Before beginning, it is essential to note a few things. Firstly, this article will discuss different aspects of sexual assault and may bring up some painful feelings for sexual assault victims and survivors. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, take a break, and come back when you can.
Second, this article will discuss sexual assault as it applies to cisgender and transgender women of all races. Transgender women, especially trans women of color, experience disproportionately high sexual and physical violence rates. Due to the intricacies and importance of intersectionality, it is hard to talk about women facing sexual violence without talking about all women who experience sexual violence.
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is assaulted every 68 seconds, with only 25 out of 1,000 perpetrators ending up in prison. While many factors contribute to the statistical lack of imprisoned perpetrators, one of the most complex and common reasons is that many women wait to report sexual assault for weeks, months, and years, and sometimes they never speak out. While this is a complex phenomenon, a few indicators tell us why women are afraid to speak out and report their assault.
To help readers better understand why this occurs, this article will review the top three most common reasons why women wait to report sexual assault.
The most pervasive reason women wait or don’t report sexual assault is that they are afraid they won’t be believed by the people they tell, whether they be family, friends, or law enforcement. In American culture, it is common for the woman to come under fire and be asked what she did to protect herself rather than looking at the alleged perpetrator. The experience of going to a court proceeding only to have everything about yourself scrutinized in the process is traumatic, and not everyone has the fortitude to handle something so painful.
A woman can be asked what she was wearing, if she was intoxicated, alone, or what else she could’ve done that put her in a vulnerable position. The truth is, if someone wants to assault a person sexually, what they wear or drink will not matter, and it is never the victim’s fault. But proving yourself to court and loved ones is an arduous task that can permanently damage relationships.
Many sexual assaults are done by someone the victim knows, like a family member or close friend. There is an intense fear that if they tell someone, like a parent, the parent will be in denial or disbelief. A parent may not want to believe that someone they hold dear and have known for so long could do such a thing. The feeling of having your strongest, and sometimes only support system, not believing you is earth-shattering.
Often, this means that a victim will have to live with or around a perpetrator; even worse, if the perpetrator knows the victim tried to report the crime, it could lead to retribution. Suppose the victim is not safely removed far away from the aggressor, or the aggressor is not put into prison. In that case, this can make for an extremely dangerous situation and cause an offender to repeat.
Sometimes, women are unaware that what they have experienced constitutes sexual assault. It could be because their memory is unclear, or they never said no. Whatever the reason, it is essential to note that the lack of an answer does not explicitly mean consent.
Unfortunately, many modern sexual education programs, at least the ones that haven’t been removed from the curriculum, don’t teach consent-based practices, and can make a future victim unsure. For example, suppose someone asks you repeatedly to have sexual relations with them despite you previously saying no, and you give in due to pressure. In that case, this is sexual coercion and a form of sexual assault. Or, if someone is intoxicated and taken advantage of without being given a chance to say no, this is also sexual assault. If a party does not explicitly consent to a sexual act, that is sexual assault.
Many times, and from a young age, rude or sexually charged acts are meant to be seen as flirting. If you’ve ever heard that someone likes you because they bully you, this is a gateway for women to associate abuse with love. This association grows and solidifies in adulthood, leaving many women vulnerable to sexual assault. And often, this can lead to repeat offenses, as women who are assaulted are more likely to be re-assaulted. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t be up to the woman to protect herself, but it is an unfortunate reality.
The legal definition of sexual assault is clear and is as follows: sexual assault is contact, action, or behavior without the clear and explicit consent of the victim. This includes attempted rape, penetration of the victim, also known as rape, forced sexual acts, and unwanted fondling or touching. It is also important to note that not all sexual assault is rape, as rape is defined as a body part or object penetrating the vagina or anus, or if a sexual organ penetrates the mouth.
Understanding these legal terms and definitions will give women the tools to clear away uncertainty and provide them with the courage to report.
As mentioned, the victim likely knows the perpetrator’s identity as they are commonly a friend, family member, or even a medical practitioner. It is important to note that reporting against practitioners can be even more difficult as you specifically need a patient rights attorney, and different steps go into reporting.
Believe it or not, victims are often afraid to damage the reputation of someone they know. Often, the thought of ruining the life of a loved one gives the victim pause. Or, if a perpetrator is of good standing, like a celebrity or an influential member of the neighborhood, reporting and damaging their reputation can also cause fear of retribution, especially if the report was unsuccessful.
This is also because of the popular idea that women lie and report sexual assault to ruin a person’s reputation, either as revenge or to receive money. In truth, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, out of the sexual assault cases that are reported, only two percent of reports are false. While ideally, that number would be zero, communities should be less worried about false statements that can be easily identified in court and more concerned about victims.
The idea that false reports garner money and status is preposterous, as the money it takes to go to court and the slandering that takes place is often not worth it. However, many of those who abide by the “femme fatale seeking revenge” school of thought have been further emboldened by the recent success of Johnny Depp in his trial versus Amber Heard. Many people, especially men, who had not been interested in sexually violent cases before, used this opportunity to try and prove the idea that the #MeToo Movement caused a flurry of women to falsely report for profit.
In reality, people like this are not interested in getting justice for men who have been abused and assaulted; they want to take away the voices of women.
These are just three of the reasons why women wait to report sexual assault, and there are many more that can’t be covered in one article. This is a highly complex subject, and many of the instances and examples we’ve given can be even harsher and apply even more to trans women and women of color. And remember, if the world won’t fight for you, you should still fight for yourself. And if you need help, attorney Tamara N Holder can help you uphold your rights and give you the representation you need to get the compensation you deserve.