As we get older, we start to lose the innocence of childhood. For some, the loss of innocence can steal a childhood before it even truly begins. We realize places we thought were safe, may not be so safe. We realize people we trust, are not always trustworthy. The older you get, the more people tend to judge you for things as simple as the way you dress. And if we indulge, or on occasion overindulge, there may be serious repercussions. As adults, we find the innocence we enjoyed as children can be replaced with blame, and oftentimes with shame.
Perhaps nowhere in our society is the loss of innocence highlighted more than in the lives of domestic violence and sexual assault victims. As we sit on the doorstep of October, which also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in the midst of the controversy involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Doctor Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a house party in high school; and Deborah Ramirez, who alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party while attending Yale; we are reminded of the many, many reasons victims, deprived of their innocence, don’t share their stories. As showcased by the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault has taken not just the innocence, but the voice, of the many it has affected.
If you have never experienced assault first hand, or know someone who has, it may be difficult to understand why a sexual assault victim would not report. The painful truth is that the trauma of sexual assault affects everyone differently. Carolyn M. West, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington states, “it may take a survivor a while to process that trauma, and even identify what has happened.” According to Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, the President of the American Psychological Association (APA), sexual assault is likely the most under-reported crime in the United States and approximately two-thirds of female victims of sexual assault do not report the crime to police. In fact, many do not tell anyone what happened.
What else might prevent victims from speaking out? Ultimately, the answer is different for everyone.
Denial and Fear
Many victims minimize the situation and convince themselves that “it wasn’t a big deal” during the early stages of coping. Before long, the shock fades and turns into fear – fear for their safety, fear of losing their job, fear they will not be believed, fear of the ridicule they may receive, or fear of being branded a troublemaker. According to Beverly Engel L.M.F.T., “Many don’t disclose, because they fear they won’t be believed, and until very recently, that has primarily been the case. The fact that sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime is due to a common belief that women make up these stories for attention or to get back at a man who rejected them. Victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. In high-profile cases, victims are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimization, and punished for coming forward.” These fears came to fruition for Deborah Ramirez just in the past few days when, in a recent article published by The New Yorker, people who knew her during and after her time at Yale, stated that if the incident occurred, they would have seen or heard about it and they did not. When victims come forward with their story, it is important to realize that telling someone is likely the hardest thing they have ever had to do – just because you didn’t witness the abuse with your own two eyes, and just because they never came forward about it before, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Sexual violations wound a victim’s self-esteem. In the case of Christine Blasey Ford, the alleged assault by Brett Kavanaugh occurred when she was just 15. As Dr. Jessica Daniel explains in her statement from the APA, at that age, Ford was still in the thick of her developmental years, exploring and determining her own identity. Many teenagers do not feel comfortable discussing sexual issues with their parents, let alone a stranger. Further still, teenagers and children are likely unable to grasp that what happened to them is abuse. They may not realize that sexual harassment doesn’t just include rape. It also includes inappropriate touching, invasion of privacy, sexual jokes, lewd or obscene comments and gestures, exposed body parts, graphic images, and unwelcome sexual text messages. Raised as a devout Catholic, Deborah Ramirez said she “was embarrassed… and humiliated.” She states, “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind,” when referencing the alleged sexual assault where Kavanaugh pulled his pants down exposing himself and thrusting himself towards Ramirez.
Shame and Blame
“Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women and men experience when they are sexually violated… Shame is a feeling deep within us of being exposed and unworthy. When we feel ashamed, we want to hide. They feel unworthy, unlovable, or bad,” says Beverly Engel, L.M.F.T. Even when victims come to terms with the fact that they have been sexually abused, they often feel invaded, defiled, and indignant at feeling helpless in the situation. This may cause victims to isolate themselves. Worse yet, many victims feel a sense of fault, thinking they are to blame for what happened. They may even go as far as to make excuses for their abuser because they find it easier to blame themselves than to admit they allowed someone else to victimize them. As discussed previously, this can largely be attributed to our society’s historical response to abuse. People often place blame on the victims by asking questions like, “Well, what was she wearing?” or “How much did he have to drink?” Thus, instead of risking further shame through public ridicule, many choose to remain silent. Even in the case of Deborah Ramirez, she admitted that for years she blamed herself for drinking too much.
Hopelessness and Helplessness
Research shows victims of abuse who cannot see a way out of their abusive situation develop a sense of hopelessness and helplessness which can cause them to isolate themselves instead of seeking help. A concept originally developed by the research of psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven D. Meier is learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that occurs when people feel like they have no control over what happens, so they simply give up and accept their fate. Victims of abuse often find themselves in a situation where they feel there is nowhere to turn, no one to help, and they are trapped.
In a statistic published by RAINN, only 6 rapists out of every 1,000 rapes will be incarcerated, but out of every 1,000 robberies, 20 robbers will be incarcerated. Thus, for the reasons listed above and discouraging statistics such as this, it is understandable that victims of abuse may find it difficult to come forward. When victims do come forward, they deserve our recognition of how difficult it is to do so, and our compassion for what they have experienced. Instead of asking why victims don’t report, maybe we should ask, “Why do we, as a society, continue to allow abusers to sexually harass and assault victims?” Even better, perhaps we should focus on how we can better support victims in their quest for justice and healing.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but awareness should not be limited to one month. We need to practice awareness year round. Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault deserve this and so much more. They deserve to feel safe, they deserve to live free from judgment and they deserve to regain the innocence lost. If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, or know someone who has, remember you are not alone. Whether you tell a friend, a therapist, or a stranger, reporting what happened is the first step.
National Sex Assault Hotline: (800) 656-4673
Understanding the Me Too Movement: A Sexual Harassment Awareness Guide.