Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
Most cases of sexual assault go unreported. Why is this?
Posted September 23, 2018 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Being sexually assaulted in one of the most shame-inducing traumas that a person can experience. So it is understandable that victims don’t need to be further shamed for not reporting the crime. And yet, that is exactly what happens whenever we hear, for the first time, about a sexual assault that occurred months or years ago. “Why didn’t she report it before?” “Why didn’t she come forward a long time ago, right after it happened?”
Sixty-three percent of sexual assaults are not reported. Why is this the case? This article is intended to answer that question. I wrote a similar article on why women don’t come forward when they are sexually harassed at work and received a lot of positive feedback for explaining this phenomenon. I hope this article will be as helpful in addressing sexual assault.
Not every victim reacts the same way or has the same reasons for not reporting, but based on my 40 years working as a psychotherapist, I believe there are 10 major reasons for non-reporting:
1. Victims are too ashamed to come forward. Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women (and men) experience when they are sexually violated. Sexual assault is, by its very nature, humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person.
This is what a former client shared with me about her experience of being shamed by a sexual assault:
“I felt so humiliated when I was raped. I felt dirty and disgusting. The thought of this horrible man being inside me made me want to vomit. I felt contaminated. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was afraid to look anyone in the eyes because I felt so much shame.”
—Sylvia, age 24
Victims of sexual assault also feel shame because as human beings we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes us to feel further humiliated. This is especially true for boys and men who are sexually assaulted, since males are raised to believe they should be tough and strong and be able to fight off any attacker. Males who were unable to do so experience horrific shame.
2. Victims of sexual assault blame themselves. Most victims of sexual assault blame themselves in some way. This is true whether the victim is male or female, young or old.
I have first-hand experience with this self-blame, which I wrote about in my newly published memoir, Raising Myself: A Memoir of Neglect, Shame and Growing Up Too Soon:
“My mother was asleep when I got home, so I hid my bloody underwear and torn dress where she wouldn’t find them and went to bed. As I lay alone in my dark room I vowed to myself that I would never tell anyone what happened, not even my mother—or rather, especially not my mother. I felt so alone with my pain, but I didn’t feel like I deserved any comforting. Mostly, I didn’t want anyone to know what a stupid idiot I had been to go out with Harvey in the first place.”
As Matt Atkinson wrote in his book, Resurrection After Rape: A Guide to Transforming from Victim to Survivor, “Self-blame is by far, the most devastating after effect of being sexually violated. This is particularly true for former victims of child sexual abuse and adult victims of sexual assault. In fact, ninety percent of rape trauma recovery is undoing a victim’s tendency to self-blame. Ten percent is everything else. But the ten percent has to come after the end of self-blame: it can’t happen while the former victim is still ashamed and guilty.”
3. Victims are afraid of being blamed. This makes sense since we have a victim-blaming culture in which we make the assumption that if something bad happens to you, it is somehow your own fault. This is particularly true for the way we blame women. “She shouldn’t have gone to that party,” “What does she expect if she wears a dress that short. She’s just asking for it.” “It’s her own fault for drinking so much.”
Blaming the victim is by far the most common reaction people have when a victim tells others that she was sexually assaulted and is, by far, the most damaging. The idea is that the victim “put herself in that position” or was “asking for it.” Not only does the victim not receive the comfort and support she needs, but she is further shamed by being blamed for her own victimization. As one former client told me: “My boyfriend got so angry with me. He yelled at me for going to that party in the first place. ‘I told you those guys were trouble! You should have never been there.’ And then he yelled at me for not leaving the party earlier: ‘And why didn’t you leave when Linda did? That was so stupid of you to stay there all alone! And you were probably drunk, weren’t you? Dammit Gina, what did you expect?’”
It is fairly common for boyfriends and husbands to blame the victim. Men are extremely tribal. They identify with one another so intensely that some feel personally attacked whenever another man is being accused of something like rape. Because of this, some, will defend the man and blame the victim. Other men have the belief that women are the ones who bear the duty to prevent rape. But women are guilty of blaming the victim as well. This can be a way of convincing themselves that they will never be raped because they would never put themselves in that position.
4. Victims are afraid they will not be believed. Sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime because victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion and there is a long history of women not being believed when they attempted to report a sexual violation. Although friends and family usually believe a woman when she tells them she was sexually assaulted, when it comes to reporting the crime, it is another story. Most women have heard horror stories about how other victims have had to jump through hoops in order to be believed and often the perpetrator’s word is taken over hers, especially when the rape has occurred on a college campus or when the perpetrator is a popular guy on campus, such as a star football player. This was the situation with my former client Courtney:
“I was raped at a party by a popular football player,” she told me. “When I reported it to the police it ended up being my word against his. And I became the town pariah. Everyone at school hated me and constantly made comments like, ‘How could you accuse Randy of doing such a thing!’ ‘You’re ugly—he can get any girl he wants, why would he chose you?’ ‘You’re just trying to hurt him—why would you do such a thing?’ It got so bad I had to drop out of school. But Randy just kept on playing football. By the time the case went to court, I couldn’t even step outside my house. There was a mistrial because half of the people on the jury supported Randy. My family had to move out of town so I could get a new start.”
Young college women are being sexually assaulted in record numbers. Many are afraid to report the rape to their college administration because of a long history of cases being mishandled. How can victims get past their fear of not being believed and not being supported by their college administrators when they continue to be treated badly?
5. They are afraid of retaliation by the perpetrator. Eight out of ten victims know their rapist and because of this, many are afraid that if they report it to the authorities their perpetrator will retaliate in some way. In addition, rapists who are strangers often threaten to kill their victim if she reports the sexual assault. There have been only a few well-known cases of a rapist returning to harm a former victim, but enough to scare women with this possibility.
6. They are afraid of having their reputation ruined. Male and female victims are afraid of the stigma connected to sexual assault. They are afraid of it getting out and hurting their reputation. This is especially true of adolescents, who focus on their reputation obsessively. And there is good reason for them to be concerned. I’ve had many adolescent clients whose named were smeared after the news that they were sexually assaulted came out at school. Girls often called “whores” and “sluts” and received many rude and threatening comments and gestures from the boys at school. Males who are sexually assaulted have even more fear of their reputation being ruined and many are labeled “queer” or are considered “weak” if the news gets out.
7. They don’t believe it will do any good. Most victims know that very few rapists are caught and even fewer are convicted and serve any jail time. In fact, ninety-nine percent of perpetrators walk free. With these odds, it is understandable that victims would have serious doubts about reporting and that they would question whether it is worth having their integrity and their character questioned. Those with a history of childhood sexual abuse who never received justice are particularly prone to feeling it will do no good to report a current sexual violation.
8. They want to put it behind them—to forget it ever happened. I often hear clients tell me that this is why they didn’t report the sexual assault. “I just wanted to move on,” they will say. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Former victims can’t just put it out of their minds. The pain and fear and shame surrounding sexual trauma continue to haunt them. They suffer from troubling flashbacks, nightmares and difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety, and have difficulties with issues such as trust and low self-esteem. Their sexuality suffers, either causing them to have difficulty engaging in the sexual act or the other extreme, to become promiscuous. Many repeat the trauma by continuing to be victimized or by becoming abusive themselves.
9. They don’t want to go through the “hassle” of reporting it to the authorities. This is an interesting excuse when you compare sexual assault to what happens when someone gets their car stolen or their house broken into. We seldom, if ever, hear people say, “I didn’t want to go through the trouble of reporting the robbery to the police,” in these circumstances. Most people don’t get their car or other valuables back when they are stolen but this does not stop them from reporting the theft to the police. The truth is, this excuse probably reflects the victim’s lack of self-esteem.
10. They are too traumatized to report the assault. This is more common than you would imagine and brings up some issues that not everyone is aware of. For example, most people are familiar with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a severe anxiety disorder with characteristic symptoms that develop after the experience of an extremely traumatic stressor, such as a violent assault.
Many understand that those who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached and estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life. What many don’t realize, however, is that PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms and is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and problems of memory and cognition.
In some cases, the symptoms of PTSD can become more debilitating than the trauma. Some characteristics of PTSD can actually run counter to a victim reporting the sexual assault. She may be so overwhelmed by avoidance symptoms such as emotional numbing, or a strong desire to stay away from anything that reminds her of the assault, that she is incapable of taking the action of reporting. Or, she may be overtaken by feelings of helplessness and passivity that can be symptomatic of PTSD.
Instead of asking why victims don’t tend to report sexual assault, we need to ask, “What are we doing to make it safe for them to report?” and “What can we do to make reporting processes less threatening and more trauma-sensitive for victims?”
We have an epidemic on our hands when it comes to sexual assault, with 321,500 Americans age 12 and older being sexually assaulted each year. Here are some possible ways for us to educate and de-stigmatize sexual assault so that more victims will come forward to report and get the help and support they need.
1. We need to better educate girls and women about the risks of sexual assault and coach them how and where to report sexual violations. For example, young women entering college are particularly at risk of being sexually assaulted. It was estimated that in the fall of 2016, a total of 20.5 million students attended American colleges and universities, females making up the majority of students—about 11.7 million students. Most parents don’t sit their teenage or twenty-something daughters down and explain the possible risks they’ll face at college or the best ways to protect themselves from sexual assault or sexual harassment. Most don’t explain their rights, how and whom to report an incident to, and how and whom to seek counseling from if they are sexually assaulted or harassed.
2. We need to stop blaming victims. In fact, our entire culture is guilty of victim blaming. At its core, this tendency to blame the victim comes from our cultural intolerance of weakness in any form. We can’t tolerate weakness in others because it reminds us of our own weakness and vulnerability. What better way to avoid this than by blaming the victim for her own victimization?
We blame the woman who was raped for wearing sexy clothes, or for drinking too much, or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time because we want to hold on to the fantasy that we all have choices—that we are in control. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that sometimes we don’t have a choice—that sometimes we are not in control.
Even some misguided therapists sometimes believe that their job is to help their client see how she participated in the rape by “putting herself in that position.” Others focus on what the victim can do differently next time to prevent being raped again, implying that she had something to do with her own victimization. These therapists seem to believe the old line, “Nobody can abuse you without your consent.”
The truth is, victims do not cause themselves to be raped. People can and frequently do abuse and rape others “without their permission,” and people can and do control others against their will. There is only one thing that causes a woman to be raped: a rapist.
3. We need to help women understand that they need to stop blaming themselves for sexually harassing and sexually abusive comments and behavior. Even in today’s culture, women tend to blame themselves (and other women) when a man tries to force himself on them.
This belief has been ingrained in women’s psyches for decades and is based on the idea that: 1) women are responsible for men’s unacceptable behavior, and 2) it is a woman’s job to never arouse a man unless she wants to follow through by having sex with him. This arcane belief needs to be unearthed and exposed as the lie that it is. No one is responsible for a man’s behavior but the man himself.
4. We need to encourage girls and women to acknowledge and get help for their experiences with child sexual abuse. In the past several years there has been a focus on raising the self-esteem of girls. Unfortunately, sexual violations do more damage to a girl’s self-esteem, body image, and sexual self-esteem than anything else. A girl who is sexually abused in childhood starts out her life with a huge deficit and she is far more likely to be sexually assaulted as an adult than a woman who has not been abused in childhood. In order to be truly empowered, women and girls need to acknowledge their shame, pain, and fear at having been sexually violated in the past.
5. We need to understand that there are good reasons why victims often do not fight back and then educate both males and females about this. Time after time, clients have told me about how ashamed they are because “I should have fought more” or “I just lay there and let him do it.” My client Ramona told me, “I felt so ashamed of myself because I couldn’t defend myself. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t even try to scream. I was just frozen in fear and I just let him do whatever he wanted to do to me. He had a knife and he told me he would kill me if I moved or made a sound and I believed him. I felt so weak, like such a victim. I should have tried to fight him off. I should have screamed. Maybe someone would have heard me and come to my rescue.”
Clients like Ramona usually don’t consider the possibility that if they had fought back, they might have been harmed even worse. Most people have heard that rape is about power and control. But few understand that in order to maintain control, a rapist will use a level of aggression that exceeds any resistance he receives from his victim. That means that the more a victim resists, the more danger she or he may be in.
6. We need to take the stigma out of “not fighting back” against sexual assault. For example, most people will do anything to avoid being killed. As a way of illustrating this instinct, rape counselors in training are given the example of a man being mugged. The man cooperatively hands over his wallet and does anything else demanded of him out of a desperate hope that the assault will end without further injury or death. No one questions this cooperation: police even advise it. People who hear about the episode later will support the man and assure him that he did the right thing.
No one will blame him for carrying money. No one will claim the incident was probably a cash transaction that “got out of hand.” Yet when the crime becomes sexual, people lose all these same insights about the importance of compliance to reduce harm. Suddenly the victim starts to question herself: Why didn’t I fight back? What would have happened if I had resisted him?
And there is still another factor that may help those who feel shame for not resisting more: During a sexual assault, the body’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, instinctively regulating the bodies’ responses for the sake of survival. That means our conscious mind stops choosing what to do, and our physical systems take control, producing one of three basic responses: flight, flee, or freeze.
Each of these three instincts has both helpful and harmful aspects to them; they may either increase or decrease your safety. Contrary to what we see in movies or what we read in material written by the self-defense industry, the “fight instinct” is actually rather rare in both women and men. By far the most common instinct we all default to is the “freeze instinct,” which causes the body to become very still, rigid, and silent—the “deer in the headlights” response. This is called “tonic immobility,” and it is a simple but powerful survival behavior. During a rape, temporary paralysis is very common; in fact, it occurs in up to 88 percent of rape victims.
If the victim did not fight back or scream during the assault, she or he needs to stop berating and chastising themselves. And we need to stop blaming them. Their behavior wasn’t passive, it was a biologically driven form of resistance! It is very important that we all understand this. In fact, one study found that the link between “temporary paralysis” during the rape and later feelings of guilt and self-blame are directly related to increased depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The bottom line: while tonic immobility is often a source of shame for former victims, it is actually a common self-preservation aid and a basic response to threatening situations. Research has found that this instinct to freeze is just as common among male victims of sexual assault.
In my upcoming book, I’m Saying No!: Standing Up to Sexual Pressure, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault, I offer many other suggestions for educating girls and women about the dangers of sexual assault, and I encourage them to report any sexual assault to the authorities, not only as a way of empowering themselves but as a way to protect other potential victims.
Please note: I do realize that males are also sexually assaulted, especially gay and transsexual men. I tried to include this population in my article but I did so in a limited way since there are more females who are sexually assaulted than males, and because of the current focus on the sexual assault of females given the current #MeToo climate.
Atkinson, Matt (2016). Ressurrection After Rape. Oklahoma City, OK: RAR Press
Finn, Robert. "Involuntary paralysis common during rape--Legal and TX Implications." OB/GYN News, Jan.15, 2003
Heidt, J. M., Marx, B. P., & Forsyth, J. P. (2003). Tonic immobility and childhood sexual abuse: Evaluating the sequela of rape-induced paralysis. Behavior Research & Therapy, 43, 1157-1171