Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the United States today. According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, only 16 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement. Many victims withhold their experience from authorities and choose to confide only in close friends. Although information regarding the perpetrator may be important for the community’s security, it must always be the victim’s decision whether or not to press criminal charges.
There have been several questions raised about the Oct. 10 sexual assault at the College of William and Mary. Many students believe that withholding the alleged perpetrator’s identity is a disservice to the College community. They feel that public disapproval is proper punishment for the alleged sexual offender and a necessary deterrent to future crimes.
Identifying the perpetrator is a beneficial step in increasing the College’s safety, especially when the perpetrator is a student. However, we must all understand that sexual assault is different than other crimes. Victims experience not only physical violence, but also potent emotional scarring. In this situation, it is very important to respect the victim’s wishes regarding confidentiality. He or she may feel a loss of control over life’s decisions and occurrences. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, victims may experience a range of reactions to the crime, from alienation and distrust of others to guilt and anxiety. Therefore, empowering victims and supporting their choices are healthy ways to begin the healing process.
In over two-thirds of the sexual assaults that occurred on college campuses referenced in the 2005 Crime Victimization Survey, the perpetrator was a former acquaintance of the victim. This creates further complications for the victim in reporting and identifying the assailant. The victim is torn between receiving justice, and its implications for his or her relationships in college. Many fear being ostracized by their campus community for identifying the perpetrator and pressing charges. The sexual assault victim in the College’s recent case may be going through similar dilemmas since her offender was also an acquaintance.
It is important to realize that a victim can heal without obtaining retribution for the crime. Many resources on campus and in Williamsburg offer guidance and support for recovery. Apart from reporting it to the Campus Police, the victim can choose to take advantage of the counseling and medical services at the Student Health Center or the Counseling Center, as well as learn about more options from organizations such as Sexual Assault Peer Advocates. The city of Williamsburg employs special nurses who help sexual assault survivors through the medical process and offer any needed counseling.
Federal law prohibits the release of both victims’ and alleged perpetrators’ identities if no charges are pressed. However, it is important to recognize the emotional and psychological reasoning behind the preservation of this information. Although there are many options available for the victim, it is ultimately always up to him or her to decide the road to recovery. Only time will heal the victim from this traumatic experience. But meanwhile, it is imperative not to judge or to question any decision he or she may make.
Kalyani Phanasalkar is a sophomore at the College.