Why Don't Sexual Assault Victims Come Forward Sooner?

And does the time lapse make the accusations less credible or more so?

Posted Nov 25, 2017

Some people are skeptical about why the women who have accused Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual molestation waited so many years to come forward with their stories. If Moore actually sexually abused or harassed them, why did the accusers wait until he was a candidate for a prestigious position to speak out against him?

Waiting so long helped to fuel fuel Moore’s allegation that the women's stories were untrue and indeed nothing but fabrications by the Republican establishment and the liberal media. 

There is a simple explanation of why a victim of trauma remains silent about the abuse she has suffered. This explanation lies in a normal mechanism of the human mind that all of us share. This mechanism is called dissociation. When humans experience a traumatic event, our minds allow us to disconnect our emotional selves from the horror of the traumatic event. It’s the way we get through intense psychological pain. Dissociation causes a kind of split in our consciousness.

Separating one’s consciousness from a traumatic experience and repressing it so that it becomes unconscious is a survival trait which saves us from being emotionally overwhelmed. The mental process of dissociation is adaptive and allows us to go on with our lives.

We all undergo mild episodes of dissociation, even without having experienced trauma. For example, while driving on a highway we suddenly realize that we have reached our exit with no recollection of how we got there. We feel as though our consciousness was “somewhere else.”

 public domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons: public domain

After extreme trauma, like being in the midst of a war or being sexually molested, we may carry on business as usual for a time. We don’t face the reality of what happened because our mind has tucked it away. It is buried in our unconscious, hovering and hidden.

However, the traumatic experience, like many events stored our unconscious minds, affects our lives later on. It may trigger irrational fears in certain situations. It may interfere with our choosing healthy relationships. It is difficult to trust anyone. Extreme childhood trauma can even cause multiple personality disorder or other dissociative disorders of the self.

Dissociation helps us understand why victims of sexual abuse or harassment in childhood or adolescence don’t speak out about the traumatic event shortly after it has occurred. They “forget” it so they can cope without falling apart. They might even doubt the authenticity of their own memories.

The problems come later. After many years, when the traumatic event is long past, the memory may be triggered by external events. This is what happened with Moore’s accusers. Seeing headlines and TV reports about the accusers of public celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, as well as publicity about Moore as a Senate candidate, undoubtedly revived the memories of their own abuse.

It can be much less painful to revive such memories when a victim understands that she is not alone and that other women have suffered and survived similar traumas. Their courage to relive these degrading experiences gives the trauma victim courage to come forward. Removed in their life from the original traumatic experiences with husbands and families of their own, the victims can finally acknowledge the abhorrent reality of their abuse.

From the perspective of trauma psychology, we can easily understand both the long time between the event and the disclosure and the timeliness of the accusations.