When women report sexual assault, the sad truth is that they aren’t always believed. High-profile cases in the recent past prove this point: Radio host Jian Ghomeshi was accused of sexual harassment and rape. Over 36 women say Bill Cosby assaulted them. And recently, Donald Trump has been accused of groping, harassing, and assaulting several women. In each of these situations, women bravely shared their stories with the public—oftentimes dredging up memories they had buried for years or even decades. And instead of listening to what they have to say, many people dismissed them.
Cosby’s victims were interrogated about why they took drinks from him, or what they thought was going to happen if they went to his apartment alone. Ghomeshi supporters claimed that the woman accusing him of rape simply enjoyed rough sex. And the women who have spoken out against Donald Trump have been slandered by his campaign and his supporters.
An important note: People of all genders can and do get assaulted, and there are unique challenges that men and genderqueer people face when reporting their experiences. But there is a specific, damaging myth that women fabricate rape accusations to ruin men’s lives, and that stops so many people from reporting what happened to them. Survivors worry that they won’t be believed.
People who doubt the accusers will commonly ask things like, Why didn’t you ever go to the police about this? Why did it take you so long to speak up? Just because a woman didn’t report an assault doesn’t mean an assault never happened. As is stands, there are myriad reasons why a survivor might not want to disclose what happened to them.
Firstly, someone may not even know that what happened to them was assault. There are so many myths about what constitutes assault, and not enough people know the truth, which is this: If you didn’t consent to doing something with someone, and they do that thing anyway, it’s assault. Even if you flirted. Even if you were drinking. Even if you were wearing a short skirt. Even if you said “yes” during a previous encounter. Even if you said “yes” to doing the same thing with someone else.
Knowing definitively that you were assaulted does not make reporting it any easier. Many survivors report feeling humiliated after being assaulted, and not wanting anyone to know what happened. There’s also a stigma. Some survivors may believe that being assaulted makes them “damaged goods,” and are afraid of being judged for something that is completely not their fault. Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted and held captive for nine months when she was 14, told Vice that she felt being assaulted made her somehow less worthy. “I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, ‘No one is ever going to want to marry me now. I’m worthless, I’m filthy, I’m dirty,'” she said. “…It was almost crippling.”
There’s also the sad reality of what it’s like to report sexual assault. If you make a report to law enforcement, chances are you need to talk about it over and over again, re-living what happened. A survivor may be worried that they can’t “prove” anything happened to them, if there is no physical evidence available. They may worry about appearing “too calm” or “too hysterical” to be taken seriously. If they choose to have a rape kit performed, that experience can be traumatizing, too.
Some law enforcement agencies participate in the Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) program, meaning that they are trained specifically to respond to sexual assault. Unfortunately, this is rare, and many survivors call their reporting experiences traumatic. This year alone, numerous reports have documented police officers blaming survivors for what happened to them, or refusing to move forward with their cases.
In a piece for xoJane, Eden Strong wrote that she regrets reporting her rape to police because of the way officers treated her. She remembers feeling humiliated while the police asked her questions like: “What position did he use? How many times did he penetrate you? Did you orgasm or just him?” At the police station, she asked for a woman or a rape advocate to be there with her, and her requests were denied. “When I finally left, I felt so defeated. So worthless. So humiliated,” she wrote. Her case was never solved.
For some people, reporting sexual assault can lead to them being punished. Take the case of a female midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, who reported being raped by three football players at an off-campus party in 2012. The woman was swiftly punished for underage drinking. Gay and bisexual students who reported assaults at Brigham Young University faced being suspended or even expelled for violating the school’s honor code prohibiting “homosexual behavior.”
Even once someone goes through the process of reporting, re-living what happened, having a rape kit done, and going to court and facing the person who attacked them, it’s very uncommon for people accused of assault to actually go to jail for their crimes.
What a world, huh?
None of this is to discourage anyone from reporting their own assault. Survivors should be given the agency to decide what route is best for them. But to those who ask why women don’t report sexual assault, I have some questions in return:
Remember when Rihanna needed medical treatment after Chris Brown beat her, and hospital photographs of her injuries were broadcast all over the internet? Remember when a judge told Kesha she couldn’t break her contract with a man she said drugged and raped her? Remember when, time and time again, rapists were excused because their victims wore “skimpy” clothing? Remember the women who reported what happened, then lost their jobs? The women who were publicly identified and called liars on the internet? The women who just want to be believed?
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). More resources are available online from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
SELF – Culture