By Sophie Yashar
“I think it would be too much stress and heartache to relive it over and over to get little, if anything, out of it.”
“What does justice look like to you?” That is the question Alix Tarnowsky says STAR (Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response) advocates ask every survivor they come into contact with. As the Greater New Orleans Regional Director of her organization, she shares with me that in New Orleans, “Sexual assault is the most underreported crime and then on top of that it is one of the least prosecuted crimes.” The survivors of sexual trauma and violence that desire to seek justice through law enforcement channels are often left confused as to what steps they should take. This becomes even more complicated when statistics support the claim that “Between 70 and 80 percent of sexual assault survivors know their perpetrator. Whether it’s a current or former intimate partner, acquaintance, or family member. It’s someone that they know.” Women are raised to recognize signs of danger from a stranger, not a trusted or loved one. After being betrayed in such a vulnerable way, survivors often feel helpless and unsure about navigating the healing process. How are they meant to find justice?
A sexual assault survivor, who for the purposes of this article will be referred to as Ky, describes her thoughts around justice as such, “I used to see justice as revenge. I would see justice as him knowing the pain that I felt and him having to live with that. Him seeing that I’m doing a lot better in life. But the fact that I don’t want to interact with him anymore… the best I can do is that last part. Keep improving. Keep working on myself. Self-love is the greatest middle finger of all time.” For Ky, however, self-love won’t erase her trauma.
With tears welling up in her eyes amidst shaky breaths, she recounts the events of the assault. “So, there’s this guy that I had been talking to for like one or two months, but not really talking that much. The only time we’d hung out was to go to coffee at one point, and I didn’t really think I was interested in him. We went to a party with a group of mutual friends and I just remember that night was the first time that I actually ever drank to the point where I was inebriated. I remember being in bed and I wanted him to sleep in the same bed as me, but I didn’t want anything to happen. He started kissing me, touching me, and I don’t remember the details that clearly, but I remember waking up and knowing that we’d had unprotected sex. My first thought was, I was 14 and my grandmother had my mom when she was 17. I did not want to break that record. I couldn’t.”
In her experience, a question often asked of her, and of many survivors is, “What did you do afterward?” “There’s a lot of fear there and I felt very vulnerable. I was stuck between I want completely out of this and I want to stay with him so that he doesn’t talk about me to the whole school. So that this doesn’t get back to my mom because she wasn’t even supposed to know that I was drinking. There’s just so much that I was thinking about and considering when… the part that pushed me over the edge was the fact that I just lost my virginity. The first time that I got drunk and on the night that I had my first kiss. Too much happened at once and that’s one of those things like I’ve accepted that I can’t take things back.”
At the age of 14, Ky felt pressured to enter into a relationship with her assaulter. The relationship remained sexual and in moments where Ky shared her discomfort, she felt cornered and pressured by him. “I was afraid. He really wanted to keep having sex and I was reluctant at first. He was like, why? We already did it. And I couldn’t even look in his eyes. He would always say look in my eyes, look in my eyes. I would look and then I would look away and he would really push me to do that for longer. And I guess part of me thought like, oh, it’s romantic but thinking about it now, it was just toxic and unhealthy.”
“I felt really trapped. I felt like I couldn’t call it a sexual assault until I went through a lot of self-growth and healing and recognize that it absolutely was.” When asked if she had ever considered turning to law enforcement, Ky answers with no hesitation. “I have little faith that they could have helped. Especially knowing that his parents had more money than mine. They could have hired better lawyers. I just don’t think there would have been serious enough repercussions for him for it to be worth it for me. I think it would be too much stress and heartache to relive it over and over to get little, if anything, out of it.” This common train of thought often seen in survivors is emblematic of larger issues within our justice system and our society’s perception of sexual violence.
The state of Louisiana is broken up into nine different regions, and each region has a unique sexual assault response plan. The plan, Alix Tarnowsky says, “gets reviewed each year by the local community partners who serve the population, and then goes to the governor, and it gets signed off on.” Within Louisiana, these response plans give survivors the right to have an advocate present during medical examinations and law enforcement interviews. Every survivor has the right to decline said advocate. However, studies within STAR show that the presence of an advocate during these moments makes the survivor’s overall experience better. “The survivors are more likely to follow up and continue along the criminal justice process, they’re more likely to be offered post exposure prophylaxis for STI emergency contraceptives for those who could get pregnant and are just generally treated better,” says Tarnowsky.
When thinking about why this is, Tarnowsky is quick to compare the motivations of the justice system to those of advocacy support systems. “The criminal justice system in general is about protecting the public at large, and for us, of course we want to serve the community. But in that moment, my concern is that survivor sitting across from me.” Yet, even with the support provided by advocacy organizations, many survivors struggle to achieve justice through law enforcement channels. “A justice system that is fair and just, is not always quick. Especially when it comes for individuals who have been victimized, then it can move really slow.”
To Ashley Ponson, the Director of Data Management of the New Orleans Family Justice Center (NOFJC), justice for a large portion of her clients would simply be “for the harm and violence to stop.” With a background in direct client service work within her organization, Ponson has experience with virtually every aspect of her organization. As a high-level employee within the NOFJC, Ponson shares that the goal of their organization is to bring “all of us partners and agencies under one roof, so that we as the service providers are doing that coordination for the survivor as opposed to them having to do all that work for themselves.” Their whole intention being to make the strenuous process of healing from sexual violence, whatever that may mean for each individual survivor, as easy as possible. Being able to follow along in the role of an advocate, Ponson has witnessed first-hand the shortcomings of law enforcement responses to sexual and domestic violence. “One thing that I have found that is echoed by so many folks who walk through our door is that very little healing comes through the criminal justice process.”
According to her clients’ experiences, many interactions with police have led to further emotional pain. The police will victimize the survivor further by dismissing, blaming or minimizing some of the violence that has occurred. Ponson says, “Little comments from police officers can really affect a person and can affect whether or not they’re ever willing to call the police again or whether they’re willing to participate in any prosecution that is happening as a result of that case. And that’s just the moment of the arrest, the whole process in and of itself is very, it’s very traumatizing and it’s inhumane abuse.” This pain often continues for those who decide to pursue legal action, “the prosecution side in Orleans Parish specifically, I can tell you that we do not do a very good job of prosecuting high level felony cases.”
Ponson, expressing her frustration with the bias within the justice system, says, “There is often this narrative around both domestic violence and sexual assault cases that it’s the victims that don’t cooperate and this is why we don’t go forward. Well, we’re going to present the cases where the victim does want to go forward and then they still wouldn’t go forward with those cases. What’s your other reason? And it’s the thing that they won’t directly say.”
Ponson implies that since the district attorney is an elected official, their main goal is to get reelected. In order to do so, they need a high conviction rate and unfortunately, sexual and domestic abuse cases won’t provide them with the statistics they are looking for. “Louisiana has got the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world, I mean this is why we have people serving life in prison for marijuana, and why I can show you numerous cases of abusers who have strangled their victims until unconsciousness numerous times, and that we have medical records to prove that, and the DEA refuses to prosecute those cases. That’s an imbalance that just does not make sense to me and doesn’t make sense to most people that do this work and shouldn’t. That shouldn’t make sense to us.” says Ponson.
So, what can victims do? Ponson believes it’s to get the violence and abuse to stop, but not for the victim to leave the relationship. “The thing that will still tug at my heartstrings and really break my heart, is when our clients start to talk about the trauma of the person who was abusing them, the person who has caused the sexual violence and caused the domestic violence… Oftentimes our clients really just want the harm to stop, the abuse to stop, the sexual violence to stop. And for that person to be able to be the loving person that they are a tiny little bit of the time.” For organizations like STAR and the NOFJC, this looks like validating, listening, and supporting survivors. If society’s fail-safes can’t protect their communities, then the least organizations like these feel like they can do is help these survivors achieve peace, healing, and justice on their own terms.