In the past few months, I’ve read several sobering articles where celebrities have come forward talking about their own experiences with nonconsensual sexual interactions. These stories seem to have commonalities. Chiefly, they hark back to when the woman was much younger, perhaps in her teens or early twenties. Another theme among them is that many didn’t report it at the time and often still haven’t. Many say they have realized over time that despite years of trying to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, it was a big deal.
We know younger women are generally easier to take advantage of, but it also seems less surprising to me that they don't report. A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence recently revealed that in college, more freshmen than any other group are victims of sexual assault. This news should alarm us. The younger a victim is, the less seasoned she may be for standing up for herself in a conflict situation, and the more likely she may be to trust those senior to her and follow along. It's a sad recipe for disaster if you ask me.
Still some think the phenomenon of sexual assault on campus is more hoax than reality. You might recall a Weekly Standard cover story last November in which commentator Heather Mac Donald asserted that if a woman was raped but “didn’t think it was serious enough to report" at the time, then it must not have been rape.
To quote the story, “At Harvard, over 69 percent of female respondents who checked the box for penetration by use of force did not report the incident to any authority. Most of those non-reporters—65 percent—did not think their experience was serious enough to report. This outcome is inconceivable in the case of real rape. No woman who has actually been raped would think that the rape was not serious enough to report.”
With all due respect to Mac Donald’s intentions to not force-feed women scripts to cry rape, statements like that read like a robotic recitation of statistics that lack both nuance and humanity. It lacks a deeper look into the possible reasons women don't report. Most of all, it ignores the science behind the physiological and psychological effects that sexual assault can have on victims.
As a new class of freshmen populate colleges across the country, now is as good a time as any to revisit some important, often overlooked realities about sexual assault.
Sexual Assault Can Be Really Hard to Report
Those who haven’t experienced sexual assault are often stymied by the fact that victims of this crime frequently do not report the experience until years later, if at all. For some like Mac Donald, this calls into question the reality of whether an assault happened. But this thinking overlooks the unique challenges sexual abuse brings to victims.
There are numerous factors at play when a person finds herself in an unwanted, unexpected, and compromising place—these include confusion, shame, fear, regret, sadness, and even guilt. One woman who was sexually assaulted on campus and didn't report it shared her story with Verily earlier this year, explaining the fog of pain that followed. “Afterward, I walked back to my dorm room and cried. It took me weeks to tell anyone what happened. Months to tell my family. And a year passed before I finally sought counseling to deal with the depression I had fallen into.”
We know there’s a mental component of abuse that comes with the crimes of domestic violence, often attaching them to their abusers. We know there’s a mental component of abuse when it comes to the crimes of kidnapping and sex trafficking, when victims form a Stockholm Syndrome bond with manipulative traffickers. We know there's a mental component to abuse when children are molested by adults such as in the priest scandals; no one blamed the children, asking why they didn't report decades earlier. And yet the general public still struggles to see the mental component of abuse when young women face sexual assault.
Research reveals sexual assault to be a traumatic experience that has extensive neurobiological effects including jumbled memory of the event and poor executive brain functioning while in survival mode.
Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has noted: “Recent studies on the neurobiology of trauma have helped explain why victim behavior often confounds police, prosecutors, juries, healthcare providers, and even advocates. Victims may not be immediately able to accurately recall all of the details of the trauma, and their demeanor may be confusing because they may show little emotion. This can all be explained by understanding more about the brain.”
Experts James Hopper, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and David Lisik, Ph.D., told TIME Magazine, “Our understanding of the altered functioning of the brain in traumatic situations is founded on decades of research, and as that research continues, it is giving us a more nuanced view of the human brain ‘on trauma.’” And that view is one that shows significant effects on mind and body. Women have a hard time coming to terms with the experience let alone sharing it with others.
And what about the argument that many women have been found to be lying? Well, yes, some women do falsify their claims. Of course, blatant lies are terrible. But the existence of some people lying does not prove that all claims are false. And in the face of the science on human responses to assault, we'd be wrong to think so. We'd also be, intentionally or not, inhibiting future women from speaking out about real assault they have experienced.
How We React Plays a Major Role
To serve all parties well, we should treat those accused of committing sexual assault as innocent until proven guilty, and we should treat those coming forward with claims of assault with no less dignity. Indeed, the only way to do so is to respond with validation and support. As Ronan Farrow wrote earlier this year about the sexual abuse of his younger sister Dylan at the hands of their father Woody Allen, validation is not only important for victims to feel comfortable coming forward, but it is also an essential part of their recovery.
In her essay, Mac Donald concluded, "Colleges could end what they insist on calling campus rape overnight if they persuaded girls to exercise modesty and prudence, and if they sent the simple message: Don’t get drunk, take off your clothes, and get into bed with a guy whom you barely know."
What attitudes like that don't understand (or worse, don't care about), is that it is hurtful—and hardly helpful—to suggest a victim could have avoided their assault. While it’s possible to recommend prudential cautionary advice without blaming people for crimes committed against them, it should give us pause when our first assumption is that victim of a sexual attack is somehow responsible for the violence against them. It also further closes the doors of communication when it comes to women coming forward to report.
As a woman who recovered from physical assault once shared with Verily, “Violence is isolating. It turns forthright people into secret-keepers, and it makes getting help through friends and family seem like an impossibility. It created a terrible chasm between me and my friends. I couldn’t form the words to tell them what happened, and they would never have been able to guess.”
Further, an attitude of blame misses an understanding of the Pandora's Box of risk that women open up when they report assault. Women’s reputations and, therefore, livelihoods can be negatively impacted by reporting sexual assault. It is a truism that perpetrators of sexual assault are frequently those who are in a position of power over their victims. Coaches such as Jerry Sandusky abusing at-risk youth come to mind. Bill Cosby abusing young women seeking advice about their careers. Fox News head Roger Ailes, who is accused of abusing women seeking a leg up in the broadcasting industry. Need I go on?
Even if they do report, the women are often recommended to remove themselves from the workplace—in other words, to sacrifice their job. Even if they do leave and press charges, they can be viewed by future employers as troublemakers. Considering all these factors, the prospect of reporting can not only seem futile, but it can also appear for some to compound a woman's injury.
The Reality of Sexual Assault Is Everywhere
If we want to truly understand why women don't report, we should acknowledge how much sexual assault is wrapped up in many mainstream things today. Porn today depicts aggression against women in most online imagery, and frequent viewing of porn has been linked to desensitized views of sexual assault. Mainstream entertainment such as the popular book and film franchise Fifty Shades of Grey paints textbook abusive behavior as sexy. Popular culture shows emotionless, aggressive sex in many outlets, and it no doubt plays into the proliferation of nonconsensual sex.
Last year a woman shared with Verily how she was sexually assaulted as a college student but not after a long desensitization to its dangers by the media she consumed and the hookup culture around her. “Why don’t women report it immediately if they were really violated?” she asked. “I cannot answer all these questions...For me at least, it was because, like a frog in slowly heating water, my sense of self-possession in sexual encounters had been dying over a period of time. By the time the rape happened, my radar was gone. I could hardly distinguish it from any other sexual encounter I had on campus, much less report it as rape.”
What all these women’s stories tell us, and what is echoed in the research, is that sexual assault does untold amounts of damage to women today. It deserves more attention and seriousness—not less—in the face of the scores of women who experience assault but don’t view it as "serious enough to report." Because much more than pointing to the phoniness of victims’ claims, it points to the nature and effects of an insidious crime.
Photo Credit: Alex Mazurov