Sexual assault: Why women don’t report
President Trump tweeted last week that if Brett Kavanaugh really assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in 1982, why weren’t charges “immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities”? Like so many other women, “I can tell you why,” said Leslie Marshall in FoxNews.com. On my 18th birthday, as a college freshman, I was the victim of an attack “quite similar” to the one Blasey describes, and I kept silent. Why? “In a word…fear.” Fear of retaliation from my attacker, or ostracism by my peers. Fear of having my name “dragged through the mud” by defense lawyers. Fear, above all, of being disbelieved and blamed for my own assault. “It took me 30 years to tell anyone” about being sexually assaulted as a teenager, said actress Alyssa Milano in Vox.com, but Trump’s chilling comment has compelled me to speak up. In a necessary sequel to last year’s #MeToo movement, I and more than 700,000 victims of sexual harassment and abuse took to social media last week, using the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport to explain why so many of us have carried “the burden of being a survivor” in silence. Among the legion who’ve come forward: author Diane Chamberlain, actress and TV host Padma Lakshmi, actress Lili Reinhart, actress Ashley Judd, and Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis.
I did report—and wound up regretting it, despite doing “everything right,” said Danielle Campoamor in Marie Claire. I went straight to the police, submitted to an intrusive medical examination, and agreed to “relive my trauma over and over again” while skeptical police investigators grilled me on my alcohol consumption, what I’d been wearing, and my sexual history. Then the district attorney declined to press charges for lack of evidence. This is the tragic “norm in America,” said German Lopez in Vox.com. For every 1,000 rapes, only 310 are ever reported to the police, and just six result in conviction and imprisonment. Is it any wonder that women are “skeptical of coming forward,” knowing that 994 times in 1,000, the attacker is going to walk free?
What police and juries often don’t understand, said Amelia McDonnell-Parry in Rolling Stone, is that women who are assaulted sometimes don’t have clear, specific memories of the event. At times of great trauma, the brain enters “survival mode,” etching a few sensory details indelibly into memory, while screening out peripheral details like time and place. That was my experience, said Patti Davis in The Washington Post. Forty years after a music executive raped me in his office, I can vividly recall the smell of his breath—“coffee and stale bread”—but I couldn’t tell you, or a jury, what month it happened or what he said to me before or afterward.
The message of #WhyIDidn’tReport isn’t that all allegations are automatically true, said Rachel Sklar in CNN.com. Our goal is to show our country “how shockingly, terribly normal it is for women and men to be sexually assaulted.” We’re asking that instead of “reflexively disbelieving” women with claims of assault, people treat “their stories seriously on the way to seeking the truth.” That’s an entirely fair request, said William Galston in The Wall Street Journal. Because of the fearful silence of victims, most men had no idea of the scale of the sexual abuse in our supposedly civilized society. We should seize this moment, and start creating a culture in which “the survivors of harassment and abuse feel safer and freer to tell their stories,” so that men can no longer assault women with impunity. ■