Please note, I refer to individuals who have been sexually assaulted as survivors rather than victims, as research shows the language used to describe this population has an impact on their well-being/how they view themselves.
I am writing from a cis-gendered white woman’s perspective and I acknowledge that I cannot fully understand, nor speak to all aspects of sexual violence facing women/girls of color, transgender individuals, non-gender conforming individuals, or the LGBTQ+ community
Survivors of sexual violence include people of all ages, races, genders, and religions — with and without disabilities (NSVRC, 2018).
Trigger warning: This post contains content on rape and sexual assault.
Why She Didn’t Report
I remember 9th my grade band class with anxiety and fear, not due to the pressure placed on me to perform my pieces correctly, but because I had to spend each class avoiding the upperclassman who stalked the hallway waiting for me. Each class period, he would wait for me to enter the side hallway of the band hall and when I was alone, he would push me in a corner and attempt to kiss and grab me. Each time I would shrink into myself and escape back into the band hall…attempting to push the experience to the back of my mind. We would occasionally chat during band class, laughing at the absurdity of our band director. I never asked him why or confronted him. He never offered an explanation. A couple years after graduation, I was eating dinner with my husband’s family when that same man who assaulted me in band class approached the table as our waiter. I greeted him and told him it was good to see him; when he left I recall turning to my husband in panic, whispering, “it’s him”. All of the anxiety and dread resurfaced like bile in my throat, my husband attempted to calm me, asking if I wanted to leave. That was the last time I ever saw my assaulter.
Women and girls share these experiences all too often with one another. Internalizing stories of the boyfriend, acquaintance, friend, even family member that has either harassed, assaulted or raped them. Sometimes these stories are in the survivor’s own words, sometimes they are stories shared in someone else’s’ words…a lot of times the stories never get told. In the #Metoo era, it seems like every time we turn on social media or news there is a new story running about a sexual assault case regarding a powerful celebrity, a police officer, a football player, a politician, a university fraternity member. All vastly different members of society, yet they share the commonality of being accused and/or found guilty of sexual assault. The last few years have brought us names such as: Brett Kavanaugh, Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Brock Turner. While these names are recognizable and well known, we know that this sexual violence is not an isolated issue in Hollywood, it impacts all institutions including our own university. Jacob Anderson, the ex-fraternity president, pleading guilty but receiving an insultingly light punishment for the brutal rape of a female classmate behind a shed. This epidemic does not begin and end at just Baylor…but is relevant at virtually every single university in this country. In fact, 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted on college campuses with those who identify as transgender, LGBTQ+, and gender non-conforming experiencing the highest amount of sexual assault/violence (White Law, 2018).
Before I go further, I will clarify some relevant terms and language surrounding sexual assault:
- Forms of sexual violence include rape, unwanted sexual contact/touching, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation/trafficking, voyeurism (observing sexual acts without consent) and exposing genitals/privates without consent (NSVRC, 2018).
- Consent has to be freely given and informed it can be revoked at any point, and a dialogue about needs, concerns, desires, and comfort level is necessary in order to gain consent (NSVRC, 2018).
- Unfounded allegations surrounding sexual assault are claims that are shown not to be prosecutable or serious: a person’s claims can be unfounded if they did not sustain injuries, there was previous sexual relationships, and if there was no physical force (Emamzadeh, 2018).
Now, let’s dig into the who, what, and why of sexual assault in the United States. Research demonstrates that 1 in 5 women/girls in the U.S. have experienced attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives (NSVRC, 2018). There is a noticeable gap when the numbers are broken down by race/ethnicity; 32.3% multiracial women, 27.5% American Indian/Alaska Native women, 21.2% non-Hispanic black women, 20.5% non-Hispanic white women, and 13.6% Hispanic women were raped during their lifetime (NSVRC, 2018). In most circumstances, the survivor knew their assaulter, with 51.1% of women reporting that they were raped by their intimate partner and 40.8% reported an acquaintance (NSVRC, 2018). Rape is also the most under-reported crime with 63% of cases going unreported to the police (Rennison, 2002). These are hard facts regarding rape and sexual assault in the U.S., but why is this the case? What prevents women from reporting? What does the research say about false allegations? Why do delayed outcries exist? What can we do?
To answer some of these questions, let me first present a study regarding American perceptions of sexual violence. The study aimed to identify dissemination of knowledge between experts and the general public about what sexual violence is and what can be done about it (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). They identified two meta-cultural models that influenced how the American public viewed and understood sexual assault (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). The “mentalism” model states that Americans generally view outcomes/social problems as results “of individual concerns that reflect character, motivation, and personal discipline”; in effect, they view sexual violence as a moral failing of the perpetrator and the survivor because the survivor did not ensure their safety (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). The “family bubble” model states that Americans blame the perpetrator’s behavior on their “poor upbringing” in which their parents/caregivers did not raise them to “not rape” as well as not teaching their child to protect themselves from rape (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). This cognitive thinking ignores the larger picture of families as they exist in a societal context and how cultural systems of inequality can breed sexual violence (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). This study explains how cultural thinking and understanding of sexual violence can create poor responses to assaults in addition to how these models fuel persistent ignorance to the facts of sexual assault.
Research also tells us that women/girls might not report, or delay reporting their assault because of:
- Fear of not being believed
- Fear of retaliation
- Shame or fear of blame
- Pressure from others
- Desire to protect assailant
- Distrust towards law enforcement
Many individuals and communities do not trust law enforcement, or police officers. Many survivors have experience with law enforcement that leads them to be wary of the system. In fact, between 2005 and 2013, it was reported that police officers were charged with forcible rape 405 times (Stinson, Liederbach, Lab, & Brewer, 2016). Survivors distrust of the system and a system that is backlogged with rape kits, and a system that does not provide trauma informed care, leads survivors into a “cost vs benefit” analysis of how much they might be hurt during the investigative process (Emamzadeh, 2018).
While it should be considered a serious crime met with serious punishment, the prevalence of false rape reports remains incredibly small. Some reports state the incidence rate at 2% while others present 8%, the difference in numbers could be due to the fact that there is often confusion between unfounded vs. false allegations. According to the definition of unfounded, assault can still have taken place. In addition, if a survivor retracts their statement, it does not necessarily mean they were making a false accusation, but rather have decided they do not want to endure cross-examination by defense lawyers (Emamzadeh, 2018). Currently, the data tells us that out of every 1,000 rapes, 995 assailants will walk free (RAINN, 2017).
The data seems bleak, overwhelming at times, but there are action steps we can to prevent sexual violence, there is hope. Even though the O’Neil and Morgan (2010) study highlighted the disparity of Americans understanding sexual assault, they also pointed out that great strides have been made. All of the participants viewed forms of sexual violence as punishable, crimes that need to be addressed; they also never engaged in directly blaming the survivor for their assault (O’Neil & Morgan, 2010). This means there has been progress made by advocates through teaching the general public about sexual violence. We must continue to do this…advocate, educate, and teach our communities and especially our politicians who create and vote for laws about the facts of sexual assault. We should focus on the healing and recovery of the survivor. Phrases such as “it took you a lot of courage to tell me”, “I believe you”, “you are not alone”, and “it’s not your fault” (RAINN, 2018), support and encourage healing. Leave judgment at the door, acknowledge that everyone’s recovery is different and the time spent recovering might be longer or shorter depending on the survivor (RAINN, 2018). Finally, know the resources. Know who to contact regarding sexual assault laws, counseling, providing self-care resources, and recognizing suicide signs in the survivor all aid in the recovery and aftercare of the survivor (RAINN, 2018).
Reflecting on my own experience, I wish I had been strong enough, educated enough, vocal enough to stand against him and report the assaults. I think every single survivor does. Time and time again, we hear stories from women who we thought were too powerful, strong, or smart for this happen to them. The fact remains that sexual assault can happen to anybody…young, old, educated, rich, influential. Blame should always remain the sole responsibility of the person who chose to violate another human being. End of story.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673
Emamzadeh, A. (2018, October 1). Rape allegations. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/201810/rape-allegations.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/.
O’Neil, M., & Morgan, P. (2010). American perceptions of sexual violence: a frameworks research report. Frameworks Institute, pp. 1-33.
Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (2018). Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/.
Rennison, C.M. (2002). Rape and sexual assault: reporting to police and medical attention. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsarp00.pdf.
White Law PLLC (2018, January 19). College campus sexual assault statistics. Retrieved from https://www.whitelawpllc.com/blog/2018/january/college-campus-sexual-assault-statistics/