Dear Nicholas Kristof: The US Justice System Also Fails Survivors

*Trigger Warning*

“I thought my rape was the most traumatic experience of my life, but I was wrong. What was more traumatic was the way I was treated by the police.”

So began several hours of powerful testimony by survivors of sexual assault in Washington, DC, at a hearing of the DC City Council last month. The Council is considering a bill that would increase public oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in the wake of a report by Human Rights Watch that described, in agonizing detail, the many ways that sexual assault survivors have been retraumatized by police officers.

Mr. Kristof, I was there that day. I heard the words of the survivors who chose to share their stories and the pain in their voices. That’s why reading your most recent op-ed in the New York Times felt like a punch to the gut.


Not only is it dangerous and wrong to congratulate our justice system for reducing rape incidence as a result of greater “punishment” for perpetrators, it also cruelly ignores the experiences of sexual assault survivors in this country who are victimized by the system that you laud.

Just ask the DC woman whose 11-year-old daughter was raped twice by the same perpetrators. She reported the crime to a police officer, who ushered the child alone into an interrogation room. During hours of interrogation, she was coerced into confessing that she had lied about the rape. Weeks later, officers returned to her home to arrest her for making a false report.

I invite you to come to our nation’s capital to see just how well our justice system, in its current form, works to end sexual violence. Talk to the survivors, whose energy represents the real hope for ending the horrible crime of sexual assault. What, after all, but immense courage could cause them to engage a system that didn’t listen to them the first time?

Those of us who are organizing to address our justice system’s shortcomings — work which you erased with your focus on punishment rather than the needs of survivors — would be happy to show you around. My organization, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, has been working for over a year to increase public oversight of the way of sexual assault cases are policed in DC. We’re now joined by awonderful group of advocates and survivors, called the Justice for Survivors Campaign, that have turned our organizing effort into something powerful.

We’ll end sexual violence not with reliance on a single blunt tool, but with an organized group of people who are empowered to do the difficult work of changing the culture, as well as engage with — or make — our systems work for us, rather than against us. On that note, you, me, and everyone else in the United States who thinks about and works to prevent sexual violence could learn a lot from Kenyan organizations like GROOTS, which trains women to organize in their communities, on their terms. We should be inspired, every day, by the women who stand up in protest against the Kenyan government to hold it accountable for failing to protect them, even atgreat personal risk.

Survivors of violence are speaking out. All of us must be ready to listen.

Zosia Sztykowski is CASS’s Director of Community Outreach.

This piece was cross-posted here with permission from the Collective Action for Safe Spaces

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  • A P Ahern

    You’re both on the same side of this issue. To be sure, Kristof (not an activist nor a reporter dedicated to issues of gender violence) probably could benefit from continued exposure, engagement, and education on the experiences of survivors and the complexity of the social and governmental networks we hope to dedicate to ending these horrific problems. But to suggest that he erased the work of advocates of sexual violence survivors seems profoundly counterproductive. An enforcement-only model of addressing violence of any kind is doomed to fail, and certainly myopic. Perhaps this is only more true in the area of sexual violence and gender violence. But to suggest that Kristof’s cursory exploration of models of offender accountability cannot co-exist with survivor empowerment misses a huge opportunity; for many survivors here in DC, ending the culture of sexual entitlement, and the sense of impunity with which many violent offenders act, is critical to positive empowerment and expression of their needs.

    These are not disconnected strategies but part of a whole toolbox that can be used to change the social imbalance of power and bring a new focus on survivors. The examples you cite are grave, and clearly, a survivor-focused approach by MPD (and other social service organizations) is long overdue. But a lack of advocacy for offender accountability (subject of course to an empowered survivor’s needs and desires) is also largely responsible for the attitudes of police who see that the path of least resistance is to discredit or cease listening to the survivor.

    These are not two strategies in conflict; survivor-focused advocacy needs to drive overall efforts, but offender accountability can prove a vital tool in its service.

    • A P Ahern

      With this caveat: The argument that enforcement models can be useful in partnership with empowerment models is not to suggest that Kristof’s column is particularly meaningful in itself — it’s the bland kind of observation that can prove incredibly frustrating. As though he required something he could imagine as stark — a child victim in a faraway land — to be able to conceive of sexual violence as a problem, rather than seeing the ways this touches people across the board, and encountering survivors as real individuals, not tokens.