With the recent media attention that surrounded the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case and public scrutiny of the alleged victim, advocacy organizations have been reminded of the obstacles that can discourage or even prevent victims of sex crimes from reporting to the law. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) website, 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to police.
The fear of not being believed is a leading reason for not reporting sex assaults, said Amy Edelstein, Safe Horizon Rape Crisis Coordinator. Many victims also believe the assault was their fault.
"We put the blame on the victim because as a society we don't want to believe people could do such a thing," Edelstein said. "Or we think that it has to be a terrible person or someone with a mental illness [who commits sexual assault].That's not reality."
Approximately two thirds of sexual assaults are committed by a non-stranger, according to the RAINN website. When sexual assault is committed by an acquaintance or someone the victim knows personally–and who the victim and others may have previously understood to be a good person – it poses a considerable obstacle to the alleged victim being believed.
When the accused is a famous person, the effect seems to be similar, but the power imbalance adds another layer of difficulty for others – and for the public – to accept that a crime has occurred.
Karen Carroll, associate director of the Bronx Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), said she felt personally disappointed with the way the media coverage of the DSK case tended to change public opinion of the woman who accused the former IMF head.
"We don't know whether a crime did or did not occur," Carroll said. "I've heard that this woman has had some things go on in the past, and now all of sudden her credibility is at stake. Well, I've also heard that the man being accused has some issues in his past, but I don't quite see the same type of coverage on his credibility."
Carroll said that in her work, it is not uncommon for her patients to leave out or change details about the attack, as the DSK accuser is reported to have done. Edelstein also noted that trauma can have a considerable effect on a person's memory and ability to process what happened to them.
"I think when we look at that from a criminal justice perspective, they're always trying to tear apart the victim's story and analyze every part of what the victim said," Edelstein said, then adding, "That doesn't really happen so much with the perpetrator. It's always put on the victim."
In comparison, Carroll observes that in reporting other crimes, such as mugging, burglary, or car theft, the person making the accusation does not regularly face the same amount of scrutiny. "As you can see by what's going on with [the DSK case], if you misrepresent or even, if I use the word – lie – about anything, whether it is related or not related to your accusation, then right away your credibility is called into question," Carroll said. "I don't think the same thing happens, necessarily, when you are reporting any other type of a crime."
From January 1 through July 10 of this year, 764 rapes were reported to the NYPD, according to CompStat figures. In that same period in 2010, the number of reported rapes was 655. By the end of 2010, the number was 1,370 reported rapes in the entire year. In the state of New York as of January 1, 2011, there were 1,814 people in prison for rape in the 1st degree: 1,810 men, and four women, according to the Under Custody Report by the State of New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Other reasons sex crimes go unreported include wanting to avoid going through the criminal justice system, which can be an additionally victimizing experience, Edelstein said. Carroll added that some of the patients she's treated hesitate because of issues related to immigration, such as fear of being deported if the alleged victim is in the country illegally. Other immigrants have had negative experiences with the law in their home countries, or come from cultures where it is acceptable for men to touch or take advantage of women, she said.
Carroll advises victims of sexual assault not to be swayed by the way the media covers sex crimes, if reporting what happened to them to the law is something they want to do. "There are so many things that can prevent a disclosure that when a person is brave enough to come forward and make a disclosure, I just want those to be taken seriously, and that people don't rush to judgment about the victim's credibility until all the facts are known," she said.