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The politics of reporting sexual assault

October 28, 2009

Despite my temporary absence from GAB (due to GRE studying; my favorite vocab words thus far have been “sextant,” “platitude,” and “whimsical”), I wanted to bring to your attention a story that’s been floating around Northwestern University’s campus in Evanston, IL.

As an employee of Northwestern University, I received an email from the Northwestern University Police Department last night regarding a sexual assault. Part of the email read:

A female Northwestern University student was the victim of a sexual assault that occurred in Chicago at approximately 12:50 a.m. Oct. 27, 2009. The victim was walking to the CTA Red Line elevated train station located at Addison Street when she noticed a man following her. She boarded a northbound train to return to Evanston. The subject entered the train with the victim. The subject attempted to persuade the victim to come to his place but the victim refused. At the Jarvis Street station, the offender forced the victim off the train. The victim tried to escape but the subject led her to an apartment building approximately one-half block from the el station and took her via elevator to an apartment. The victim was then sexually assaulted. She later managed to escape the apartment and notified police. The case is being investigated by the Chicago Police Department.

The suspect was described as a dark-skinned African American male, approximately 25 years old, 5-6 – 5-7 inches tall, with a thin but muscular build, wearing a black leather jacket and dark jeans.

I thought, hmmph, that’s no good. Didn’t think much of it (I never ride the El late at night by myself) until I received an email this morning claiming that the report was false and declared “not a bona fide incident.” I checked online at the Daily Northwestern, the campus newspaper, to see if anything else had been reported about the false allegation.

This article did not make any further reports: it restated what was sent in the email this morning about the false report. I scrolled down to the comments and was quite appalled. While I do not want to contribute to whether or not the sexual assault was true, I do want to make a point about people and the media who do.

Many people and outlets of media victim-blame, which is used frequently in the reporting of sexual assault cases and also rape prevention posters, which Elizabeth posted about a few weeks ago. “She wore slutty clothes” or “she was a prostitute” would be examples of those. The comments that I read in that Daily Northwestern article go along those same lines. Here are some highlights (note: trigger warning):

More than likely, she probably got pregnant and she decided to stage a raped so she would not have to deal with her parents wrath. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.-Commenter Harry Potter

Basically she lied. Probably to get someone in trouble. Usually they can tell whether or not something like this happened with a simple medical check.-Commenter Johnny Weak

Mouth dropped. Seriously? I want to point out in Johnny Weak’s comment about a “simple medical check.” They are not that simple: sometimes police gather wrong evidence from either victim or suspect. The evidence used for the medical check may not be used properly in the transporting to and during the medical check.

Additionally, just because a sexual assault case is reported false does not mean that the victim lied. It could mean that the victim would not cooperate with the police, victim changes her/his accounts of rape, or assailant cannot be identified.

I do commend the following people who commented about the incident:

Most likely she was scared that the perpetrator would go after her again. As a previous poster indicated, it is quite rare a person would’ve lied about such a thing.

I am also suspicious that the detectives were not being sensitive enough with the student. I am wondering if she is devoid of an adequate support system. -Commenter Concerned Female

its kind of scary thinking you could be assaulted and nobody would believe you.-Commenter Katie

The media constantly plays fault to victim-blaming in false sexual assault incidents, but this should not mean that other people should play into it as well. Stop blaming the victim. Question why the media and other people are so concerned with false sexual assault reports and that they cannot grasp around reporting of actual sexual assault incidents. Have a conversation about how to prevent an incident in the future.

Bottom line is: don’t assume, don’t blame. Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, back to studying….

To read more about rape culture and victim blaming:

Rape Coverage: Shifting the Blame from

Factsheets: False Allegations of Sexual Assault vs. “Unfounded” Sexual Assaults from NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, call the National Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE.

  1. October 29, 2009 10:28 am

    The problem I see in this case is that “After interviewing the student, detectives determined the sexual assault did not occur, Ursitti said.” is not proof of anything. This is a counter allegation.

    I’m always amazed at those who don’t trust the police when they do determine from an alleged victim interview that a sexual assault really did occur but who give the untrustworthy investigators their absolute trust whenever the police claim a reported rape didn’t happen.


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