Our justice system doesn’t help sexual assault survivors who aren’t Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift is encouraging women not to play down their sexual assaults. But that isn't enough.

Taylor Swift performs at DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: John Salangsang/Invision/AP
Taylor Swift performs at DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: John Salangsang/Invision/AP

A week ago, a jury ruled in favor of Taylor Swift against former radio DJ David Mueller, who she said sexually assaulted her in 2013. Mueller sued Swift first, claiming her accusations were false. Then Swift countersued for sexual assault.

Headlines across a number of outlets portrayed Swift’s win as a win for all women who have been sexually assaulted. Sexual assault incidents such as groping, which is what Swift experienced, are often minimized and treated as unworthy of reporting to police. But will Swift’s trial change that?

Although the decision to touch someone’s body without asking shows a disregard for people’s bodily autonomy, our culture tolerates groping, particularly of women. The most obvious example of this cultural acceptance is the fact that our current president has a history of sexual assault accusations and has bragged about sexually assaulting women. Now, Swift’s case may have encouraged other women who have experienced sexual assault to speak loudly on the issue and maybe even report their assaults.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) told SELF that it saw a 35 percent increase in use of its hotline, which provides confidential counseling to survivors, in the few days after Swift’s trial.

Swift’s refusal to back down during her testimony probably resonated with and inspired many women. Mueller’s attorney grilled her with questions about why she was smiling in the photo taken after she was groped and if she was disappointed in her bodyguard for not protecting her against the groper — all questions designed to focus on her reaction instead of the actions of the man accused of groping her. Many women are familiar with this line of questioning.

When asked if she felt guilty about Mueller losing his job, Swift responded, “I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”

Only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police according to RAINN’s data, and some victims said they didn’t think the assault was important enough to report. One huge factor in why survivors don’t report sexual assault is their knowledge that the police probably won’t take it seriously. People can pursue civil cases against the person who assaulted them, but the person they’ve accused could always fire back and file a civil suit against them. And when that happens, they won’t have Swift’s resources — a fact that Swift acknowledged in her statement following the court victory.

A number of reports on how police handle sexual assault cases suggests that victims are right to question whether police will actually believe them or even follow up on their claims. Last year, the Department of Justice released a report on Baltimore’s police department and its mishandling of sex crimes. The report found that detectives made “minimal to no effort to locate, identify, interrogate, or investigate suspects” and would ask victims questions such as “Why are you messing up that guy’s life?” There also may be pressure for police officers to keep crime reports off the books to keep crime levels low, NYPD officials told the New York Times in 2011. A woman who reported being groped by a bicyclist two days in a row told the Times that the policeman responded by saying, “These things happen.” Another 2013 report from Human Rights Watch found that the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department failed to document or investigate many complaints of sexual assault between October 2008 and 2011. In some cases, police treated victims “callously and skeptically” and discouraged them from reporting. Sometimes police even threatened to prosecute them for false reporting.

“To hear him tell me he didn’t believe me was a slap in my face. It just knocked me down, it was a punch in my stomach,” one victim told Human Rights Watch.

Since public transportation is a common place women face groping and public lewdness from male strangers, subway officials should, in theory, be prepared to take women’s reports seriously. Often, the opposite happens and women are discouraged from reporting it. An example of this attitude is the treatment a New York woman, Tiffany Jackson, received when she approached a subway official after a man masturbated in front of her in 2015. When she went to the subway conductor, she said he “rolled his eyes, annoyed, and radioed dispatch… The conductor grumbled and told me to just go upstairs and report the incident to the booth.” As she headed in that direction, the man who masturbated in front of her then began following her.

“They acted like I was more of a nuisance than trying to help me, and sent me right in the path of danger,” Jackson said. The incident was only taken seriously once she posted the evidence to Instagram.

There are many more stories of police failing to take women’s reports of public lewdness and sexual assault seriously. And of course, some women are afraid of sexual violence from police officers themselves. As The Nation reported, sexual misconduct among police officers is a “persistent problem in some police departments” and many are repeat offenders.

To encourage more victims to come forward with reports of sexual assault, police need to investigate sexual misconduct within their own police forces and tackle sexual assault myths that make it difficult for victims to seek justice. In 2012, Marywood University researchers looked at written surveys from 429 police officers and found a significant relationship between interviewing skills and rape myth acceptance. Hopefully, with better training on how to interview sexual assault survivors, officers could avoid retraumatizing survivors of sexual violence, and in time, more people would feel comfortable coming forward to report these crimes.