It can be extremely challenging to decide if you want to report the sexual harm you experienced. While reporting is not for everyone, here are some details about reporting to help you make an informed choice.
First, consider what reporting body would make most sense for your safety and healing. If sexual harm occurred in the context of work or while you are attending a university, you may want to file a formal complaint within those institutions, to help create environment-specific safeguards you may need should you choose to continue to work or study within those locations. Whether or not you choose to make a report to an institutional body, you can still make a report to law enforcement.
Reporting through the criminal justice system can look differently depending on what your needs are. Survivors’ involvement typically involves reporting the violence to the police and participating in the justice process if charges are pursued. You could also pursue safety within the civil legal system by filing for things such as civil orders of protection, financial retribution, and child custody if that applies to you. For this post, we will focus on reporting sexual harm to the police, but if you would like additional information about other legal options, please feel free to reach out to us again!
There is no limitation on when a victim can report a crime to police. However, in many states, there is a limitation on when charges can be filed and a case can be prosecuted. This is called the statute of limitations. Statutes of limitation vary by state, type of crime, age of the victim, and various other factors. Visit RAINN’s State Law Database to learn more about the criminal statutes of limitation where you are.
To make a report, you have several options. First, if you are in immediate danger dial 911. Law enforcement officers will come to you to help wherever you are. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact the local police department. They will typically ask you to come to the police station so they can learn more about what happened and start their investigation. A final thing you could do is visit a medical center. Particularly if you have injuries related to the harm you experienced, you can walk into any medical facility, get a medical evaluation, and tell them you want to report a crime. Some medical facilities specifically care for survivors of sexual harm and can collect evidence to support your case right at the same facility. To find an appropriate local health facility that is prepared to care for survivors, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673).
The typical things you will experience if you report your experience to the police is an interview by law enforcement, a medical evaluation, and a sexual assault forensic exam to document injuries and gather evidence to support your case. Know that many areas offer survivor/victim advocates to support you through the reporting process. If this would be helpful to you, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline listed above to see options for this in your area.
First, you will be assigned to a detective who will try to get as many details as possible from you to build your case. This includes getting information that would establish elements such as premeditation, grooming, coercion, threats and/or force. Detectives may also ask you what you thought, felt and feared at the time of the assault, as well as how resistance was communicated. Remember, silence is not consent.
You will then meet with a sexual assault forensic examiner who will ask you about your medical history and details about the nature of the assault to understand where to gather evidence. If you have injuries, the forensic examiner may document these via photography to build your case. They will also give you a head to toe assessment and will swab anywhere they may be able to recover DNA (via saliva, skin cells, or other bodily fluids). This may include swabbing your genital area depending on the nature of your experience. The forensic examiner will also typically offer you preventative STI and pregnancy medication, and they may gather your urine if they suspect you ingested a substance without your consent. They may also take some clothing, if you have it, that you wore during the encounter to check for DNA. To learn more about forensic exams, see our other posts on evidence collection options.
Once you report your experience, what happens depends on a number of factors. The police officer’s role is to collect the evidence and determine if there are reasonable probable grounds to lay charges. After the investigation is completed the police will let you know if charges can be laid. You will be asked if you wish to proceed with the court process. The decision is up to you.
If you decide you do not want to go through the court and legal process, you can still file a report with the police and a record of the sexual assault will remain on file in case you wish to pursue it at a later date.
If the police decide not to press charges, it does not mean they do not believe you. Officers often encounter a number of reasons for not being able to pursue your case like not having enough physical evidence to prove the charges in court. In the end, the decision about whether or not to report the sexual assault to the police is up to you. The legal process can take up to two years from the initial report to the police to the court date. You will be the one going through the process, and therefore your wellbeing and comfort with the process are vital.
If all of this feels too much to deal with right now, but you know you may want to report your experience later, know that there are still things you can do! By law you are not required to report to law enforcement in order to receive a sexual assault forensic exam (i.e. a “rape kit”). This means you can still receive care from a sexual assault forensic center, gather evidence for your case, and can store it anonymously for as long as your state allows (for example, today in Pennsylvania your evidence can be stored for up to 21 years).
We know this is a lot of information, but knowledge is power to ensure you make the right choice for you and your healing. Remember you are not alone. You can always reach out to a sexual violence agency to talk about your options more in detail if you need. We believe you. We support you. We are here for you.