top of page

Our Legal System Fails Sexual Assault Survivors

Before I read Know My Name by Chanel Miller, our legal system maintained its brilliant, granite facade. Its ability to bring justice to sexual assault survivors seemed intuitive: a given of our rights-focused modernity. But then I learned about the crushing unfairness Chanel faced, and I can say I would crumble if I'd been the one to stand before it. I applaud her for being an inspiration.


Our justice system doesn't convict and punish offenders without subjecting survivors to extreme difficulty. Justice should not be so personally difficult for the survivor to gain. When it comes to sexual assault, we must reform our legal system so the victim does not face challenges that make them feel assaulted all over again, only now in a more public form. 


Stereotyping is a prevalent, non-legal factor that influences our legal processes. We stereotype many demographics as criminals, and it should come as no surprise that we do the same for victims of sexual assault. This paradigm contributes to many counterproductive tendencies, like blaming the victim or accusing them of lying preemptively (or even after substantive evidence is presented). For survivors, the prospect of justice is inextricably linked with the risk of a tainted character. 


In most criminal cases, this dilemma is almost non-existent. If you've been robbed, you generally have no quarrels reporting the robber. But those who are sexually assaulted must face an especially judgmental, cultural tendency, bringing a sensitive, private matter that's been violently mutilated through assault into the open air of public scrutiny.

We must reframe our legal system, and work towards changing our culture so that people do not need to weigh the retributive consequences of attempting to receive justice when it's something rightfully owed them. 


Sexual assault survivors often feel trapped, with no good outcome available. It's an injustice in its purest form that, to receive justice, one must wade through hell. We should compassionately organize our system for survivors, assisting them in fighting their assailants with few grievances. 


Of course, we must also be careful to not perpetuate injustice in our attempts to relieve it. There are certainly cases where people are falsely accused of sexual assault. Obviously, we must follow the evidence. But we must do it in a way that doesn't overburden the victim. 


One example of much-needed improvement is DNA evidence. This sort of evidence is crucial for solidifying victims' cases and preventing false convictions. Yet, we continue to backlog rape kits. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of rape kits rest idly in police departments and lab storages, untested. Survivors undergo invasive evidence collection in vain. We need to redesign the logistics of this system. We need to be more sensitive to the needs and plights of sexual assault survivors. 


But societal judgment and evidence backlog aren't the main reason sexual assault survivors infrequently come forward. The primary reason is a fear of direct retaliation. This isn't surprising, given that only 25 of every 1,000 reports of sexual assault result in incarceration. And even if incarceration does result, it usually isn't immediate. Perpetrators of sexual assault are more likely to walk than face jail time. Victims' fear of retribution is the inevitable result. 


How do we solve this? How do we better give justice to sexual assault survivors without stoking false convictions or abandoning the legitimate evidentiary rules of our judicial system? A several-hundred-word OpEd isn't the place for a detailed answer. 


But what I can say is this: we have to destroy the unfair scale we've forced on sexual assault survivors. Sexual assault is a complex issue requiring a multi-faceted approach. And we'll only develop solutions by being sensitive to the horrendous, legal plights of sexual assault survivors. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Hailey Sjoblom is a fourth-year undergrad at UCSB, doubling in Communication and Political Science. She worked as an intern for Hans Riemer's Campaign for Montgomery County Executive outside Washington D.C. 


Sources:

Daly, Kathleen, and Brigitte Bouhours. “Rape and Attrition in the Legal Process: A Comparative Analysis of Five Countries.” Crime and Justice, vol. 39, no. 1, 2010, pp. 565–650., https://doi.org/10.1086/653101.

"How Many Rape Kits Are Awaiting Testing in the US? See the Data by State." USA Facts, updated 3 July 2023. https://usafacts.org/articles/how-many-rape-kits-are-awaiting-testing-in-the-us-see-the-data-by-state/

“Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence.

“Sexual Assaults Increase for Tenth Year in a Row.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/sexual-assaults-increase-tenth-year-row.

Commentaires


bottom of page