“Stark truth is seldom met with open arms.” Justin K. McFarlane Beau
This is not a blog I wanted to write. I wrote it because I am righteously incensed and tired of a subject that should have been put to rest decades ago. Yet, here it is again. And again. And again.
Several weeks ago, I was with friends and the topic came up of women coming forward to report that the republican presidential candidate had sexually assaulted them. And there it was. My friend commented, “What I don’t understand is why they didn’t report it when it happened. I mean, why are they just coming forward now? It seems a bit suspicious.”
A few short days later, an acquaintance stopped to chat while I was on the spin bike at the gym. Same topic. She commented, “What I don’t understand,” she said, pulling her fist back and drawing her face into a tough sneer, “is why none of them punched him in the face or kicked him in the balls. That’s what I’d have done.”
As a woman who has been sexually abused (five different perpetrators), assaulted in several different ways, groped, subjected to sexually explicit talk and leering by a managing partner at a law firm I worked at years ago, I couldn’t believe that I was hearing women talking this crap, parroting harmful cultural memes that serve to keep other women from coming forward and reporting sexual assault and abuse when it happens—or when they are ready to report.
Studies confirm that women do not report between 65-89% of sexual assaults, and the rate of false reports is less than 2%. By now the reasons for a woman not reporting should be patently obvious, but let me list a few:
- Sexual assault causes trauma. Trauma is an emotional reaction experienced in the aftermath of a horrific, unexpected and upsetting event, like being raped, assaulted, molested, groped or otherwise violated. According to the American Psychological Association, “immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder.” While individuals respond differently to trauma our bizarre cultural belief is that all sexual assault/abuse survivors should calmly and rationally step forward to report an incident, when in fact, they may be frozen in a state of disbelief, denial, terror, dissociation or worse. Even for those survivors who appear present and grounded the prospect of reporting in a cultural climate as hostile as what we currently have can be utterly prohibitive.
- Mother Culture has taught women to blame themselves for being sexually assaulted/abused. This, coupled with the effects of trauma, may prevent a woman from understanding for years that she was not at fault for a man’s choice and actions. Where the man occupies a special position of power or trust, such as a boss, a relative, respected community member (physician, priest, politician, athlete, coach), a girl or woman may be even more reluctant to step forward. In this culture, who will believe her word against his? And when she finally does step forward, she is met with contempt and disbelief that reflects a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of either cultural training or trauma: “Gee, why didn’t she say something sooner?”
- Collectively, our culture savages women who report sexual assault/abuse, whether they report it when it happens or years later. Women are called liars, are subjected to ridicule, have their motives questioned, are asked what they did to encourage the assault, are asked why they didn’t leave. Thus, witnessing this perverse cultural fiasco, is it any wonder that most survivors decide not to report? Is it any wonder that women will report only when a critical mass step forward as in the Bill Cosby clusterfuck, and now the republican candidate disaster? Get this straight: women don’t report because they know that they will be doubted, harassed, blamed, shamed, threatened, intimidated, shunned, and worse. Social media compounds this despicable situation even more, like a metastatic cancer extending its reach. Even worse: women don't report because they know their perpetrator is likely to walk away with minimal or no punishment.
No person knows in advance how she will respond to the trauma of sexual assault/abuse. For a woman to suggest that all women should stand up to a powerful man with a slap or punch or by calling it out because that’s her fantasy of how she would respond is utterly unfair. Understand this: until sexual assault happens to you, you really don’t know how you might respond. Don’t judge survivors based on your fantasy of how you’d deal with a situation you’ve never experienced.
What can you do? Believe women who step forward to report sexual assault/abuse. Call out people who cast suspicion on a woman who reports an assault. Teach boys and men to stop sexually assaulting women and to reject this culture's current warped entitlement thinking around women's bodies. Insist that judges impose realistic sentences in rape and assault cases. Our judges simply must stop winking at offenders, handing out ridiculous non-penalties for sexual assault, rape and abuse.