Survivors Must Be Believed and Supported, Not Sued

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“If you’re found responsible for sexual misconduct at a university in America, your future is arguably over. […] The lawsuit is the only way that these students are able to move on professionally and academically.” This statement by a lawyer quoted in a recent article in The Daily Beast refers to an increase in the number of college men suing the people they were found guilty of assaulting.

I am angered by this trend. Survivors suffer significant trauma, and many feel that those found responsible face only modest penalties. I can’t imagine how hurtful and terrifying this is to the tens of thousands of survivors who struggle daily to “move on professionally or academically” as a result of their assault. If anyone’s future is “arguably over,” I contend it is the survivor.

No one wants to be assaulted; no one asks to be a survivor. Focusing on the consequences to the perpetrator invalidates the trauma experienced by the survivor. And the aftermath of being sexually assaulted is devastating. Many survivors attempt suicide; many drop out of school or take a semester off; many suffer from depression and anxiety; many have nightmares and eating disorders; they suffer from PTSD at alarmingly high rates; many require counseling and therapy.  Their lives are never the same, and “moving on professionally and academically” is so very difficult, perhaps even impossible.

Survivors already face an unbelievable number of obstacles to recognize and report their assault, and the courage it takes to endure the grueling and (re)traumatizing legal and/or Title IX process is incredible. Studies show that only 20 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported, and the threat of lawsuits simply adds to the long list of obstacles discouraging survivors from reporting their assault (and, consequently, lets the perpetrators off the hook).

As a community, it is our responsibility to work to eliminate sexual assault. We must educate ourselves about bystander intervention and consent, and each of us must practice consent in all of our relationships. When sexual assault happens, we must start by believing the survivor, listen when they share their story with us, support them and be an active and strong ally.

Survivors do not want pity or attention; rather, survivors want to be believed, they want to heal, they want to move on with their lives and they want justice. Retaliatory lawsuits are a hateful way to further intimidate all survivors. Justice is rarely served by these lawsuits, and we, individually and as a community, suffer greatly.

Sincerely,

Douglas Harms

Professor of Computer Science