Celebs like Padma Lakshmi and Don Lemon have spoken out about past traumas amid news of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Research, trauma experts and survivors themselves have explained ad nauseam why victims of sexual assault often wait years to report their claims, if they speak up at all. So why does the question persist?
The issue resurfaced recently after President Trump, in a tweet defending Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh against an attempted rape allegation from the early 1980s, suggested then-15-year-old Christine Blasey Ford should have filed charges at the time. “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 tweeted. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
The tweet inspired the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, as women and men explained the calculus of shame, fear and slanted power dynamics that kept them from speaking out. “Why is it so hard to talk about? Well, part of it is fear and part of it is doubt,” CNN anchor Don Lemon, who was sexually assaulted as a child, said on air Monday. “I understand why a woman would wait years to disclose a sexual assault,” “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, 48, wrote in a New York Times op-ed recounting her rape at age 16.
The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
One in six women and one in 33 men in the U.S. have been victims of rape or attempted rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). But just 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults get reported to police, per RAINN, meaning roughly two in three go unreported. One 2018 survey, as reported in the Atlantic, found more than 45% of college women stayed silent about their sexual assaults — while a mere 2.6% of rape or attempted rape survivors reported the attack to authorities. Research suggests only between 2 and 10% of sexual assault reports are false.
“We live in what is called ‘rape culture’ — where narratives about the acceptability of sexual violence are pervasive in the media we consume, the way we talk about gender, the way we talk about safety,” Jess Davidson, the executive director of the survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, told Moneyish in an email. “As part of rape culture, a lot of rape myths are perpetuated, and one of these myths is that because sexual violence is a very serious offense, people always go to the police. That idea is completely contradictory to how trauma works, and the psychology and neurobiology of trauma.”
People have been asking the “Why didn’t you report?” question “forever,” said Joan Cook, a clinical psychologist and Yale University associate professor. “The question is, why are they still raising it? How has this not seeped into the psychological consciousness of everyone?” she told Moneyish. “It really does surprise me that we are still asking this,” agreed Kimberly Lonsway, director of research for the professional training organization End Violence Against Women International. “The research has answered this question. We know why sexual assault victims don’t report. The more important question is, what can we do to change that reality to encourage them to come forward?”
Reasons for not reporting can be countless and are unique to each survivor, Lonsway said. But some common dynamics exist, including fear of not being believed; fear of being blamed for someone else’s behavior; fear of retaliation from the perpetrator, their friends and family and the social group as a whole; stigma around sexual assault; and the perpetrator being someone they know.
It can also take survivors some time to process what happened to them and label it as a sexual assault, said Carolyn West, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, as they can internalize certain stereotypes and misconceptions. “Oftentimes our culture tells us that rape or sexual violence is committed by a stranger jumping out of the bushes, somebody you don’t know,” West told Moneyish. “They don’t tell us that perpetrators can also be someone who’s known to the victim — a friend, an acquaintance, a family member.”
One reason many don’t want to believe disclosures of sexual assault, Lonsway suggested, is that “believing them would require change on our parts.” “We don’t want sexual assault to be as prevalent as it is; we don’t want to think that it’s hurting people we love — and if we accept that sexual assault is happening to the extent that research is telling us, that means we have significant problems with the way men and women interact, the way sexual interactions are negotiated, and much of our gender roles and sexual behaviors,” she said. “So it’s no wonder that people don’t want to see sexual assault for what it is.”
In some ways, West said, “it just may be easier to believe that ‘This is a rare occurrence’ or ‘It doesn’t happen to people that I know.’” “If we had to really grapple with the prevalence of sexual violence in our society,” she added, “that would be really hard for people.”
One way to encourage survivors to come forward, Lonsway said, would be to “change the cultural skepticism of sexual assault reports.” While investigations in the criminal justice system should be rooted in evidence and facts, she said, “we seem to so often with sexual assault start out from an orientation of assuming it’s a false report.” “That, to my mind, is really unique to sexual assault,” Lonsway said, adding that we as a society “often respond with an initial orientation of skepticism or disbelief” upon hearing a sexual assault disclosure.
Lonsway highlights EVAWI’s Start By Believing campaign, a resource for both the public and responding professionals that calls for people “to simply suspend judgment, suspend disbelief and start from an orientation that that report has merit” rather than rushing to a “pre-ordained conclusion,” she said. “Start By Believing was designed to prepare people for that moment — when someone that you love opens their mouth and says to you, ‘I was sexually assaulted’ or ‘I was raped,’” she said.
After all, Lonsway said, a support person’s reaction in that moment is “absolutely critical”: Doubt or blame can cause harm to the survivor and make them less likely to report the assault or reach out for other services; a positive, supportive response, on the other hand, can prevent additional harm and increase the likelihood that person will report or reach out for help.
“Do not compare one’s experience, do not make assumptions, do not question or use ‘You should’ statements,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women. Don’t ask questions that could produce shame or doubt around a survivor’s experience, she added, like “Are you sure that really happened?” or “Did it really happen that way?” “Believe them; support them. … Ask them what they need,” Cook said. “If it seems like they’re really experiencing distress and it’s more than you can hold, you can ask them if they’re interested in getting help and whether they want to talk to their primary care physician.”
To avoid making survivors re-share and relive their trauma, Davidson said, allies can also learn the relevant statistics and read what survivors have already said and written — then share that information and intervene in rape culture when they hear negative comments.
At a systemic level, the swell of decades-old sexual assault allegations in recent years has also prompted a push among states to eliminate the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases. “That’s another reform that can potentially encourage victims to report and participate in our criminal justice system,” Lonsway said.
“It is going to take men and allies believing and supporting survivors – and understanding that there is a huge problem of sexual violence in this country,” Davidson said. “Societally, we need to understand the scale of sexual violence without every assault being reported or every survivor telling his or her story.”
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