As the rallying cry to “defund the police” reverberates across the country, some critics have claimed that women will be irrevocably harmed if police budgets are downsized, pointing specifically to sexual assault survivors. The argument, steeped in misogyny and antiquated ideas of what a victim looks like, uses crimes (largely but by no means exclusively) committed against women to justify the continued overfunding of police.
But for survivors themselves, the debate is more complicated. Some went to the police for help and received it; most who reported crimes saw their perpetrators walk free. Many didn’t go to the police at all, fearing they would face victim-blaming questions and get little help. Some were assaulted by the very people they’d have to report crimes to.
These survivors don’t want more police. They want more help.
HuffPost spoke to more than a dozen survivors of sexual assault about the debate over defunding police. While their views don’t represent those of all survivors ― nearly 434,000 people are sexually assaulted every year in the U.S. ― they said police often ended up retraumatizing them instead of helping them find justice.
“The criminal system is built to punish. It’s not built to support the victim in any way,” Thomas Shim, co-founder of #WhyIDidntReport, told HuffPost. “As soon as you report, you have to retell your experience over and over again to complete strangers who often victim-blame. In the name of ‘I’m just doing my job,’ they’ll ask you things like ‘What were you wearing?’”
One look at the statistics, and it’s easy to see why many survivors don’t report their assaults to law enforcement. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Survivors who do decide to press charges against their attackers are usually in for a long and expensive legal battle that can end with a prosecutor deciding not to pursue a case or a contaminated, untested rape kit.
Just last week, retired Memphis Police Department officers admitted to throwing thousands of rape kits into a nearby landfill in the 1990s, and many of the kits were for prosecutable cases within the statute of limitations.
Police also may fail to take reports seriously, especially from members of marginalized groups or people not stereotypically thought to be victims. Black women and non-binary people are “hyper-vulnerable” to sexual violence, according to the ACLU, but not as likely as white women to be believed. And an estimated 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual violence, yet their stories are often brushed off.
“The criminal system is built to punish. It’s not built to support the victim in any way.””
– Thomas Shim, co-founder of #WhyIDidntReport
Cops are also perpetrators of sexual assault: Between 2005 and 2013, over 1,200 police officers were arrested for sex crimes, but those were only the ones against victims who were brave enough to report. Law enforcement officers also have a storied history of actively targeting more vulnerable people, like sex workers.
Social services that could receive a reallocation of funding from downsized police budgets are the very types of services survivors need when they report: mental health, addiction and other trauma-informed services.
Many survivors told HuffPost they’d like to see transformative justice ― an alternative method of addressing harm by relying on community members instead of police. Transformative justice is about communal healing and prevention. Incarceration does the opposite; between 3% and 9% of male inmates reported experiencing sexual violence while incarcerated ― that’s more than 180,000 men.
“If I wanted a process of accountability for the abuse I had experienced and to prevent this person from hurting other people, my only option was to lock my rapist up,” said Tani Ikeda, a sexual assault survivor and founder of Survivor Love Letter. “As someone who had family members suffering from PTSD from incarceration, I wanted to search for other solutions.”
The majority of survivors Shim speaks to through his work support defunding the police, but a few ― the “lucky and privileged” who had good experiences with the police ― are not always on board with the movement, he said.
“They’ve had experiences where the police actually helped them find their perpetrator and punish them. That’s amazing. We completely understand where they’re coming from because, again, they demanded justice and they got that,” he said.
The best way to understand how sexual assault survivors feel about defunding the police is to listen to them. In their own words, this is how survivors feel about the movement.
Warning: Some readers may find the below content triggering. These stories have been lightly edited for length and style.
“Maggie,” a 25-year-old from Iowa, told HuffPost she was raped several times by her then-partner over the course of a few months. She never reported it to police because of threats from her partner, although she did report the abuse to her school after the last assault, which she says was the most severe.
I frequently thought about filing a police report and often came close to doing so. However, my partner regularly used threats and coercion to prevent me from involving the police. While initially after the last incident of rape, he expressed remorse and even encouraged me to seek help, later on, he began to regularly use suicide threats if I mentioned filing a report… In addition, one of his favorite tactics was to try to convince me that he would be repeatedly raped in prison if I reported. Because I loved him and because I did not want him to harm himself or be harmed, I eventually chose not to pursue police involvement because I feared for his safety both inside and outside of prison.
Despite it being used as a threat, I often think about how my abuser’s commentary about prison rape is not without truth. While that threat will forever haunt me, it has taught me an important lesson about how the criminal justice system so often reinforces and perpetuates violence.
I support abolishing and defunding the police. My answer would likely have been different several years ago, back when I believed that law enforcement was a supportive mechanism for survivors. As many other people do, I believe there is significant work to be done to develop systems of community accountability and community public safety, but it has become clear to me that police were never about providing safety.
“Alex,” a 25-year-old from Denver, told HuffPost she was sexually assaulted by a guy friend while she was at college. Alex, who is Black, said she didn’t report her assault because she was afraid that her attacker, a Black man, would face consequences far worse than his actions due to racism in policing. She also decided not to report because she felt pressure to ensure the representation of the Black community at her school was not affected.
Many Black students at our university had already had issues with the police racially profiling them and harassing them. While what [my attacker] did to me was wrong and illegal, I don’t think it should come with any risk of endangering his life. Additionally, because of the criminalization of Black bodies in our society, I always hesitate to incite police interactions with Black people as I’m afraid of both perpetuating the narrative of our criminality and putting their lives in danger. Within our sphere of influence, my attacker was also someone who was frequently pointed to as an example of “Black Excellence” and has been instrumental in many efforts to improve the experiences of Black students on our campus. At the time, it was a cost-benefit of him being investigated and punished for his behavior, and how that would change how our community was seen. While I know ultimately he doesn’t singlehandedly represent Black students and alumni of our university, I don’t think it would help us in our efforts towards racial justice either.
I’m a strong supporter of defunding the police and making significant other changes to our criminal justice system. Our current systems don’t work for survivors of crime or their assailants. I didn’t report in no small part because I don’t want to perpetuate a broken system that profits on BIPOC bodies. As a survivor, I think I have a stronger sense that the system doesn’t work for anyone except for those in charge of it. We shouldn’t have survivors who aren’t willing to go to the police because they know they won’t be treated with dignity and respect. We shouldn’t have survivors who see their attackers be given punishments either too lenient or too harsh for their crimes, entirely because of who that attacker is. As a survivor who understands the flaws of the penal systems, I know the system is broken on both sides.
Tara Burns is a 38-year-old sex worker and sex workers’ rights advocate living in Alaska. She was sex trafficked and assaulted at a young age and now documents instances of violence against sex workers, including acts of violence perpetrated by police.
Police have only ever compounded the trauma of sexual assaults for me. No one has ever gone to jail for sexually assaulting me, whether I was sex working at the time or not.
As an advocate for sex workers trying to report violence for the last five years, it has been a struggle to get police to even take reports at times. No one has ever gone to jail for sexually assaulting or sex trafficking any of the survivors who I have supported in reporting. I’m absolutely for defunding the police and redirecting funds to more effective strategies.
Lane Lofaso, a 17-year-old from New York, told HuffPost he was in a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship for a year, starting when he was 15 years old. He said he plans to report his abuser soon.
Defunding the police is something that should happen immediately. The money is not going to any of the right places, and officers are not trained properly to handle sexual assaults and speaking to victims/survivors.
My experience as a survivor definitely impacts my feeling and opinion on defunding the police and I’m glad that it does. Personally, I don’t think I will ever get justice. Sexual assault causes lifelong trauma and nothing will ever fix that. But the closest thing to that is making sure the perpetrator is punished and that’s where law enforcement comes in.
Amanda Thomashow, a 31-year-old from Michigan, was sexually assaulted by former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar during a 2014 medical exam. At the time, she filed a Title IX complaint with MSU but the school concluded Nassar’s conduct was not sexual in nature. Her Title IX complaint was one of the few breadcrumbs that later led to Nassar’s downfall.
My experience as a survivor has only informed me more on how important it is that we take funds away from the police and redistribute them into community services and education. My experiences with the police have been nothing but negative and terrifying. Those experiences only carried out my trauma longer than was necessary and it’s been very clear that they only care about my cases and the harm that’s been done to me if they can prosecute, put somebody in jail or get a fine out of them.
Maya Siegel, a 20-year-old who founded the survivor-centered organization Space to Speak, told HuffPost she was raped by a boyfriend at 14 and later sexually assaulted by a different perpetrator at 18. She decided not to report to police because she was afraid of being victim-blamed.
I didn’t report because I didn’t think I would be believed without evidence. Society is full of abuser sympathizers and judges that blame survivors for their clothes, alcohol consumption, or being in a relationship (and I was in a relationship with him at the time); I knew that I didn’t have a case. Additionally, even though I knew that physical evidence is gone in three days, it took me more than three days to comprehend what happened and tell my parents.
I don’t think police are the answer, especially without proper education. After all, 85% of federal funding for domestic violence is dedicated to law enforcement; it should be redistributed to directly help survivors, an example would be helping them cover medical or legal expenses. It’s been six years and I am still working with doctors; I would have loved an emergency grant or further support.
Riley Reed, a 20-year-old from Chicago, was sexually assaulted two separate times. Reed disclosed the assaults to a professor but did not report to police, knowing the process of reporting can oftentimes be just as traumatic as the initial assault.
I didn’t go forward with a police report because I didn’t want to have to go through a long, arduous process… I didn’t want to feel victimized or be scrutinized with so many different questions… I didn’t feel like I had obvious evidence. Women especially are made to feel like it’s our fault and we brought it on ourselves.
I fully support defunding the police. I think we need other resources that can help people in many different dangerous circumstances. The police don’t have the proper training to deal with trauma. The people that helped me the most through my process were counselors. People that are equipped with proper knowledge should be sent to deescalate or help situations that police so often fail to do.
“Sabrina,” a 45-year-old woman from New York City, said she has been sexually assaulted multiple times, but the most traumatic was when she was sexually abused as a 9-year-old. Her family reported the abuse to the police but, looking back, she felt she was not in control of that decision because she was so young.
In some ways, the urgency to go to the police (on my stepfather’s part) was as traumatizing as the actual attack. My mother did not want to call them. I did not want to call them. We did it because he definitely felt we should. What followed: The police blamed my mother, threatened to report her to CPS, I had to go to a hospital for an exam which was absolutely terrifying.
I’m curious to know more about the details [of defunding the police]. But if it means reducing budgets and redistributing those funds to the community, then absolutely yes [I support it].
Tani Ikeda, a survivor from Los Angeles, told HuffPost she was sexually assaulted when she was younger and entered into a four-year process with law enforcement and the criminal justice system to try to hold her rapist accountable.
It felt like a secondary violence to have my memories scrutinized by police who asked me clinical details about my assault, like a crime scene from which they were extracting evidence. The way I dressed, the accuracy of my memory, my creative online poetry, and even my smile ― all became evidence that I was at fault for my own rape.
How can we practice transformative justice in our everyday lives and relationships? In a society that devalues human life, we can build more relationships that are based on curiosity and joy rather than gaining social status and career advancement. We center our own pleasure so what looks good on the outside also feels good on the inside. In elementary school, children who misbehave are given timeout. When we become adults, they go to prison. Instead of looking for people to punish, I am deeply invested in undoing the generational cycles of harm in our community through each of us working on ourselves.
“Clare” is a 30 year-old-woman living in California. Growing up in Michigan, she was sexually and physically abused by her mother’s boyfriend for 12 years. She did not report the abuse but neighbors frequently called police for noise complaints.
I was questioned by the officers a few times, always in front of my abusers where I did not feel safe to tell them the truth or ask for help.
Every time I see articles and posts about abolishing or defunding the police, I’m frustrated that this didn’t happen earlier, that I wasn’t saved, and that the system failed me over and over again. I could have been spared if trained social workers had been involved. The police didn’t save me from being molested and assaulted over and over again for twelve years. People argue that if we defund the police, who will be there to protect women from being raped on the streets? But they neglect the fact that it’s already happening, and it feels like each one of these people are saying that my pain, our pain, doesn’t matter, that it isn’t enough of a reason.
Cassandra, an 18-year-old from Maryland, was raped by a classmate on New Year’s Eve in 2018 when she was 16 years old. She didn’t report her assault because her perpetrator used a condom and because she didn’t leave any marks on him. She also didn’t feel like she truly understood what happened to her until she left for college.
I think we should focus on restorative justice and preventative justice instead of being reactionary and buying into a system that often perpetuates more harm instead of actually helping. My experience has helped me realize that our prison system and justice system is flawed in such a way that it doesn’t achieve meaningful justice. My rapist ― if he had been charged, tried, and locked up ― would have eventually gotten out with no better understanding of consent or what he did to me. He’d probably have lingering feelings or resentment towards me and the justice system while never acknowledging the harm he perpetrated against me. What I’ve realized is that rape is about power and entitlement. That feeling of entitlement never leaves when the punishment is simply prison time. Furthermore, within the prison system, sexual assault is commonplace. Prisons conduct strip searches, in addition to rape being prevalent in prisons. I personally believe that true justice is not achieved by perpetrating the same harm done to you onto the perpetrator and continuing the cycle of violence but rather promote healing and discussion. All I want is a public apology and an acknowledgment of what my rapist has done. I just want to be able to continue on with my life knowing that he knows what he did to me was wrong and he won’t do it again.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.