Jeffrey Epstein's prosecutors want more victims to speak out. But do they understand why sex assault victims don't?

Victims of sexual assault are always told to come forward and that the police will be our greatest advocates. It just doesn't always work out that way.
Image: Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffrey Epstein on July 8, 2019.
Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffrey Epstein on July 8, 2019.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Alison Turkos, reproductive health, rights and justice activist

Watching the press conference about the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein on Monday, the words of the FBI hit close to home for me. Again and again, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman and Assistant FBI Director William Sweeney Jr. solicited stories from victims who have yet to come forward, stories that these young women had to live through, had to survive to tell. Sweeney, in particular, appealed to the women who, given that the federal government initially allowed Epstein to plead to two state prostitution charges and avoid federal charges without telling them, might have some qualms about coming forward.

"Your bravery might just empower others to speak out about crimes committed against them," he said. "It's important to remember there never was, nor will there be, an excuse for this kind of behavior."

He went on: "We know that reliving these events can be brutal. We are here to work side by side with you as you go through this process. You should know that, in the eyes of the FBI, you come first."

Those words felt empty to me.

Get the think newsletter.

As victims of sexual assault, we are already told the right thing to do is report. We are told the police can be one of our greatest advocates in the pursuit of justice. We’re given the message that law enforcement will be there to fight for us and to find the person or people who harmed us. And many of us who have tried already know that law enforcement are not there to work "side by side" with us as we "go through the process" or that, in their eyes, we "come first."

I don’t believe law enforcement when they say they’re victim-centric, or that it’s their mission to listen to every victim who comes forward. I don’t believe this because it’s been the opposite of my own lived experience, and that of so many others. When I reported my sexual assault to the NYPD Special Victims Division in October 2017, I thought I was doing everything right and the NYPD would do their job. I was wrong. (On Jan. 31, 2019, I filed a lawsuit against the NYPD because they’re failing victims like me.)

From the moment I reported, I had to become my own advocate, following up and speaking out. I had to demand to be heard by the higher-ups at the NYPD. I had to speak to the press to get my case taken seriously. I had to be my own support system and fight every day just to be heard by anyone at the NYPD. And I’m not alone.

It should never be the victims' responsibility to have to fight to be believed and supported within a system designed for victims of sexual violence, and certainly not one that the NYPD touts as “victim-centric.” Our job is not to ask law enforcement to do their job; our job is to heal.

There are so many reasons a victim might not report an assault to law enforcement, and all of those reasons are valid. Many of us don’t trust the police, or have seen our community be harmed by police presence. Some of us don’t want to be retraumatized, because we know we won’t be believed. We know that, should we choose to report, law enforcement officers, lawyers, friends and family will ask us questions that will make us feel at fault for our own victimization — “What were you wearing?” or “Why were you alone?” or "How much were you drinking?" Or, we know that our interlocutors will find ways to minimize the perpetrator's culpability —- “he’s a nice man," "He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college" or "there’s no way he could have done this.”

I want to live in a world where a victim comes forward and they are not berated. But I also want to live in a world where we do far better by victims than that.

For law enforcement to actually do the work to support victims, I’d like to see them be accountable for the way they’ve treated victims in the past — how they have failed us. Blaming the people in charge of the previous investigation into Epstein doesn't absolve the current investigators; they're all, quite literally, part of the same government agency. Law enforcement agencies need to acknowledge that they have made mistakes and that they have learned from them, not just that other people have made those mistakes.

I also want law enforcement to gain a better understanding of what trauma-informed care looks like, and put that into practice. This means better training to inform officers and detectives of the psychology behind trauma, and how it affects behavior, actions and emotions. It also means officers working from a place of “I believe you,” continuously building trust with victim advocates in their community and offering onsite support services for victims in the precinct during the reporting process. For instance, I want victims in New York City to walk into a police building to report a crime and not be asked to share the details of their sexual assaults in a staff kitchen — which happens in an NYPD SVD precinct on a regular basis.

In the case of Epstein's victims, calling a general 1-800 number to be met with a recording and a series of prompts is not how these young women should be asked to come forward. If the FBI is as dedicated to this case as they say they are, I find it perplexing that the FBI does not have the resources to have an actual human greet potential victims coming forward to share their stories at the urging of the FBI and the Justice Department, possibly for the first time after more than 15 years. It’s infuriating to think of a victim of a horrific crime — one that prosecutors and law enforcement acknowledge may have had long-lasting effects on their lives — may accidentally press the wrong number, become confused, think they did something wrong, or simply hang up while waiting for an operator and not call back.

Survivors are too often left out of conversations about how the system could function now and how it should function in the future, and our voices and stories are too often reconfigured by men, the media and those in power to serve existing narratives. Survivors don't want to have to choose between healing and justice — let alone between minimizing their ongoing trauma and seeking justice — but those are the choices with which the current system often leaves them. And no promises from an FBI assistant director that this time it'll be different if you come forward can make that true if those who manage the system haven't made the effort to change it on a more than superficial level.

No matter who you are, you deserve law enforcement officers who will believe you, who will always put victims first and who will do everything in their power to fight for justice. You may not feel comfortable coming forward yet — or ever — but you didn't create the system or the society that made it so difficult, and it's not your responsibility to change it. It's OK to be wary. It's OK to just heal.