communities nationally,” Holly Rider-Milkovich, SAPAC director, said.

According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Victimization Survey, 72 percent of rapes and sexual assaults went unreported to law enforcement nationally last year.

The reasons behind the low reporting, Rider-Milkovich said, are expansive, including a survivor’s fear he or she will not be believed, shame, shock, denial and fear that they will be blamed for the incident — a key difference between sexual assault and other crimes.

“We have all kinds of messages in our culture that are victim-blaming messages that tell women, especially, that if they’re sexually assaulted, they bear some of the responsibility for that, which is absolutely not true,” Rider-Milkovich said. “But many survivors believe that.”

A survivor’s fear they won’t be believed can stem from the nature of the crime, which is often misperceived on campus. SAPAC works to educate the campus community about sexual assault. The University office also offers confidential support and advocacy for survivors, including a 24-hour crisis line.

Until hearing the story of my own friend, I envisioned the statistic “one in four” differently: a female student walking home alone from a late night at the library, when a man jumps out from behind a building and assaults her.

It’s a common misconception, according to Margie Pillsbury, a University Police officer and detective who investigates sexual assaults reported to police on campus.

“We have it backwards in our thinking, and that really affects how we respond to people who were sexually assaulted,” Pillsbury said. “When (survivors) tell me how their best friend or their mom or their sister responded, it’s not good because we all have this misconception that it’s the guy in the bushes.”

According to statistics from the 2005 U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Victimization Survey, about two-thirds of rape and sexual assault crimes involved an already established relationship between a female survivor and perpetrator. This only further complicates a survivor’s emotions and decisions after the incident.

S.B., a survivor of sexual assault and recent University alum, faced that difficult situation almost three years ago when a male student and former partner sexually assaulted her.

Part 2: The story of S.B.

“It sounds silly, but I didn’t recognize that I was actually sexually assaulted,” S.B. said. “I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I knew the person and that I had previously trusted him and I cared about him.”

Her sophomore year, S.B. was raped in her residence-hall room by a former partner. Sixty percent of on-campus rapes occur in the victim’s own residence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics. S.B. asked not to have her full name published due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Confused and unable to process the incident, S.B. kept it to herself for three months, not knowing the right words to use — a stark difference from now. She prefaces her story as “long and complicated,” and speaks honestly and confidently.

Survivors of sexual assault often don’t recognize the gravity of the experience they went through, according to Pillsbury. She has met with survivors in the very building where we spoke — the Campus Safety Services Building, tucked away on South Campus next to the Big House and Crisler Center — who aren’t even sure that they were assaulted.

“They come in and talk to you and, I’ve been a cop for 20 years, and I will be stunned because they were a victim of such a serious, terrible crime but in their mind they weren’t sure that it was even a crime,” Pillsbury said.

S.B. felt immobilized after the incident, scared to tell her friends, fearing she wouldn’t be believed. She felt manipulated, and that both her privacy and sexuality were taken from her.

“It kind of put me in a powerless position where I felt like he had complete control over me,” she said.

When S.B. finally told a family member, they encouraged her to reach out to a sexual-assault counselor.

“Going to SAPAC was probably the best decision that I made and starting on my path to recovery,” S.B. said. “They were just so supportive in this place where I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to.”

The role of SAPAC is to neither encourage survivors of sexual assault to report or not report their experience. The organization is a confidential source, meaning full reports are not passed along to the University or police for investigation without the survivor’s consent.

“What we really strongly encourage is for them to know what their options are and to make decisions that are the best for them based on clear information and the ability to really talk about it with somebody,” Rider-Milkovich said.

The University’s annual security report shows that SAPAC received 34 reports of sexual assault in 2012, incidents that may have occurred at any time in the course of a survivor’s life.

S.B.’s choice might seem simple: She could either keep the incident to herself, or report it to the police, the University or both. But each path brings its own set of issues.

Part 3: Seeking justice

For a survivor reporting sexual assault to police, the statistics are staggering. According to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — which operates a 24/7 crisis hotline and affiliate centers with counseling services for survivors — “about 6 percent of rapists — 1 out of 16 — will ever spend a day in jail. 15 out of 16 will walk free.”

The investigation of a report starts with the local police — either UMPD or the Ann Arbor Police Department, depending on the crime location. Throughout this process, a survivor can stop the investigation at any time. But, ultimately, a report will still get passed along to the county prosecutor, who will review it and decide if there is enough evidence to charge an alleged perpetrator.

Getting convictions, however, is difficult. RAINN calculated the statistics throughout the process: For rapes reported to the police, there is a 50.8-percent chance an arrest will occur, an 80-percent chance of prosecution from that arrest, and a 58-percent chance of a final felony conviction.

Robyn Liddell, assistant county prosecutor for Washtenaw County, attributes this challenge to a lack of physical evidence, which juries often demand. With these crimes, evidence is usually just words.

“Typically in these cases, there’s only two witnesses: There’s the victim and there’s the suspect,” Liddel said. “In a lot of cases, you don’t have that supporting evidence. You don’t have that corroborating evidence.”

For this reason, Pillsbury said the prosecutor’s office often turns down cases that can’t be argued to the “without reasonable doubt” standard of proof in a courtroom. In the room where we spoke — a plain, grey, conference room with inspirational posters on the wall, one with eagles telling the reader to “Dare to Soar,” — survivors have learned their cases would not be prosecuted.

“I’ve had prosecutors meet with survivors in this very room and talk to them and tell them, ‘I’m really sorry about what happened to you, I absolutely believe you, but we do not have enough evidence to proceed,’ ” Pillsbury said. “The prosecutor has to weigh out charging a case because they believe that something occurred and what it is the victim is going to have to go through in the court process to possibly end up not with the outcome they wanted. They don’t make those decisions lightly.”

When deciding to prosecute a case, Liddell not only has to weigh if there’s enough evidence to prove the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but also the experience a survivor will go through: reliving the incident in an environment where the focus is shifted on the actions of the survivor rather than the alleged perpetrator.

“It’s all about, well, what (was the survivor) doing there? Were you drunk? What were you wearing?” Liddell said. “It’s hard enough and difficult enough to tell somebody who’s close to you about what happened, let alone … a courtroom full of people, and knowing that that’s going to be the scrutiny that they’re going to be put under.”

Oftentimes, juries aren’t educated on the intricacies of a sexual assault crime, according to Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie. In court cases, prosecutors find it difficult to show the jury that delayed reporting and a lack of physical evidence are typical in cases.

“The worst thing jurors can say, sometimes they really want to talk to you after (a trial), it’s usually after a not guilty, they just can’t wait to talk. And first thing out of their mouth is, ‘We all agreed that he did it.’ Ok? … but (the verdict was) not guilty because they wanted more,” Mackie said.

Surprisingly, Liddell and Mackie both say that female jurors are more critical towards survivors, arguing that they would have acted differently to avoid the incident — a form of survivor blaming.

“It’s pretty scary. It’s a defense mechanism,” Mackie said. “If you admit that this happened to this person who’s in front of you, that means it could happen to you. And we all like to think of ourselves as, not invincible, but, ‘I just wouldn’t be in that situation.’ When you talk to victims, you get similar statements from them, ‘It was a nightmare. It seemed like this couldn’t be happening,’ but it was.”

Pillsbury also stressed that if a survivor doesn’t wish to go forward with a case passed along to the prosecutor, their request is usually respected by the prosecutor’s office — not because the case isn’t serious, but out of respect to the survivor’s wishes and wellbeing.

So why report to the police if it’s possible the case can’t be pursued? For one, making a report can help identify repeat offenders, a phenomenon that both Pillsbury and University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown have experienced in their careers. Reports can be linked, and survivors will be re-approached and notified that another survivor has come forward, which can distribute the burden of going forward with an investigation.

“Frequently, people who commit this crime commit it over and over again over the course of their lifetime until they’re held accountable,” Pillsbury said.

Pillsbury added a survivor could gain strength just from police validation that what they experienced was a crime, even if the police can’t hold the alleged perpetrator accountable. To be believed by the system, Pillsbury said, is powerful.

Liddell, Mackie, Brown and Pillsbury all said that it’s up to a survivor whether reporting or not reporting to the police is the best way for them to heal. But it becomes complex since law enforcement wants to see alleged perpetrators held liable.

“That’s the struggle. You don’t want to be one more person saying, ‘This is what you have to do. Here are your options, here are your choices,’ ” Liddell said. “You want to give them as much power as possible to help them reclaim what was taken from them. But, you counter that with wanting to see justice done and wanting to see someone held accountable and responsible.”

The Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office deals with 90 to 126 criminal sexual conduct charges per year, but the majority of cases involve child survivors. In her three years as an assistant prosecutor, Liddell has not had a single case involving a University student.

S.B. has not made a report with the police. Four months after she was raped, she filed a complaint with the University, a process that brought about its own emotional difficulties and deterred her from reporting to the police.

“I definitely thought about (reporting to the police), and I actually thought about pressing charges against the University, because I did not think the way that they handled the (complaint) was just at all,” S.B. said. “But after the (University) hearing and everything, I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore … It’s even popped into my head now, like, what would have happened if I had pressed charges? But I think it would have just been too emotionally draining.”

Part 4: Seeking University sanctions

Separate from a criminal investigation, the University also has an internal policy to review possible violations of the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits sexual misconduct. If a student is found in violation of the statement, non-criminal sanctions range from a formal reprimand to expulsion.

S.B.’s complaint was reported at a time when the University addressed violations of sexual misconduct differently than today. In the current policy which went into effect August 2013 — the University itself is now required to investigate all instances of sexual misconduct they learn about through non-confidential sources. Previously, when S.B. filed her complaint, investigations had to be driven forward by the complainant, putting more responsibility on the survivor.

Per the new policy, SAPAC, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services and the Office of the Ombuds are the only confidential sources for survivors. Any reports shared with other University officials, including residence hall advisors, should be passed along to the University’s Title IX coordinator for investigation. If the complaint constitutes a crime, the Title IX coordinator is obligated to inform law enforcement.

The police, however, cannot proceed with a criminal investigation without a report from the survivor unless the case involves domestic violence, according to UMPD Officer Pillsbury.

At the University, if a student does not wish to be involved with the internal investigation, the Title IX coordinator and a panel of University members decide if the investigation should continue.

But S.B.’s case occurred before the new policy, meaning she had the responsibility of pushing her complaint forward for internal review. She chose to drive the case forward for a specific reason: the alleged perpetrator was signed up to go on the same study abroad trip as her that summer.

“I didn’t want him to be on my study abroad trip because I didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t feel safe,” S.B. said. “I didn’t think that it would allow me time to heal and give me the space that I needed, and I didn’t want to have to sacrifice a study abroad trip because of something that he had done and that was his responsibility.”

S.B. submitted a complaint to the University’s Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the branch of the University that dealt with all violations of the statement at the time. Now, the University’s Office of Institutional Equity investigates sexual misconduct violations.

S.B. said OSCR asked if she wanted to go forward with “Formal Conflict Resolution” — a hearing — or “Adaptable Conflict Resolution,” which involved more of a negotiation setting. For S.B., there was nothing to negotiate.

“I was so conflicted, I didn’t know what to do and they would relay back to me, ‘You know, the assailant wants to sit down with you and apologize,’ and that was really hard for me to hear,” S.B. said. “I wanted to hear an apology but then I thought about it and … that doesn’t repair the damage and that can’t come anywhere close to repairing the damage.”

Under the new policy, informal resolution is still an option for resolving some sexual misconduct cases, but the policy now specifies “never in sexual assault cases.” The investigations now primarily consist of private interviews and written statements — not hearings where the two parties face each other.

Six months after the incident, a hearing took place, which S.B. described as a draining 12-hour process. An objective individual who worked for the University heard the case. The respondent and S.B. were in the same room, and she said they were able to ask each other questions through an OSCR moderator. S.B. brought her SAPAC advocate, and the respondent brought an advocate, too.

“I just felt like he was drilling me, drilling me asking me all of these questions, like, asking me to relay in super intense detail exactly what happened,” S.B. said.

Through the moderator, the perpetrator asked S.B. to describe what she wore at the time of the assault, a question that especially upset her, she said, since her attire is irrelevant to his actions.

OSCR ruled the respondent in violation of the University’s statement. While the University agreed he was guilty of sexual misconduct, what still shook S.B. was what happened at the end of her hearing, her voice becoming noticeably frustrated as she spoke about it.

She was approached by OSCR and pressed to say what sanctions she felt were appropriate. The respondent was still in the room reacting to the verdict, an upsetting sight for S.B. Overcome with emotion as she watched the perpetrator react, she spoke opposite of how she really felt.

“I didn’t have time to think about it, I panicked … So at the time I was just like, ‘Don’t take him off of the study abroad trip.’ Which was the dumbest thing I could have ever said, but I didn’t know what to say,” S.B. said.

She later learned that she wasn’t obligated to comment after the hearing.

The sanctions stemming from the hearing further upset S.B. While the University ruled that the respondent was in violation of the statement, he was still able to go on her study abroad program that summer. A “No Contact” sanction was put in place where the respondent was not allowed to be in the same area as S.B. or contact her.

Under the new policy, sanctions still are determined by OSCR using the information from OIE’s investigation. Input is sought from both parties privately on potential sanctions.

When S.B. arrived in her study abroad location, the sanctions brought a new set of complications.

“A woman from the study abroad office e-mails me and goes, ‘If you come in contact with him and you don’t leave his presence, we will send you home.’ And I was like, excuse me, what?” S.B. said. “I don’t have any sanctions. I’m not supposed to have any punishments or sanctions on me, I was not found guilty for anything. I’m here to enjoy my trip, and I don’t want to have to think about this.”

Her study abroad program became occupied by anxiety and exhaustive planning, hoping to avoid her perpetrator and the consequences she could face. The situation left her feeling frustrated, especially when she reported that the perpetrator violated the no-contact order, but the University told her they couldn’t prove the violation occurred.

“I didn’t feel like (the University) took it seriously and really followed through with what they had put in place, and that also goes with how the survivor is doubted or not really believed,” S.B. said. “It created a more extreme power dynamic where I felt like I had no control over the situation, no control over my safety and my wellbeing, which made that very difficult.”

The perpetrator submitted an appeal to the University that summer, which S.B. had to respond to during her time abroad. After that, she asked not to find out the results of the appeal, emotionally drained and done with the process.

Though S.B. had finished formally dealing with the matter, it still affects her today.

“Just randomly around campus, I’ve seen him while I’m going for a run or just walking down the street or in the Union,” S.B. said. “(It’s) pretty gut-wrenching, and really awkward. It’s just my mind starts going a mile a minute, not even thinking, just … panic mode, basically.”

S.B. said she supports the changes in the new sexual misconduct policy since it puts less pressure on a survivor to decide if an investigation should go forward.

The University investigated only two cases of sexual assault from 2009 to 2010 under the complaint-driven policy. From 2011 to 2012 — with the investigative model in effect — 38 cases were investigated. University administrators interviewed at the time believed this shift came from the policy change rather than an increase in sexual assault.

But for S.B., she said it was difficult to learn that her own struggles specifically influenced the changes.

“I guess I was kind of a guinea pig,” S.B. said. “That sounds really bad, and I guess it frustrated me because I felt like a university should kind of be more prepared or have more tools to address these issues better.”

Part 5: A third way to heal

My friend who confided in me about her own experience with sexual assault illustrates the third option that S.B. and all survivors of sexual assault have: to not report an assault to the University or law enforcement.

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of the SafeHouse Center of Washtenaw County — an organization that serves about 5,000 women, children and men each year who experienced sexual assault and domestic violence — said reporting sexual assault to police is not just emotionally draining, but time consuming, which can deter survivors from reporting.

Niess-May said there are often 30 to 50 steps in a conviction, and survivors might make a practical decision to forgo the long, emotional process. Survivors might fear their parents finding out or fear the assailant, especially if they are a high-profile person.

Assistant county prosecutor Liddell said getting a case on trial is a process that can take anywhere from six months to a year after the police report is passed along to the prosecutor. County prosecutor Mackie was quick to point out that even without reporting, the crime occupies a survivor’s time.

“When you say time commitment, if it’s never reported, there’s a huge time commitment on behalf of the victim because this is on her mind,” Mackie said. “So, I hesitate to even think about time commitment. It can occupy most of a person’s waking hours when they’re traumatized by something.”

S.B. said she became severely depressed after she was sexually assaulted. According to the World Health Organization, sexual assault can affect survivors not only physically but mentally and socially, leading to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes ostracism from their communities.

SAPAC and the SafeHouse Center offer counseling and support services for survivors through their recovery process, ensuring people do not take the journey alone. In the path to healing, survivors are never pushed into making a certain decision and they are offered unbiased support, though Neiss-May said overall, the SafeHouse Center believes in reporting.

Today, S.B. has regained her power. She still gets nightmares every once in a while about the incident, but she believes she’s healed through telling her story, reporting the incident and pursuing her study abroad trip regardless of the perpetrator’s presence.

“I think I’ve been able to kind of surpass it, actually,” S.B. said. “Obviously, I would never wish this upon myself or anyone else, but I feel like the kind of strength that I had to gather and the way that I had to stand up for myself is something that I would never have had to do in any other situation. I feel like I’ve gained a greater sense of self.”

But she recognizes her path isn’t for every survivor. After listening to a survivor panel at an advocacy event, she realized that each survivor’s healing process is unique, but giving time to heal and knowing you’re not alone is most important.

“I guess in a way it made me feel less isolated, because I’m just thinking, ‘Why am I still thinking about this three years later?’ ” S.B. said. “Everyone’s path to recovery is so different, and they just said don’t worry about why you’re thinking about this and allow yourself that time and that space to heal.”

Part 6: Where do we go from here?

I think back to sitting on the concrete floor with my friend, hearing her story. I wanted to give her an answer, a remedy for her anxiety and guilt. But knowing what I do now, there isn’t one right answer or solution.

Each path — reporting, not reporting — brings challenges, whether from the justice system, society’s misconceptions or one’s own emotions.

The University security report shows an increase in forcible rapes reported to the police or other campus security groups, with 10 incidents reported in 2011 and 21 in 2012. But is this number showing that the occurrence of the crime has increased, or could it just mean more reports have been made out of the estimated 72 percent that go unreported each year? It’s difficult to know.

I asked each person I interviewed the same question: How do we fix this on campus? The answers were endless: improving the justice system to work more effectively for survivors, educating society so jurors have a better understanding of the crime, removing insensitive cultural representations of rape and sexual assault. For law enforcement, like assistant county prosecutor Liddell, it’s a particularly frustrating question.

“I think sometimes we’re just climbing uphill, because there are these cultural perceptions and a lot of victim blaming,” Liddell said. “I always tell the victim, ‘You’re the brave one’ … For every one of you, there are 30 that don’t come forward at all. Just to go through this process, whatever the outcome may be, hopefully it’s a conviction, but nine times out of ten it’s not. For them to stand up, that’s what impresses me. That’s what makes me do this job.”

It’s easy to sit at freshman orientation, the words “one in four” projected on screens and printed on pamphlets, to brush aside the reality of that statistic. I did. S.B. did.

“Before, I would have never thought that this would have happened to me,” she said. “I come from a good town, I’m smart, I’m a college student. But it can happen to anybody, and none of those factors necessarily matter.”

When you meet multiple people and friends who are part of these statistics, you can see the meaning of those numbers change before your eyes. And those numbers are difficult to gather themselves due to the nature of the crime.

For SAPAC director Rider-Milkovich, she’s most anxious to see those statistics change and a decline in the number of University students who even enter the difficult maze of coping with sexual assault.

“What I really get out of bed every morning excited to do is working towards preventing it from ever happening to begin with, to never have a student have their lives and their learning interrupted by a traumatic experience of sexual assault,” Rider-Milkovich said. “University of Michigan has some of the best prevention programs in the country, and I’m very proud of that, yet I know we can always do better work.”