OPINION: This is why so many sexual assault victims don’t come forward
As the Brett Kavanaugh scandal comes to a head with his confirmation hearing, there’s a big question about his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, that goes far beyond just one case. It’s a question that affects sexual assault victims all around the world:
Why did it take her 35 years to come forward?
I won’t deny it, I’ve asked the same question myself. Time and time again, I’ve looked at this trial and struggled to understand why anyone would wait so long to talk about what about happened to them.
But seeing Dr. Ford talk today, I finally understood. Looking in her eyes as she struggles to talk about the trauma and the horrors that she has been through, I could see exactly why it takes so many sexual assault victims so long to come forward – and why so many don’t come forward at all.
Only 23 percent of sexual assaults are reported
According to the Bureau of Justice, only 23 percent of sexual assault and rape victims report what happened to them to the police. That’s it. Three times out of four, abused women just keep their pain to themselves.
Most sexual assault victims, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force, just try to forget it ever happened. After a long study on sexual harassment in the workplace, they wrote that ignoring harassment was the norm:
“Common workplace-based responses by those who experience sex-based harassment are to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior.”
For people who have never been the victims of sexual assault, that can be hard to understand. It can be hard to imagine how so many women could just wrap up all that pain up deep inside themselves and never let it out.
But it’s what happens. And when I look at Dr. Christine Ford’s story, I can start to understand why.
Trauma keeps sexual assaults victims silent
In her testimony, Dr. Ford talked about all the work she’s had to do with therapists and specialists to work through these problems. It was in therapy, in fact, that she first finally told someone about what she alleges Brett Kavanaugh did to her.
But she wasn’t just in therapy for her own health. She was in couples therapy. The trauma of her sexual assault was hurting her so badly that it had started to harm her marriage.
It was her desire to have two front doors on her home that led her and her husband to go into therapy. The idea that anyone would want two front doors was something he just couldn’t understand, because he didn’t know what had happened to her.
But that night in 1982, the front door had been her savior. She’d rushed out the front door of that party to get away from the horrible things that were happening to her. And 30 years later, that still affected her so much that she wanted to keep that escape as nearby as possible, even when she was in her own home.
That’s something we see a lot in sexual assault victims. Psychologists say that women who go through this kind of trauma often suffer through PTSD and anxiety that affects the way they think. It leaves them feeling weak and powerless, like there’s nothing they can do to get behind that.
And that feeling of fear keeps them silent. That trauma stays with them, even when 30 years have gone by, and it affects everything they do.
Doubt and memory gaps
According to Scott Berkowitz, the president of the RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one of the first questions sexual assault victims ask is almost always: “Was I raped?”
That’s part of the reason they stay silent: because they’re afraid that they might be blamed. That they might be told that they were in the wrong place, wearing the wrong thing, drinking the wrong drinks, and that they brought it on themselves.
That’s been a problem for Dr. Ford. There are major pieces of information that she doesn’t remember. She doesn’t remember how she got home. She doesn’t where the house was. And it’s easy for sexual assault victims – just like it’s easy for all of us – to hear those gaps and think she has it wrong.
But this is exactly what happens to sexual assault victims. Those memory gaps aren’t proof she’s lying – they’re trademark characteristics we see in almost every sexual assault.
The fear of reprisal
This hasn’t been easy for her. She hasn’t gotten anything out of it. Instead, she’s gotten death threats and harassing letters, and even her family has been targeted, just for being related to her.
In her opening statements, Dr. Ford described something that should horrify everyone:
My greatest fears have been realized — and the reality has been far worse than what I expected. My family and I have been the target of constant harassment and death threats. I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable.
She’s been forced to move out of her own home, and says she’s been living in secure locations with posted guards keeping her safe ever since she came out with her story.
This is every sexual assault victim’s worst fear come true. It’s a huge part of the reason so many people stay silent – because they’re afraid that they’re going to go through exactly what Dr. Ford is going through now.
There are a lot of people who aren’t going to believe Dr. Christine Ford. There are a lot of people who are going to write her off because she waited to talk and because of the gaps in her memory.
I don’t know if Brett Kavanaugh is guilty or not. I don’t know the truth.
But I know what sexual assault victims go through. I know that those gaps and that fear are characteristic of sexual assault.
And I know that the reasons we’re giving not to believe her are the exact reasons why we should.
More to the story
We covered Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing on Dave & Dujanovic, and my co-host Dave Noriega shared his own point of view on everything that’s happened. If you missed the show, you can still hear our discussion by listening to our podcast:
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