In recent weeks, scores of men and women have come forward with stories of acts of sexual violence perpetrated by prominent people. Allegations against Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates; now actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore and others have also now joined that ignominious list.
On Saturday, Roy Moore defended himself against allegations of sexual misconduct by ― surprise, surprise ― attacking his victim. In defense of himself, he said, “To think that grown women would wait 40 years... to bring charges is absolutely unbelievable.”
But actually, waiting decades to report is not at all unbelievable. I, like many victims, took decades to find the courage to name my abuser and seek justice for the crimes he committed when I was a child. Many victims either never disclose or wait years to share their stories.
Reasons Victims Do Not Tell Their Stories of Sexual Violence
- Perpetrators and their allies undermine victims’ credibility and impugn their character. If you own a TV, read the newspaper, or have an Internet connection, you have seen how victims are portrayed in the media when they come forward.
- The community often rallies around the perpetrator and pillories the victim. If you have ever interacted with a victim or supporters of an alleged perpetrator, you have probably witnessed this. Predators groom individuals and entire communities so that they gain the trust of victims and so that they have a convenient “good guy” cover in place in case they are exposed.
- Victims face a barrage of questions when they come forward instead of the sympathy and support they need. Why didn’t you speak out sooner? Why didn’t you try to stop the attacks? These questions add to the trauma and horror of sexual violence.
- Victims sometimes have kept in touch with their perpetrators. Maybe they continued dating, working together, or interacting politely at family events. Continued contact with a perpetrator is also very common. Often this factor alone keeps victims trapped in silence.
- Not reporting allows a victim to maintain the fantasy that people in positions of responsibility would be helpful if he or she did report. Reporting often crushes that fantasy when responsible people protect themselves and the perpetrator instead.
- A lot of victims prefer to create an alternate reality, one in which the abuse didn’t happen. If a victim is hiding behind a facade of success, competence, and achievement, admitting past abuse can shatter that facade. Being the victim of sexual violence is highly stigmatized. No high-functioning person wants to be viewed as damaged.
- Victims find it easier to pretend to be normal and live a lie than face the horror of sexual abuse and trauma.
- Victims often fear that coming forward will result in the loss of employment, support network, housing, reputation, and even their lives. Victims involved in athletics and extra-curricular activities may fear loss of playing time and access to important opportunities.
- Some victims simply don’t remember. I had suppressed the memories of my abuse and still do not have linear memories of it.
- In the case of child sexual abuse (and oftentimes abuse of adults), reporting can disrupt every relationship important to the victim. Family members and friends choose the easier narrative: that the victim is lying. Believing someone has lied is easier than believing that a loved one has raped a child.
- Victims might not know who to tell. Do you tell a friend? A pastor? The police? Since sexual violence is shrouded in a code of silence, sometimes the impediment to timely reporting is that victims literally do not know what to do. Some may not even realize initially they have been a victim of sexual violence in the first place.
- Some victims are under the mistaken impression that you cannot report at all if you do not report immediately.
- Some victims tried to report and were told there was no recourse. In some cases, victims disclosed to allies of the perpetrator who told them not to tell anyone else, further fortifying the prison of silence. Who would take the risk and report again after that?
- Victims may have been committed a crime or infraction of rules around the time of the crime. Underage victims who have been drinking at a party, for example, could fear getting in trouble and decide it is not worth the risk of reporting the sexual assault.
- Naming an act of sexual violence makes it real. Keeping silent is a way of protecting oneself.
- The victim feels indebted to the perpetrator. For example, if the victim is an elite athlete, he or she may feel as if she owes the coach his or her silence.
- Child victims may have been under the misguided impression that they were in a consensual relationship with a much older person. In this case, it can take a long time to realize that the “relationship” was actually a sexual crime.
And additionally, media coverage can reinforce the twisted perspective that a child can consent to a sexual relationship with an adult.
Reasons Victims Choose To Come Forward After a Long Period of Silence
- They establish geographical distance from their perpetrator and feel safer facing it.
- Their assailant has died or been incarcerated for another crime.
- Family members who would have been hurt by the allegation have died. If a perpetrator is the spouse of a parent, for example, victims might not want to hurt their parent by bringing forth allegations or risk being disbelieved by the parent.
- They come to find out the perpetrator has had other victims and are no longer as worried about being believed.
- They read a story about a similar incident and experience emotional distress about their own experience.
- They have children the same age they were when their crimes were perpetrated and realize just how horrifying and wrong their own abuse was.
- If a victim has repressed memories of the incident, he or she may report after recovering the memories. This phenomenon is common enough that several states have exceptions for recovered memories in their statutes of limitation regarding sex crimes.
- They realize there are no statutes of limitations for the kind of crime he or she experienced and it is not too late to report the crime to police.
- They are in a supportive relationship and finally have the emotional strength to report. Or, conversely, they are out of a bad relationship and have the emotional bandwidth to address it.
- They attend therapy and realize that a lot of their psychological and emotional distress stems from past sexual violence they have never truly faced or addressed.
- They cross paths with their perpetrator and old feelings of angst and anger resurface.
- They begin to worry there are other victims and want to make sure that the perpetrator won’t harm anyone else.
- They are tired of living the “I’m OK” mask and want to live a more authentic life.
- They realize they haven’t done anything wrong and have no reason to remain silent.
Roy Moore is spreading a dangerous myth designed to undermine the credibility of victims and discourage reporting. If you are reading this and are a victim of sexual violence, please know that what happened to you is not your fault. Shame and guilt should belong to your perpetrator alone. It is also never to late to share your story. When you do, you are no longer imprisoned by silence and you are no longer alone in your suffering.