In light of the recent allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, many people in this country have expressed concern over why it took her 36 years to speak openly about a devastating, life-altering attack. The chorus of voices demanding to know, “If it was so bad, why didn’t she report it when it happened?” echo a common point of contention in discussions of sexual assault.
A sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds in America, and tens of thousands of reported cases never get prosecuted due to the burden of proof required to achieve a conviction. The odds stacked against survivors by the justice system are only one example of why they may not come forward. But the fear of coming forward in itself does not discredit a survivor’s testimony. Ultimately, it is a personal, and very difficult, choice grounded in countless individualized factors. Those who repeat the tired refrain of, “If it was as serious as [the survivor] claims, they would have told someone,” have no awareness of the emotional toll it takes on survivor to open up about what was likely the most horrific experience of his or her life.
In response to this recent influx of doubt, survivors have taken to social media with the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport to tell their stories. They highlight many of the complicated and often dangerous circumstances that inhibit survivors from speaking out.
- Fear of retaliation and violence. During or after assaults, many victims are threatened with violence to prevent them from coming forward. Assault is a violent act, and perpetrators are often able to physically overpower victims. Especially if the survivor and perpetrator are known the each other, the threat of future violence can intimidate and silence them for years down the line.
- Fear of not being believed. Victim blaming is rampant in the discussion of sexual assault. Many survivors who have come forward with the truth have regretted this decision because of the reaction of others. Recounting such a terrible ordeal to family members, law enforcement, friends, doctors, psychologists, and the media, only to have it met with unbelief can traumatize survivors further. Many deem the consequences simply not worth it.
- Fear of alienating family or friends. 80 to 90 percent of reported sexual assault cases are committed by someone the victim knows. If the assailant is a family member, or very commonly, a spouse or partner, revealing the truth could have a disastrous ripple effect in one’s close circle. People very often don’t want to believe that someone they trust could do something so horrible, so they discredit the victim instead.
- Fear of not getting justice. According to RAINN, only 7 out of 310 reported rape cases will result in convictions. In a survey conducted between 2005 and 2010, 13% of sexual assault survivors said they didn’t report their assault because they believed the police would not help them. In criminal court, the burden of proof is simply too high, and many survivors have no physical evidence of their attack, especially if they didn’t report the assault immediately. The odds are stacked against them.
An article in The New York Times explained, “experts say that some of the most commonly raised causes for doubt, like a long delay in reporting or a foggy recall of events, are the very hallmarks of sexual assault.” The fact of the matter is that every survivor of sexual assault reacts differently, and the factors that keep them from reporting for long periods of time (if at all) are as diverse and complex as survivors themselves.
When survivors don’t come forward until days, weeks, months, or years later, it is extremely rare that they are lying. According to research, only about 0.5 percent of reported sexual assaults are false. And when survivors risk alienating all their loved ones, having their reputations dragged through the mud, being hurt or even killed for telling the truth, it is no wonder why they hesitate to report.
No matter how long it takes for you to report your assault, at Survivors Justice Center, we understand. We are committed to filling the gap in our justice system by providing free legal services and access to a network of not-for profit organizations to restore hope and enable healing for survivors of sexual violence.