When #WhyIDidntReport went viral on social media, thousands of people started coming forward with stories of being sexually abused and assaulted.
But Caroline Walker wasn’t sure she should tell her secret. Walker is a Democratic candidate for a North Carolina state Senate seat representing a portion of Union County.
Walker, now 36, was a student at UNC Charlotte in 2005, when she said she went to a man’s apartment on a date and he raped her, according to a police report. She had not told anyone — except for a few close relatives and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police — until she saw the hashtag trending on Twitter.
“Because I relived the nightmare over and over like an interrogation,” Walker tweeted Sept. 22, referring to questioning from police. “Because I was photographed, swabbed and violated again for the rape kit..... Because nothing was done.”
Walker is among a growing number of female political figures who have publicly shared their personal experiences with sexual abuse, harassment and assault.
The trend reached new heights recently after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her and covered her mouth to keep her from screaming when they were high school more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the accusation.
Among those disclosing details about their experiences publicly are Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, Ohio congressional candidate Janet Garrett, President Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis.
They mostly described the shame, fear and complications that can accompany reporting sexual assault and other abuse.
“We are at a point of real frustration and outrage with how these crimes have been treated,” said Rebecca Campbell, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied sexual assault investigations for the U.S. Department of Justice. “These hashtags have created a safe space for survivors. We are at a very different point in this country.”
However, the reaction to Walker’s tweet has been mixed, she said. Of the dozens who have responded, some people have thanked Walker and even shared their own personal accounts.
In an interview, her Republican opponent for the state Senate seat lauded her for being courageous.
“I am sad and heartbroken she went through that,” Todd Johnson said.
But some others on social media have questioned her credibility and her motivation for coming forward.
“It’s been incredibly uncomfortable,” said Walker, who lives in Waxhaw, about 20 minutes southeast of Charlotte. “I am so scared and anxious about being attacked. At the same time, I feel like I would be doing something wrong if I didn’t do this.”
The presidential tweet
The #WhyIDidntReport came in direct response to comments from Trump and others who have defended Kavanaugh.
Some politicians have suggested that Ford’s accusations are not credible because she waited so long to make them public and didn’t report the alleged incident to police. “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” Trump said in a tweet on Sept. 21.
A few hours later, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that she had been sexually assaulted twice, but had never filed a police report. She asked others to share their experiences.
Whitmer, the gubernatorial candidate, wrote that she was 18 years old, afraid no one would believe her and didn’t know where to turn.
Others like Garrett, the Ohio congressional candidate, said they did report but the cases were dismissed by law enforcement.
Research shows that the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported to police.
That’s because victims who come forward are greeted with disbelief and blame, said Kim Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International, which conducts training for law enforcement and related professions across the country.
Even law enforcement officers who are supposed to help often ask inappropriate questions and cast doubt on their accounts, Lonsway said.
“They get questions like, ‘How can we trust her memory?’ or ‘What are her motivations?’” Lonsway said. “That’s why lots of survivors are having a difficult time with the Kavanaugh hearings. This is so raw.”
‘I said No’
Many of Walker’s friends and family didn’t know what happened to her until she sent her tweet.
On July 29, 2005, Walker told police she met a man for a date. A police report does not name the alleged assailant and she did not divulge his name to the Observer.
They had met the day before, she said, while she was out with friends.
On the date, she said they played pool. They eventually went to his apartment, according to the police report.
“He kissed me, which was OK, but then he went further,” Walker said. “I pulled away. I said ‘No.’ He pulled me back.”
Walker said the attack left her neck “black and blue” from bruises. The police report says she was taken to what was then Presbyterian Hospital and suffered bruises and scratches.
Even though it was summer, Walker said, she wore a turtle-neck sweater the next day to her job as a waitress in a Charlotte bar. When her then ex-boyfriend, who also worked in the bar, noticed her unusual attire, she confided in him.
He convinced Walker to tell her mother and go to the police, she said.
She and her ex-boyfriend, Sean Walker, later reconciled and are now married with two children. A graduate of UNCC, Walker now works as a workforce development consultant, advising local and state governments.
A thorough investigation?
Prosecutors declined to file charges against Walker’s alleged assailant.
“Although this incident occurred more than a decade ago, we are able to ascertain that the matter was thoroughly reviewed by an experienced sexual assault prosecutor, who declined prosecution after determining there was insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said in statement Wednesday.
Walker said she believes Charlotte-Mecklenburg police mishandled her case. The investigating officer asked her what she was wearing, and how much alcohol she drank, Walker said.
“It was all the wrong questions,” Walker said. “It’s not all about what I did. The question should be, ‘Why did he rape me?’”
Walker said she was most upset when she received a phone call from CMPD. The officer told her he had interviewed the suspect, who insisted the sex was consensual, Walker said.
“The officer said it’s a ‘He said, she said,’ ” Walker said. “I will never forget. He said, ‘He seemed like a nice guy... He said he was going to call you.’ Why would I ever want him to call me?”
Walker underwent a sexual assault exam at the hospital — commonly known as a rape kit — that involves a thorough physical inspection and interview.
The procedure often takes four to six hours. It can include vaginal and anal inspections, plucking hairs and a recounting of the attack.
The kits have been an invaluable investigative tool since the FBI created a national DNA database in the 1990s. That allows police to upload DNA profiles of convicted offenders and others arrested into a national database to look for matches.
Walker said she is upset that CMPD never tested the rape kit and threw it out. Even if there were no charges in her case, she said, it is important to test rape kits because the evidence could be used if the alleged assailants sexually assaults someone else.
An Observer investigation in 2016 found that CMPD had destroyed about 1,000 rape kits going back to 2000, including alleged crimes against children.
In February, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said a statewide inventory found a backlog of more than 15,000 untested rape kits. A nonprofit group reported that’s the largest backlog in the country, according to a March 2018 report in the The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
“The way I was treated made me feel like it was my fault,” Walker said. “There was almost no point to complaining.”
In a written statement, CMPD said that Walker’s case was fully investigated.
Detectives interviewed the victim and the suspect, collected evidence, and transported Walker to the hospital, where a sexual assault exam was performed.
CMPD said it presented the evidence to prosecutors, who decided not to pursue criminal charges.
But CMPD acknowledged that the rape kit in Walker’s case was not tested because the identity of the suspect was known. Authorities later disposed of the kit since the case was not prosecuted, the department said.
CMPD said that was common for law enforcement agencies at the time, but best practices have since changed.
Using her platform
Walker, a political newcomer, acknowledges that she is a long shot to win her race for office. Her district is a portion of Union County that leans heavily toward Republicans.
But she said it was important to share her story about sexual assault as long as she has a platform that could help other survivors.
“This was one of the most isolating and lonely experiences of my life” Walker said. “I felt separated from those around me. As scary as it is, there is a power to connecting to others.”