Investigations Violence

Investigative Report: How Victim-Blaming Led to the Rape Kit Backlog

Sofia Resnick

In cases of rape, the “he said, she said” dilemma has outgrown the realm of legitimate legal query, and has instead come to justify the systemic failure of police and prosecutors nationwide to properly process forensic evidence that could lead to more sexual assault convictions, and also to identifying serial rapists who otherwise remain at large.

This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

Three years ago, Kiyona Phillips, now 31, bumped into a Facebook acquaintance in the early hours of a Sunday morning, at the tail end of a rare night out on the town. Phillips was leaving the since-shuttered Tuscana Lounge in downtown Washington, D.C., where she had gone with friends who had persuaded her to join them to celebrate Howard University’s homecoming weekend. Outside the club, Phillips saw Daniel (not his real name), with whom she had exchanged some awkward messages about a year earlier. In person, he was charming and warm, so when he asked Phillips for her phone number, she gave it to him. And when he texted her shortly afterward, at around 4.30 a.m., inviting her to meet him for breakfast, she was flattered.

Daniel picked up Phillips and took her to the Denny’s on Bladensburg Road in Northeast D.C., where they shared a romantic breakfast. After breakfast, Daniel drove Phillips back to her house in Southeast D.C.

Parked outside Phillips’ house in Daniel’s two-door, the two started making out.

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The circumstances of what happened next is where Phillips’ and Daniel’s accounts dramatically diverge, lapsing into the “he said, she said” quagmire that dooms so many sexual assault investigations and prosecutions in the United States.

The “he said” version of what happened in that car was that Phillips was “all over” Daniel; he said that she masturbated his penis, that she wanted the sex that followed.

The “she said” version is that, after an initial, mutual kiss, Daniel grabbed Phillips’ breasts and, even after she told him to stop, forced himself across and into the passenger seat, tugged off her pantyhose and underwear, pinned her knees to her chest, and vaginally raped her. She struggled, but he overwhelmed her. She couldn’t shove him off.

Phillips promptly reported the rape to police—a rare action for most rape victims—and within hours, found herself submitting to a lengthy sexual assault forensic exam at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an experience she told Rewire was painful and humiliating. It was also ultimately futile: Based on responses to a public records request that Phillips later submitted in frustration over the lack of action in her case, with the help of the nonprofit Network for Victim Recovery of DC, she believes that her kit was never even processed.

(Thanks to sexual assault reforms in D.C., enacted after Phillips’ alleged assault, officials now must notify victims when their rape kits are tested. Furthermore, officials with D.C.’s sexual assault forensic nurse examiner program say there is currently no backlog of rape kits in the District.)

Ultimately, the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPD) detective tasked with Phillips’ case, William Weeks, as well as the prosecutor to whom Weeks presented Phillips’ case, believed the “he said” version of the story, and Daniel was never charged.

“I honestly understand why a lot of people don’t report rape,” Phillips told Rewire in an interview. “Because if you’re not half-dead or beat in the face or it’s not recorded in any kind of way, you really have to prove that this happened to you.”

Neither Weeks nor the MPD would comment on Phillips’ case for this report. (According to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, Weeks was assigned to the property crimes unit last fall, having been transferred first from MPD’s Youth Investigations Division, and then from its Sex Assault Unit. The Post reported on a family’s accusation that Weeks fabricated the police report of an 11-year-old who was allegedly raped by multiple adult men in 2008 but was jailed thanks to Weeks’ report that she invented the assaults.)

The fact that Phillips underwent a forensic exam should, at least in theory, have helped move her case out of the “he said, she said” cul-de-sac, by including evidence about trauma to her vagina.

However, an investigation by Rewire shows that the fate of Phillips’ complaint fits the pattern of how the “he said, she said” dilemma has outgrown the realm of legitimate legal query, and has instead come to justify the systemic failure of police and prosecutors nationwide to properly process forensic evidence that could lead to more sexual assault convictions, and also to identify serial rapists who otherwise remain at large. Investigators’ unwillingness to push past the superficial appearance of a “he said, she said” case has also frustrated federal lawmakers who have appropriated more than $1 billion trying to reduce rape kit backlogs. Additionally, researchers say that police attitudes toward sexual assault are lagging social and scientific understanding of evidence in sexual assault cases.

“Since so many sexual assailants are serial offenders … the DNA from a rape kit is often the material difference between a sexual predator going to jail or remaining free to reoffend,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing he convened last month to discuss the state of rape kit backlogs. “When rape kits remain untested and sitting on a shelf, the consequences can be nothing short of devastating.”

Cornyn has been one of the leading congressional champions for tackling the persistent backlogs of untested rape kits—estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands by sexual assault advocates and experts—that are stored in police facilities throughout the country, and has been one of the loudest voices in supporting additional resources to do so.

New research, however, casts light on why the backlog problem hasn’t been solved despite the money already made available for addressing it (though, as Rewire recently reported, there are issues with how federal money aimed at reducing rape kit backlogs has been appropriated and monitored).

The answer lies in attacking the “he said, she said” quandary. Specifically, experts are now beginning to understand that, in general, all rape kits should be tested, whereas police frequently—and wrongly—only test those where they decide that the case does not turn on consent, or where the assailant’s identity is in question.

These decisions are often influenced by overt or unconscious victim-blaming on the part of police, or ignorance about how trauma influences a victim’s conduct both during and after an attack, experts told Rewire.

The result is that huge swathes of rape kits go untested. And that, of course, permits rapists to go on to assault more victims, and demoralizes and discourages victims from attempting to seek justice.

“Virtually No Investigation”

Rape continues to be what many researchers agree is an under-prosecuted and under-reported crime. Criminology professors Cassia Spohn and Katharine Tellis in their 2012 study on prosecution rates in Los Angeles city and county found that of the more than 5,000 rapes and attempted rapes reported to the Los Angeles Police Department between 2005 and 2009, only 12 percent of these cases—about 590—resulted in the arrest of the suspect. Of those arrested, 390 defendants were convicted; 59 percent of those convicted were sentenced to prison, 37 percent were put on probation, and 4 percent received a jail sentence. Another 2012 study, by criminal justice professors Megan Alderden and Sarah Ullman, found that only about 10 percent of the 465 rape and sexual assault crimes reported to a large, unnamed Midwestern police department in 2003 resulted in the prosecutor’s office approving felony charges (the researchers did not report how many of the charges resulted in convictions or jail time).

Rape is notoriously difficult to prosecute because of the requirement to prove that the victim did not consent to the sex act that occurred. Often, there are only two witnesses to the acts in question: the accuser and the alleged suspect. In addition, in many cases the issue of consent boils down to whether or not the prosecution can prove that the suspect fully understood that the accuser did not consent to the sex. The cornerstones of the criminal law—the presumption of innocence and the insistence that it is up to the prosecution to prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt—have the unfortunate result that many rapists escape justice.

Some legal reforms have attempted to improve the prosecution and conviction rates for this common crime. In the mid-seventies, U.S. jurisdictions threw out laws that required victims to prove they attempted to resist their attackers, as well as laws that allowed for third-party testimony to determine whether the victim had consented to sex in previous situations.

Nevertheless, the thorny issue of consent continues to lead many criminal investigators not only to close cases prematurely, but to decline to test the forensic evidence submitted in these cases.

If the cases hinges on whether or not the accuser consented to the sex, the logic often goes, what is the point in spending limited resources to process and test DNA?

Yet, that logic relies on a fundamental lack of understanding about how rape kits can assist in the investigation of an alleged attack.

The contents of a rape kit are wide-ranging and varying and obviously depend on each specific case. Rape kits can include a perpetrator’s semen, skin cells, blood; they can include a victim’s blood or urine showing she was drugged; swabs collected from the victim’s body can show physical trauma in her vagina or rectum; and bruises across her body can show she was strangled or otherwise subdued during the attack, which can help prosecutors bring additional charges against the rapist.

But it’s not just the evidence found on the woman’s body and her clothes and bed sheets that can instruct investigators, but also where the evidence was located. Male skin cells found in a victim’s vagina could support her story that she was digitally penetrated; blood or skin under a victim’s fingernails could corroborate another account; and tears in her or his anus could help prove another. The next step in the process is for a crime lab to try to create a DNA profile of the suspect and upload it to a state or federal criminal database in order to match it to a convict or another suspect, or to a future suspect.

So, while rape kits can help identify suspects—which can solve cases but also give victims peace of mind if their rapist is already in prison—they have other important purposes: They can corroborate the victim’s version of events, and they can also exonerate innocent suspects or convicts. They cannot definitively prove that someone was raped, and were never intended to do so, but that doesn’t negate their value both in individual cases and in identifying repeat attackers.

However, evidence is now emerging that puts hard numbers on how many kits go untested due to the misconception that rape kit evidence is of no use when the case could turn on the issue of consent.

In the summer of 2009, representatives from the Michigan State Police, the Detroit Police Department, and the local prosecutor’s office toured a remote police property storage facility to take stock of all of the evidence in local police custody. During that tour, an assistant prosecutor discovered storage boxes stuffed with what turned out to be more than 11,000 untested rape kits.

When the kits were finally tested, investigators found matches with the DNA of rapists who had gone on to rape multiple women. These serial rapists included “stranger rapists,” who rape people they have never met before, and “date” or “acquaintance” rapists.

The discovery of Detroit’s untested kits sparked a four-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish what had led to this backlog. The study, published in March, found that many kits languished simply because police officers did not believe the victims, and chose not to test their rape kits. (A similar DOJ-funded study was conducted in Houston, which around the same time revealed a backlog of more than 6,600 kits.)

The discovery that victim-blaming attitudes dissuaded police and prosecutors from testing kits was not shocking to the study’s lead researcher, Rebecca Campbell, a professor of ecological-community psychology at Michigan State University. But what did strike her was how slim many of the Detroit police officers’ investigation reports in these sexual assault cases were. Campbell told Rewire that in many of the cases her team studied, there was “virtually no investigation” conducted by police, particularly in cases where the suspect said the sex was consensual.

“We could hold reports up that were a single page, and that was it,” she said. “There was no investigation ever taken on the case.”

Campbell said her work confirmed that many police officers neglected to test rape kits because they did not fully understand how sexual assault kits could aid investigations. The department was plagued by limited resources, and rather than spend the hefty expense to have kits tested and analyzed at the crime lab, officers reserved testing kits for when they were sure the cases would go to trial, rather than primarily using the kits to bolster investigations of sexual assault cases.

“When you look at the police reports associated with the kits that were not tested, you see pervasive and rampant victim-blaming, assuming that victims were prostitutes, blaming them for what happened, calling them derogatory names,” Campbell said. “They didn’t test the kits because they didn’t believe the victim, because the victim didn’t act ‘right,’ didn’t behave in a way that they thought they should have if this were a real sexual assault. … The problem was, they didn’t think the victims were credible the vast majority of the time.”

This turned out to be a fatal flaw. The 1,595 Detroit rape kits that were tested yielded 455 hits in a federal criminal database to crimes around the country that included but were not limited to rapes, according to the study’s final report. Researchers were able to identify 127 “serial sexual assaults” (cases involving an offender who sexually assaulted more than one victim), and significantly they found that these serial rapes involved perpetrators who knew their victims, as well as so-called stranger rapists. In fact, the researchers were able to determine that these rape kits were just as likely to produce a hit for an offender or crime scene in both stranger and non-stranger cases.

Campbell said that at least for the Detroit sexual assault kits, it proved to be more economical and effective to test all of the kits, rather than to prioritize stranger kits or another category. But this is not only true for Detroit: Now that more cities are testing their backlogs due to increased public pressure, researchers are finding that both stranger and non-stranger rapists tend to be serial rapists. Most recently, this has proven to be the case in Cleveland, Ohio, where Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi’s years-long investigative work led police to start counting their untested rape kits. In 2011, according to an interview with the reporters, Cleveland police discovered about 4,000 untested rape kits, and began sending them out for DNA testing. Authorities have so far identified more than 200 serial rapists, whom they believe are responsible for at least 600 rapes, according to the Plain Dealer. The paper’s reporting led to a new state law, enacted last year, which mandates testing for all rape kits, old and new.

New Insights Help Explain Victim Behavior

Part of the reason behind victim-blaming attitudes that persist throughout America’s criminal justice system, experts say, is the ignorance of how trauma affects victims’ behaviors—both during and after the assault. The reality is that many sexual assaults are much more nuanced than the type of stranger rapes in the woods that are the default on popular media. In the real world, many rape victims do not fight back, and many give inconsistent accounts of what happened. There is extensive research on the neurobiology of trauma, which attributes these types of behaviors to various chemicals released by the brain, which can cause victims to fight or to freeze (what’s known as “tonic immobility”) or to experience the assault in hazy fragments, especially if they are intoxicated.

Explaining this phenomenon to juries and judges has become an important tool to try to quell victim-blaming bias, said Jennifer Long, the director and co-founder of AEquitas, a global organization based in D.C. providing resources to prosecutors worldwide in an effort to improve justice in crimes that primarily affect women, such as sexual violence, intimate partner violence, stalking, and human trafficking.

A former Philadelphia prosecutor, Long told Rewire that expert testimony on the neurobiology of trauma is admissible in sexual assault cases in every state now. Pennsylvania was the last state, in 2012, to enact a law allowing this type of testimony, and is currently awaiting the results of a constitutional challenge from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But despite the extensive research on the science of trauma, Long said victim-blaming is a persistent contributor to what researchers say are high rates of attrition when it comes to sexual assault cases in America.

“There’s a disconnect between the rapes happening and the criminal justice response to them,” Long said. “And the key piece that comes up again and again and again is victim-blaming, that the victim is being blamed somehow for either inviting the attack or being disbelieved because they engaged in some behavior that is misunderstood.”

Of course, giving evidence in court is one challenge; communicating these complex scientific theories to the hundreds of thousands of individual police and investigators who decide whether or not to test a rape kit presents a challenge of a different order.

Momentum for Reform

Of course, victim-blaming attitudes aside, many sexual assault advocates agree that police departments’ lack of funding is also a huge issue contributing to rape kit backlogs.

After all, processing and testing rape kits is an expensive endeavor, particularly after cities discover huge piles of kits and are then pressured to test them all at once. Unable to process all the rape kits in-house, many police departments end up outsourcing the testing to private labs. Two of the biggest labs that contract with many different cities are Bode Technology in Lorton, Virginia, and Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City. Sorenson Forensics actually increased its workforce and lab facilities in 2013 to accommodate the increased demand from cities to test forgotten rape kits. Sorenson Forensics spokeswoman Camilla Green told Rewire that their average rates are $500 to $1,000 per kit depending on the scope of the work required. She said that is the industry standard.

But at last month’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on rape kit backlogs, the advocates and state law-enforcement officials who were called to testify instructed senators that additional funding to test rape kits is just one among several needed reforms in the handling of rape kits. Witnesses suggested that law-enforcement agencies need to start proactively doing what Detroit’s law enforcement officials did by accident: auditing their police storage facilities for untested and forgotten rape kits.

Several states have passed laws requiring these type of audits, beginning with Illinois and Texas in 2011. New York-based sexual assault advocacy group the Joyful Heart Foundation believes that once more cities start auditing their backlogs, only then will we understand how big this problem really is.

The nonprofit has over the last few years embarked on its own private endeavor to identify backlogs using public records requests and recently uncovered a combined total of more than 9,000 kits in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; and San Diego, California.

Advocacy groups like the Joyful Heart Foundation say more money needs to go toward helping jurisdictions deal with these massive backlogs once they are discovered, which is why they worked with the federal government to help create and advocate for a new $41 million federal grant program within the Bureau of Justice Assistance that was designed to help jurisdictions not just test backlogged rape kits, but also use the money to reform how they investigate and prosecute sexual assault crimes. President Obama’s budget request for 2016 includes another $41 million to continue the program next year, as well as $20 million for the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice to research ways to reduce the backlog of sexual assault kits. This month the House of Representatives approved a 2016 spending bill that includes the $41 million grant program, plus an additional $4 million; the Senate is still considering the bill. The New York County District Attorney’s Office has also created a $35 million grant program to help other jurisdictions eliminate their backlogs.

“Testing rape kits is only one step toward comprehensive reform,” Joyful Heart Foundation Managing Director Sarah Haacke Byrd told Rewire in an email. “Once the problem is acknowledged and the first kits are sent out for testing, cities are left to grapple with the enormous task of finding a way to test all of the rape kits in their storage facilities, and figuring out how to investigate and prosecute these cases, re-engage survivors in the process and address any systemic failures that led to the creation of the problem in the first place.”

Witnesses at last month’s congressional hearing also stressed the need for laws mandating that police departments test all rape kits (several states have begun passing such laws) and that more cities need to implement multidisciplinary programs often called Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs, which connect victims with victim advocates and specially trained sexual assault forensic nurses. Research shows that these types of programs increase the likelihood that sexual assault cases will be prosecuted and also improve health outcomes for victims. According to the DOJ, there are more than 600 SANE programs throughout the United States and Canada, but they are still absent in many cities.

Amid these reforms, researchers like Rebecca Campbell hope the criminal justice system works on improving rape investigation and prosecutions generally, rather than focusing solely on testing rape kits.

“Money for rape kit testing is important; there’s no two ways about it,” Campbell said. “But the issue here is not just testing. Testing is one piece of an interconnected puzzle. So, you could test a whole bunch of kits, but if your investigators and your prosecutors don’t do anything with it, then people sort of scratch their heads and say, was this a reasonable use of public funds? Well, it would be if we had the follow-up investigation, prosecutions, and support to survivors. Because then we have perpetrators off the street, we’re preventing crime, and that is a significant issue for public safety.”

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!


If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Commentary Violence

Major League Baseball Has More Work to Do When It Comes to Domestic Violence Charges

Claire Tighe

Major League Baseball's response to charges of domestic violence against Jose Reyes is really just a step in the right direction. The league, its fans, and the media outlets covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

Two weeks ago, the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball (MLB) team made headlines for designating their shortstop, Jose Reyes, for assignment. The designation for assignment (DFA) means he was removed from their roster, most likely so the Rockies could trade him or release him to the minors.

The decision came after an announcement from MLB in May concluding that Reyes had violated its new Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy. Reyes was put on leave in February while the league investigated charges that he had allegedly assaulted his wife in a Hawaii hotel the previous October. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, MLB still concluded that he had violated its policy—which allows discipline no matter a case’s legal status—based on the available police reports. Ultimately, Reyes was suspended for 52 games.

Many sports fans and media outlets are celebrating the Rockies’ decision to designate Reyes for assignment, framing it squarely as a moral response to his domestic violence suspension. As a result of the suspension, Reyes ultimately lost a total of $7.02 million for missing 30 percent of the season and is required to donate $100,000 to “charity focused on domestic violence.” Still, the team will owe Reyes $41 million despite the DFA—and that, spectators say, makes the Rockies’ actions worthy of praise. The Denver Post‘s Mark Kiszla, for example, wrote that the Rockies franchise owner, Dick Monfort, deserves a “standing ovation” for taking a “$40M stance against domestic violence” that was “not just financial.” According to Kiszla, “the franchise did right by battered women by showing zero tolerance for physical abuse.”

Yet instead of a purely moral response that deserves “a standing ovation,” the Reyes case is really more of a step in the right direction. If, as Bob Nightengale at USA Today suggested, MLB is setting a precedent by suspending Jose Reyes, the league and the media covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

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The league could have acted faster and given Reyes a longer, more consequential suspension to show its seriousness in responding to his violation of the policy. In fact, the New York Mets’ recent signing of Reyes, which the team explained as giving him a “second chance,” underscores just how much tolerance for reports of domestic violence truly exists in professional baseball as a whole.

The public excitement about the connection between Reyes’ domestic violence record and his sportsmanship is warranted, albeit overstated. As MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred put it, the league has taken “a firm national and international stance” on domestic violence. Reyes was only the second player to receive a suspension under the new policy, which was approved by the league in August 2015 as a result of the ongoing national conversation about intimate partner abuse in professional sports. His case was the first to be negotiated with the MLB Player’s Association; his was the harshest punishment a player had received at the time.

Even so, while the Rockies’ consideration of Reyes’ charges of domestic abuse in their decision should be appreciated, the DFA should be understood for what it really appears to be overall: based on the team’s response, it was a business decision, not an action on behalf of domestic violence survivors.

“Would we be sitting here talking about this if the domestic violence thing hadn’t happened in Hawaii? We wouldn’t. So it’s obviously part of the overall decision,” said Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich told the New York Times. After all, an incident causing a player to miss a third of the season is enough to make any team pause for consideration.But, as the Times pointed out, there are other reasons that the Rockies were ready to move on, including “never really wanting him in the first place,” the great performance of his replacement during the suspension, and the fact that the franchise had already sunk the costs of bringing Reyes onboard. By the terms of their contract, designating him for assignment was no more expensive than keeping him.

Furthermore, the handling of the Reyes case within the league and the franchise has been mostly professional, but there is still a lingering tone of undue apology toward Reyes—suggesting, again, that the treatment he has received may not be the unilateral condemnation of domestic violence that others have implied.

It begins with Reyes himself, who first apologized “to the Rockies organization, my teammates, all the fans, and most of all my family,” before retweeting Mike Cameron, a former MLB player who said that Reyes just had a “bad moment in life” and deserved forgiveness for committing physical violence against his wife.

Commissioner Manfred walked a thin line in a news conference in November just after the Hawaii incident, stating his interest in maintaining Reyes’ privacy despite the charges against him. “There’s a balance there,” he said. “On the one hand, I think our fans want to know that the case has been dealt with appropriately. On the other hand, whoever the player is, the fact that he’s a major league player doesn’t mean he has absolutely no right to privacy and or that everything in the context of a relationship or a marriage has to be public.”

While domestic violence can happen “behind closed doors,” that does not mean it is an issue of one’s personal privacy. As Bethany P. Withers has argued for the New York Times, there may not be public witnesses to abuse occurring between partners, but we should not ignore professional athletes who are charged with committing acts of domestic violence. Manfred’s comments, as well as Cameron’s, minimize Reyes’ Hawaii incident into “a lovers’ quarrel,” rather than a report of an abusive act of behavior that most likely exposes an ongoing pattern.

Rockies Franchise owner Dick Monfort’s comments were better, though not ideal. In April he told the Associated Press, “I’d like to know exactly what happened. It’s easy for us all to speculate on what happened. But really, until you really know, it’s hard. You’re dealing with a guy’s life, too.” Monfort, while expressing understandable concern for this player, sounds apologetic to Reyes, rather than the woman he was charged with abusing.

Sympathizing with Reyes in this matter, while he may be sorry for reportedly committing actions that had visible consequences, centers the experience of an abuser in a culture that silences, blames, shames, and erases survivors of domestic violence and perpetuates abusive behavior.

Much of the media, meanwhile, has taken action either to diminish Reyes’ alleged crimes or dismiss them completely. The Post‘s Kiszla, for example, was plain encouraging of Reyes, for whom he “hoped nothing but the best, if his wife had forgiven him.” His uninformed commentary shows utter lack of understanding of domestic violence and what Katherine Reyes might be experiencing in deciding to “not cooperate with the prosecutors” on the case. Fox News was similarly insensitive. At the very least, the media can provide a short explanation as to what domestic violence is and why victims may be reluctant to work with police and the criminal justice system in the first place. The “inaction, hostility, and bias” they might face, as the American Civil Liberties Union put it, is real. And their personal fear of consequences are legitimate.

Nightengale of USA Today had a particularly awful response, explicitly sympathizing with Reyes, saying “that one ugly night in Hawaii cost Reyes his pride and his job.” Except that domestic violence, a cycle of power and control, is hardly ever just “one ugly night.”

Furthermore, incidents of reported domestic violence need to be named as such. In the coverage of Reyes’ charges in Hawaii, the media failed to do so. Though ESPN reported Reyes had been arrested on abuse charges, it still said Reyes had “an argument with his wife [that] turned physical.” The Chicago Tribune labeled it as “an altercation.” The Tribune was also inaccurate in reporting that Reyes ‘choked’ his wife, when the it was actually strangulation. Technically, choking by definition is when the airway is blocked internally. Strangulation, however, is the act of blocking the passage of air through the external use of force. While the difference is subtle—in fact, the police report itself logged the action as “choking”—the ramifications are large. Describing the act as an expression of dominance signals to the public that acts of violence have perpetrators. It also gives detailed meaning to “domestic violence,” an all-encompassing phrase whose intricacies are not widely understood.

While it may seem petty to be picking over semantics, accurate framing is the difference between two partners having a disagreement and one partner committing threatening acts of violence against another in a cyclical power dynamic. It’s the difference between public acceptance of horrific behavior and public recognition of unhealthy, unacceptable relationship dynamics.

The focus on costs to Reyes and the Rockies should also be reframed. If we really want to talk big money, we should consider the exorbitant shared cost of domestic violence on all of our systems, both public and private. Domestic violence is “a serious, preventable public health problem.” The epidemic is estimated to cost $8.3 billion annually to the economy due to its effect on survivors’ physical and emotional health, as well as their workplace productivity. Because domestic violence is so widely underreported, this estimate is even a conservative one. It also does not encompass the cost to child survivors and the trauma inherited by future generations. Understanding the ridiculously high costs of domestic violence centers the long-lasting effects of an epidemic on survivors and our society as a whole, rather than the cost to a singular MLB player or team.

Wholly shifting the narrative is vital in Reyes’ case and in the cases of other players disciplined under MLB’s new policy. It is up to the public to connect the dots between all of the players and teams to understand the wide scale and scope of MLB’s domestic violence problem. The Mets’ quick re-signing of Reyes as a “second chance” to the player is a reminder of many teams’ true priorities.

Though the new MLB policy appears to be comprehensive and informed by experts, the league, the teams, and the media haven’t quite perfected their responses. With regard to MLB’s process and ultimate decision, critics are saying the league should act faster and make longer, more consequential suspensions in the future. If Commissioner Manfred is really going to give weight to charges of domestic violence, a quicker, more punitive response to charges like Reyes’ is a good way to start. There is also significant work to be done in the public relations and media responses to domestic violence in the League overall.

Five years ago, there was very little talk about domestic violence in professional sports, let alone in Major League Baseball. Almost ten years ago, it was a big joke. Until 2016, MLB had never suspended a player for domestic violence. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to the public that domestic violence pervades every arena, from professional sports to entertainment. There has been an explosion of coverage on the topic in relation to the National Football League, college campusesHollywood, theater, and the music industry. Domestic violence in Major League Baseball, in professional sports, and in our culture is a much larger problem than one suspension can solve. It’s up to us to see that domestic violence is not just the concern of a singular player, team, sport, or profession. We all have a domestic violence problem. Together we can solve it.