I wanted to write a short post about why survivors of sexual assault don’t report and often don’t tell anyone. More specifically, why I didn’t. There are as many reasons not to report and/or tell as there are different survivors.
To distinguish the terms, reporting means telling someone in authority, for example the police, law enforcement or people in a position of power. Telling, could mean talking to a friend, a family member, a doctor, counselor, religious leader etc. Reporting is often done to accomplish some goal related to punishing the perpetrator or holding him accountable. Telling is often done for the benefit of the survivor, finding support, discussing options, being believed and validated.
It can be very dangerous to mix these two concepts. Because the people you might report to (the police for example) are not likely to, nor is it fully their job to, support the survivor. In my opinion, it should be their job to BELIEVE the survivor, but even this cannot be guaranteed.
Some women choose to tell, but not to report. And some survivors neither tell, nor report. It’s important to remember that this choice should always be made by the survivor and she should not be pressured into reporting. Sometimes the question “why didn’t you report it?” can feel extremely judgmental and can shut someone down even further.
Let’s talk about some of the reasons women, and folks in general, tend to stay silent when they experience sexual violence
- Real or perceived stigma associated with being a survivor of sexual violence. We live in a rape culture society that tends to blame the victim and most survivors instinctively know this. In many situations, there is also a great deal of internalized sexism, internalized judgment and internalized guilt and shame related to being abused which created a sense of stigma that might not have actually existed.
- Fears of not being believed. Many people stay silent, to avoid giving other people the power to judge whether they are telling the truth of not.
- Fears related to what they were doing at the time of the assault. For example if the woman was drinking, if she was out late at night, if she willingly went to the perpetrators house etc. Many survivors assume that because they consented to one thing, it means they automatically deserve the assault that happened, or that they will not be believed because they “put themselves in the vulnerable position” or were “asking for it”
- Fears related to oppression. A woman may feel afraid to come forward if she is marginalized in any way, for example a Woman of Colour, a person with a disability, a person with a mental illness, a queer person, a trans person, a sex worker or someone using substances. These folks may feel they will not be believed due to their experiences of oppression.
- Not recognizing what has happened as sexual assault. When people are abused, it isn’t always immediately clear to the survivor that what happened was assault. This is especially true when survivors are children or when abuse happens in a relationship context. Often abusers are very kind and meet the survivors needs in some ways, while simultaneously being abusive in other ways. This confuses the survivor and leaves her struggling to understand and define her own reality. Also, some people (children for example) literally lack the vocabulary to define what they have experienced.
- Not having the option to tell. For example, not knowing that reporting is an option, or not having a safe person to tell. Or not trusting anyone enough to tell them.
This list is not exhaustive, but is meant to illustrate some of the complexities related to this topic.
When I was abused as a child and teenager, I neither told nor reported. I didn’t tell anyone because of a combination of the reasons above. I didn’t have the words, I was confused about my relationship with the abuser, I didn’t know reporting was an option and most of all I feared judgment and had deeply internalized shame and guilt about what had happened. I blamed myself.
As an adult, I didn’t report because I was confused about my relationship, because I minimized the abuse as “not that bad,” because I disassociated and coped with self harm, because I had a mental health diagnosis I feared that I would not be believed, because I had children with the abuser and other reasons.
When I was assaulted single times by perpetrators I was not in close relationships with, I didn’t tell because I was ashamed. Because I felt like it was my fault because I agreed to go with them. I didn’t want to face the stigma with people I knew and because I worried people would not believe me or would judge me.
In the end, in all the situations I have faced, I have eventually either told, and in some cases, told and reported. Reporting sometimes felt necessary for various reasons, including protecting other potential victims and attempting to receive external validation within systems, that the abuse actually did occur.
This blog is a way of telling my story and encouraging, or showing, others that telling is an option. There may be a stigma attached to surviving sexual violence, but there are also communities of survivors and allies out there who will believe and who will validate. There are safe people. There are people who believe survivors.
Believing a survivor may seem like something trivial, but it makes all the difference. Believe me!