by Anne P. DePrince & Naomi Wright
Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes to law enforcement. Communities need information about practices that support women’s autonomous decision-making, particularly given how deeply personal and complex such decisions can be. In a forthcoming Violence against Women article, we asked whether women’s reporting decisions were affected by the kinds of social reactions they received after disclosing the assault to other people.
Here’s the short answer: Women who received more practical help from community-based service providers were more likely to report to law enforcement. The longer version of the answer is important, too, because this finding has implications for community-coordinated responses to sexual assault (that is, responses that involve community-based and criminal justice agencies). So, let’s dig in further.
As Dr. Sarah Ullman and others have documented, women who disclose sexual assault can be on the receiving end of both positive and negative social reactions from other people. Positive social reactions can include emotional support and tangible aid. Tangible aid involves actions such as helping women obtain information about coping, helping them access healthcare or the police, and providing information and options. Negative social reactions can include blaming women, taking away their control to make decisions, and treating them differently because of the assault.
Earlier work from the Traumatic Stress Studies Group documented that women get more negative social reactions after disclosing sexual assault to friends and family, compared to criminal justice system personnel or community-based service providers. Community-based service providers offered the most positive social reactions.
One of the questions we asked in the forthcoming study was whether positive or negative social reactions to sexual assault disclosures were linked to women’s decisions to report to law enforcement. To answer this question, we turned to interviews with approximately 200 women who were sexually assaulted in the last year who also disclosed the assault to a community-based service provider, such as a medical professional or counselor. Just over half (56%) of women had reported the assault to law enforcement.
When we first interviewed women, those who had reported the assault to law enforcement also said they received greater tangible aid from both informal supports as well as community-based providers. Because we measured whether they had reported the assault and the social reactions at the same time, at least two interpretations were possible. Practical help from family and friends or community-based providers might have increased women’s likelihood of reporting to law enforcement. Or, friends and family as well as community-based providers might have rallied to provide practical help after women have made a report to law enforcement.
Next, we tried to untangle whether tangible aid leads to law enforcement reporting or if it might work the other way around. Recall that 46% of women had not reported to law enforcement when we first interviewed them. Over the next nine months, about 10% of women made a report to law enforcement. For these women, we were able to ask: does earlier tangible aid from family and friends or community-based providers increase the likelihood that women will report the sexual assault to law enforcement later?
Women receiving more tangible aid from community-based providers were more likely to report the sexual assault to law enforcement at some point over the next nine months. This finding is a big deal for policy and practice: Despite sexual assault being drastically under-reported, when community-based providers provided practical help in the aftermath of the assault, women’s engagement with the criminal justice system increased through reporting. These findings validate the importance of investing in community-coordinated responses to intimate violence that bring criminal justice and community-based professionals together.
While our study doesn’t answer why more tangible aid from community-based providers led to law enforcement reporting, we see several possibilities. The tangible aid that community-based providers offer might include information women need about reporting (what’s involved, where to go, how to make a report). In addition, positive experiences with community-based providers may demonstrate to women that formal responses to the assault can be useful, which might encourage women to try engaging with the criminal justice system. Further, the practical help women receive from community-based providers may reduce barriers to reporting. (For women’s advice to providers from their help-seeking experiences, see our earlier post)
Communities need victim-focused, trauma-informed practices that facilitate women’s autonomous reporting decisions following sexual assault. This research points to the important role that community-based providers can play in keeping doors open for women to engage with the criminal justice system if and when they choose to do so.
P.S. We’ll update this post with a link to the forthcoming article when it is available!
This research was funded by the National Institute of Justice [Grant #2012-W9-BX-049]. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or the official position of the National Institute of Justice or any other organization.
Thank you to our community partners who made this research possible, particularly Denver’s Sexual Assault Interagency Council.
The citation for the forthcoming article is DePrince, A.P., Wright, N., Gagnon, K.L., Srinivas, T., & Labus, J. (in press). Social Reactions and Women’s Decision to Report Sexual Assault to Law Enforcement. Violence against Women. Co-authors on the forthcoming article included TSS Group member Naomi Wright as well as TSS Group alums Kerry L. Gagnon and Tejas Srinivas.