Well-Founded Fear

Why some victims of sexual mistreatment stay silent.

Posted Oct 02, 2018

In 1991, Anita Hill brought sexual harassment to the forefront – and divided the American people - when she testified about her mistreatment during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Today, almost 30 years later, the sexual assault accusation against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, thus strikes a familiar chord. While much has changed since Ms. Hill’s time, the sad reality is that much more has not. The prevalence of sexual mistreatment has not waned, its victims continue to suffer in psychological, physical and job-based ways, perpetrators routinely survive such ordeals unscathed, and those who choose to come forward with their victimization often suffer because of it. Just as Ms. Hill’s disclosure of mistreatment prompted a smear campaign against her, so too do today’s survivors of sex-based mistreatment, have their integrity questioned. In fact, last week defending his pick for the US Supreme Court, President Donald Trump contested the credibility of Dr. Ford’s allegations, citing her failure to report her abuse when it first occurred, as evidence that her claim is fabricated. President Trump tweeted:

“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”

The President’s words have incited Tweets from across the country punctuated by the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport; women are sharing their own stories of why they too, did not disclose their victimization.

At the same time, many others simply cannot imagine that someone would put up with sexual harassment or violence, and not say or do anything. Many are plagued by the question “Why didn’t she report him?”.

So, let’s explore that.  

First off, it’s important to state that most targets of harassment and sexual violence do not report their mistreatment. In the United States and in Canada anywhere from 74 to 95 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.[1] Similarly, anywhere from 87 to 94 percent of sexual harassment victims do not file a formal complaint.[2] Christine Blasey Ford is not alone. She is unfortunately in good company.

So again, we ask, why wouldn’t a woman who is assaulted or sexually harassed come forward? The nuanced reasons are as varied as the people to whom this question refers, and yet, there is no doubt a common theme that pervades the stories of many victims of sex-based mistreatment.


Fear of being victimized again.

Fear of being blamed.

Fear that no one will believe them.


A feeling – a family of fear feelings – that research suggests are well-founded.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

First, the fear of being targeted with additional mistreatment.

Evidence documents that those who report their harassment or abuse are routinely re-victimized with various forms of retaliation. Within the work context specifically, employees who take action against those who mistreat them may be demoted, involuntarily transferred, given poor performance appraisals, or even discharged. Otherwise known as work retaliation these secondary forms of victimization have the purpose or effect of negatively altering aspects of the target’s job[3]. At the same time, employees who report or vocally resist their mistreatment may also suffer less tangible (although very serious) social reprisals – additional harassment, name-calling, ostracism, threats, or being given the “silent treatment”. Such antisocial behaviors – or social retaliation - can take both verbal and nonverbal forms, have the purpose of intimidating as well as harming the victim’s interpersonal relationships, and most often go undocumented.[4]  If this wasn’t bad enough, research also suggests that voicing more serious wrongdoing triggers more retaliation, that women compared to men experience more retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on organizational wrongdoing[5], and that this secondary victimization can happen at the hands of the perpetrator or others in one’s environment.[6] In the case of the latter, colleagues may feel compelled to distance themselves or discredit the victim, worried that they too could be punished in formal or informal ways for supporting someone who is “rocking the boat”.

Is it thus any wonder that women do not report?

Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography
Source: Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography

Second, fear of being blamed - a fear that research suggests is also a reasonable reaction. For decades, women have been held accountable for their own mistreatment.[7] Women who come forward with their victimization routinely have the tables turned on them. They are put on trial themselves. Fuelled by pervasive myths about sexual violence, society’s reaction to this type of victimization is one that often points the finger at those harmed. Many victims who report their mistreatment are met with a critical response – accusations that they brought their sexualized mistreatment on themselves (e.g., “Your provocative attire led him on”), or that they enjoyed or wanted the behavior (e.g., “You were flattered by and craved the attention”).[8] Not only is victim-blaming something that understandably scares many women into silence (and leads to intense feelings of shame that further serve to mute victims and compound their emotional wounding[9]), but equally disturbing is the cultural significance of these myths. By thrusting responsibility for sexual victimization onto women themselves, this mythology explicitly denies – and in fact justifies - male sexual aggression against women[10], in the workplace and beyond. By transferring blame to the victim of mistreatment, the men who perpetrate this violence are exonerated from their actions, and at times, are even ascribed the role of victims themselves.

Is it thus any wonder that women do not report?

Third, fear that no one will believe them. Along with false ideas that women are to blame for their own mistreatment, research shows that the myth women often make up or exaggerate their claims of sexual mistreatment, is strong in the minds of many people.[11] When a woman comes forward with sexual victimization she may be cast as an opportunist – as someone who is falsely accusing a man out of spite, to gain attention, to cover up for her own misdeeds, or most recently as seen in the case of Dr. Ford, to serve a political agenda. One only need to consider any high profile sexual harassment case from the past year, to see that the burden of proof undoubtedly rests on the prosecuting party, and that victims' accounts are routinely scrutinized to the point of exhaustion.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
Source: Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

Unfortunately, there is much social motivation to declare a victim’s claim as fabricated. To admit that an accusation of sexual violence is true – to admit that sexual mistreatment is as prevalent as the research tells us – is ultimately to admit that widespread change is necessary. It is to admit we all need to take a look at our own lives and own treatment of one another at work and beyond. It is to admit that patriarchal ideals and resulting social structures, institutions, and processes still dominate within society, and govern the actions of many within it. Yes, to believe women who have experienced sexual violence, is to admit that we all have a part to play in the harm that our daughters, our sisters, our mothers and our colleagues are experiencing – an admission that many are hell-bent on suppressing.

And so I ask again:

Is it thus any wonder that women do not report?

As the world waits with bated breath to see how the case between Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will conclude, perhaps those who’ve asked why Dr. Ford did not originally come forward with her victimization are plagued by the wrong question. Perhaps what society should be asking, is whether it’s any surprise, that she didn’t.


[1] Rennison, C. M. (2002). Rape and sexual assault: Reporting to police and medical attention, 1992-2000 [NCJ 194530]. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics:  https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsarp00.pdf;

Conroy, S. and A. Cotter. 2017. "Self-reported sexual assault in Canada, 2014.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

[2] Feldblum, R., & Lipnic, V.A. (2016). EEOC Report from the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf

[3] Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2003). Raising voice, risking retaliation: Events following interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8(4), 247-265;

Bergman, M. E., Langhout, R. D., Palmieri, P. A., Cortina, L. M., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2002). The (un) reasonableness of reporting: Antecedents and consequences of reporting sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(2), 230-242.

[4] ibid.

[5] Rehg, M. T., Miceli, M. P., Near, J. P., & Van Scotter, J. R. (2008). Antecedents and outcomes of retaliation against whistleblowers: Gender differences and power relationships. Organization Science, 19(2), 221-240.

[6] Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2003). Raising voice, risking retaliation: Events following interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8(4), 247-265.

[7] Lonsway, K. A., Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2008). Sexual harassment mythology: Definition, conceptualization, and measurement. Sex Roles, 58(9-10), 599-615.;

Fitzgerald, L. F., Swan, S., & Fischer, K. (1995). Why didn't she just report him? The psychological and legal implications of women's responses to sexual harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 51(1), 117-138.

[8] ibid.;

Bohner, G., Eyssel, F., Pina, A., Siebler, F., & Viki, G. T. (2009). Rape myth acceptance: Cognitive, affective and behavioural effects of beliefs that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator. In M. Horvath & J. Brown (Eds.) Rape: Challenging contemporary thinking, (pp. 17-45). London: Willan.

[9] Weiss, K. G. (2010). Too ashamed to report: Deconstructing the shame of sexual victimization. Feminist Criminology, 5(3), 286-310.

[10] ibid

[11] ibid