Brittany Bowman: Why report?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 10:09am

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In light of the recent chaos of our political scene, movements bringing awareness to sexual assault survivors have gained more traction now than ever. The hashtag #MeToo was first coined in 2006 by grassroots activist Tarana Burke and truly paved its way into mainstream media two years ago. The movement urges women to write #MeToo to show the magnitude and impact of sexual assault. Alyssa Milano, an American activist and actress, tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet” on October 15, 2017. A year later, a study by the Pew Research Center found that #MeToo was used over 19 million times on Twitter, and there were more posts around news events. The hashtag has undoubtedly enabled many women and sexual assault survivors to speak up and stand in solidarity with others, but it has also unveiled many other systemic problems that desperately needed to be addressed. 

Three years ago, Americans listened to our current president on tape say, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Two years ago, the #MeToo movement was kicked off after sexual assault allegations were brought against Harvey Weinstein. Just one year ago, we watched Brett Kavanaugh, another man accused of sexual assault, get confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. Now, more than ever, Americans want change.

Over the past few years, many powerful men have had sexual assault allegations brought against them. News like this makes the headlines for a little while, but is soon superseded by something larger, allowing people like Kavanaugh to slip our minds momentarily. But people haven’t forgotten entirely, and events like the election of President Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings have helped lead a fundamental shift in how men in power, even in the government, are viewed by the American people. A study done by research firm PerryUndem shows that 49 percent of the people polled agree with the statement, “One reason Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed is because white men want to hold onto their power in the government.” Over the past few years, there has been fresh chatter about the balance of power in society, and partners at the firm believe people may be taking these thoughts to the ballot boxes.

In another Undem poll, half of the voters thought about the implications of men having more power than women in government after the Kavanaugh hearings. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood in front of an audience composed of mostly men and testified, her words and trauma were not enough to stop a man from being admitted to the country’s highest court of law. A feeling of overwhelming dread and helplessness was cemented into the minds of many Americans that day. It was clear that men held more positions of power, and that those men did not value justice for victims of sexual assault or harassment. 

Ford coming forward to reveal her trauma should have immediately changed the course of action taken by government officials. Imagine the sheer number of women who do not have the resources, time or support to ever come forward with information on their assaulter. The survivors who do come forward can never truly be vindicated. Yet, people still have the nerve and ignorance to ask why survivors do not want their names revealed and why they “wait so long.” Credibility is questioned, attempted political scams are assumed. Women and survivors are never just believed. 

Granted, everyone should be legally afforded the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty, but we must do this by pressing for justice. Survivors deserve better. Women deserve better. Anyone who is sexually assaulted deserves better, and they deserve to live without having to watch their assaulter sit in a position of power over other women. 

Everything starts with reporting. According to the University of Michigan’s Office for Institutional Equity, after #MeToo went viral in the fall of 2016, reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment increased by 62 percent on campus. However, of the 152 reports that fell under the policy, only 20 investigations were conducted and only 10 completed. In the end, only three cases found students to be in violation of the University’s policy regarding sexual and gender-based misconduct. This reminds us that change must be made at institutional levels and begins individually. To get anything into a legal review system, it must be reported first. The increased reporting of sexual assault or harassment is not inherently reflective of anyone’s improved confidence in the legal system – rather it reflects the  confidence in the conviction that they will at least be heard. 

We must respect anyone who speaks up about sexual assaults. Creating a more inclusive environment for supporting survivors is imperative for destroying the contempt and uncertainty that inevitably arrive when someone comes forward with their story. Per the National Sexual Violence Research Center, sexual assault or rape is the most underreported crime in the country. Without formal complaints or reports to the police or authoritative figures, sexual assault perpetrators cannot be reviewed, much less brought to justice. College campuses must make it easier to report, bring and prove statements of sexual assault. Protecting survivors from the rigors of proving these claims and enabling trained professionals to understand the traumas of these individuals is essential for the breakdown of institutionally-protected perpetrators. 

Brittany Bowman can be reached at babowm@umich.edu.