This article is a reprint from an article that I recently wrote for The Foundation for Surviving Abuse on the reasons why more victims of sexual abuse hesitate to come forward to report the crime against them until the statute of limitations for reporting has run out.
Actor Stephen Collins, who played the pastor/dad on the TV Show 7th Heaven, recently confessed to his estranged wife that he was a child molester. The tape of this confession, obtained by news sources, led the New York Police Department to conduct a criminal investigation into Mr. Collin’s sexual contact with multiple children. But because the statute of limitations for reporting the crime has run out for most of his victims, Mr. Collins will most likely spend no time in jail.
Sadly, this story is not uncommon. The sexual abuse of children in the U.S. and abroad occurs frequently and often goes unreported. An estimated one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18. Fewer than ten percent of those victims will tell anyone what happened to them. At best, the sexual abuse-reporting rate is about six to eight percent. And, when victims of sexual abuse finally do come forward, the statute of limitations for reporting the crime has run out. It is no wonder then that sexual offenders have a good chance of getting away with their crime.
We might wonder why it is that more victims of sexual abuse don’t come forward while there is still time to prosecute their abusers. I had a patient named Andrea, whose case helps to illustrate some of the main reasons why victims of sexual abuse are hesitant to come forward and name their perpetrators.
Andrea first came to see me at the age of 37 complaining of chronic anxiety and unrelenting depression that had negatively impacted her ability to form personal and professional relationships. She had a history of intermittent anorexia and self-abuse that had taken the form of cutting and binge drinking. Her mental health profile was typical for sexually abused persons. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Andrea’s father had sexually molested her throughout her teenage years.
To begin the healing process, Andrea needed to confront her perpetrator. We needed first to strengthen her confidence that she could manage the stress of this meeting. On the day of the meeting, Andrea held my hand. When I met her father, I understood why. Even I, who had not been his victim, was taken aback by his 6’ 4 imposing height and demeanor. I imagined Andrea as a small child, unable to defend herself against him. I thought of how instead of teaching, protecting, and responsibly guiding her into the world, he had violated her in the most offensive and damaging way.
I would have given him credit for showing up for the session, if he had not tried to turn the tables on his daughter by blaming her for his sexual impulses and violation of boundaries. Her father fended off her accusations through ridicule, stating that she exaggerated the situation, as if sexual abuse of any kind could be an overstatement. He claimed that she had been seductive towards him.
No wonder it had taken Andrea so many years to come forward! Her father's denial of the sexual offense typifies the injury and insult hoisted upon the victims of sexual abuse. Reporting sexual abuse opens up a Pandora’s box of challenges for which abuse victims must ready themselves. Also, to report the sexual abuse, a victim must be emotionally strong enough to handle the reaction of family and friends. There will be those who may not believe that the abuse took place, or if they do, may not understand why the victim didn’t come forward sooner. Just when a victim is finally ready to face the reality of what happened to them, family and friends may want them to deny it, to make it go away, so that they don’t have to deal with the reality that their relative, friend or community member is a sexual predator.
Inevitably, once the abuse comes out, relationships will change, forever. The now exposed sex offender may be going to jail or restricted from being around children. This gets really challenging for many victims of sexual abuse, who feel responsible for these changes that reporting the crime will surely bring about. This, as well as the social rejection, isolation and betrayal from family and friends may be more than the victim of sexual abuse can bear.
Victims of sexual abuse defend against distressing memories of the abuse, just so that they are able to function. Once they accept the reality of the abuse, they must face the pain and suffering that they buried, long ago. It is understandable why it may be easier for a victim to pretend for years that they are okay rather than bring these painful memories out into the open, where they have to begin to deal with them.
Furthermore, the label of sexual abuse victim is tough with which to have to deal. There is much shame and guilt associated with the crime--a crime that has essentially robbed them of their strength and their self esteem. For many victims, like my patient Andrea, even labels such as depressed, anorexic, or bipolar is tolerated better than being labeled a victim.
If it is hard for us to imagine the crime against them, imagine how it must be for them! They want to avoid these powerfully disturbing images rather than bring them forth. Their whole psyche is positioned to ward off the emergence of these memories into awareness. People who do manage to come forth need psychotherapy and group therapy to help develop their coping resources so that they feel strong enough to embrace the truth and ultimately report it.
At first shock and then relief—the bringing to light of years of pain, guilt and shame. The truth is moved up and out and onto the perpetrator. When we voice sexual abuse, something remarkable happens. We make it real. As we already learned, victims of sexual abuse often deny the abuse themselves, pushing it out of awareness and burying it somewhere deep inside of them. Nonetheless, the memories are always there, surfacing in dreams, anxieties and fears, recapitulating itself in here and now relationships, and in self-defeating behaviors that include alcoholism and drug use, eating disorders, and/or sex addiction.
But, once it’s out there, there’s no putting it back. Victims must find healthy ways to cope with the reality of the abuse and the reality of living. Fortunately, it is possible for victims to emerge from their silence and their suffering to become healthier individuals. Like war veteran returning from combat, they relearn what it means to be a civilian. Once victims of sexual abuse free themselves of the toxic secret they’ve been holding onto for years, they learn how to live again.
Please don’t let sexual violence go unreported. If you or anyone you know is a victim of a sexual crime, please get the help you need to support your recovery and healing and for gathering the courage and strength to report the crime against you, before the statute of limitations run out.
The following are links to some of the major hotlines, advocacy organizations and informational publications and blogs that support victims of rape, sexual assault and incest. Please don’t let sexual violence go unheard.
The Rainn Organization
National Children’s Alliance