One of the most common questions a rape victim hears aside from “What were you wearing?” and “Were you drinking?” and “Why didn’t you fight back?” is “Did you report it to the police?” Despite studies that show that police officers are just as likely as anyone to accept rape myths along the lines that men can’t be raped, that women should be able to fight off rapists if they really want to, and that women are likely to make false rape accusations because they like the attention; and despite statistics that show that only 2 to 3 percent of rapists are ever convicted and jailed; and despite flaws in standard investigative procedures and reports of hundreds of untested rape kits; and despite reports of rapes perpetrated by cops, there still seems to be a perception, maybe perpetuated by Law and Order: SVU, that reporting a rape to the police is the first step in getting justice.
That’s what Michele Beaulieux thought, anyway. She’d been raped by a man she was dating back in January 1979, during her first year at the University of Chicago. It took her a long time to realize that what had happened was a rape; she continued to date him for six more months. In 2004, her assailant found her contact information through the university’s alumni website. “I started shaking,” Beaulieux remembers now.
This past June, Beaulieux decided to file a police report. She didn’t expect anything to come of it—it was too long past the statute of limitations for pressing charges—but she wanted a public record that something had happened. She told the police that she and the man had gone on a date and they smoked some pot he had gotten from somewhere, she wasn’t sure where. Then they returned to her dorm room where he raped her.
“It was a positive experience,” Beaulieux says of filing the police report, “to see it labeled. They said it was
aggravated criminal sexual assault because he had given me drugs.”
Later, Beaulieux went to police headquarters to get a copy of the report.
She learned that the crime had been downgraded to criminal sexual assault. The report, when she saw it, was filled with errors, starting with the spelling of her name. It said that she and her assailant had attended a party and then left together. They stopped to buy alcohol and marijuana on the way back to her dorm room. None of this, Beaulieux says, is true.
“It was a nightmare,” she says. “It made me look so much worse.”
During a conversation with Christine Evans, the legal director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), Beaulieux learned that error-filled police reports are not uncommon.
“If I had known before I made the report that there was a good chance the report might not be an accurate document, I would have handled it differently,” Beaulieux says. After all, she didn’t necessarily want to pursue justice through the legal system. “Many survivors simply want validation of what happened to them and an admission of wrongdoing,” she explains.
So she decided to create what she calls “a framework for decision making,” a matrix that helps survivors figure out which course of action they want to pursue and whether they would rather minimize personal risk or assure punishment for their perpetrators. In its most complete and complex form, the matrix offers 200 options, but in its most simplified version it runs as follows:
Aside from the rape, Beaulieux has experienced two other violations, one from a massage therapist and the other during a dance class. Neither incident, she feels, warrants filing a police report, but the matrix would help her decide who she wants to know about what happened, whether she needs to take measures to insure her personal safety, and if she wants her violators to be held accountable.
“Working on it has been a labor of love,” Beaulieux says. “It opens up the possibilities beyond legal remedies that are neither viable nor successful. It can help people think through the decision.”
The matrix is still a work in progress—its current abbreviated form doesn’t address Title IX complaints against colleges and universities—but Beaulieux plans to distribute it on the Internet and make it readily available for counselors. She presented it to U. of C. students and administrators during the university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week last spring and says it got a good response. But she also hopes it will be useful beyond helping victims decide how to proceed. “There’s potential for using it for research,” she says. “What are most survivors doing now? Is there a trend? It’s a way to start thinking beyond ‘report to the police.'”
Correction: The charges in the police report were criminal sexual assault, not aggravated criminal sexual assault as previously reported.