“I Was Worried I Wouldn’t Be Believed”: Sexual Assault Victims’ Perceptions of the Police in the Decision to Not Report

Lorenz, K., Dewald, S., & Venema, R. (2021).
Violence and Victims, 36(3), 455 – 476.
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Expanded Abstract: 

The majority of sexual assault victims make the decision to not report their victimization to the police (Bachman, 1998; Ullman & Filipas, 2001; Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2011). While there are many reasons why a victim may choose to not report, most notable in the research are victims’ concerns about fears of mistreatment, not being taken seriously, not being believed, and the prospect of reprisal from the perpetrator (Logan, Evans, Stevenson, & Jordan, 2005; Patterson et al., 2009; Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2011). Importantly, these obstacles may be greater for those of marginalized identities.

Demographic characteristics, have been shown to influence the decision to report. For example, older victims have been shown more likely to report than younger victims (Chen & Ullman, 2014). Regarding race, White victims are more likely to report immediately but African American victims have been shown to report more overall (Chen & Ullman, 2014; DuMont et al., 2003). Men are less likely to report to the police than women, and limited research suggests that gender nonbinary individuals may be even less likely to report than men and women (Lorenz, 2017; Menard, 2005). Other research has found no significant differences in reporting based on demographic characteristics (Campbell et al., 2001). Differences in reporting among various demographic groups can be attributed to things such as stigma, mistrust, or fear of police, but also structural barriers such as financial resources, accessibility, and White cis-gendered dominated helping professions.

The psychological state of the victim and characteristics of the assault are additional factors that may contribute to reporting decisions; and victims may be more likely to report to the police if informal support or community-based providers offer practical assistance (i.e., offering to take the victim to the police department; DePrince et al., 2020).

Results from the study found that police perceptions shaped victims’ decision to not report for 36% of participants. Victims reported that nonreporting decisions related to the police fell into two themes: concerns of police treatment and previous/vicarious negative experiences with law enforcement.

(The expanded abstract is excerpted and adapted from the article cited above)