As we wrap up April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s important to keep the dialogue going and encourage everyone (ourselves included!) to continue learning about the issue of sexual assault. We especially need to keep talking about the many reasons why women don’t feel comfortable reporting sexual assault.
If you’ve glanced at the news in the past few months, you’ll know that R. Kelly’s alleged sexual mistreatment of women over many the course of many years has been making headlines. We needn’t look very far to see the malicious ways survivors of assault are treated in the media, courtrooms, and society more broadly to begin to understand why many women don’t feel comfortable discussing or reporting their assault.
Sexual violence affects millions of Americans, with someone being assaulted every 98 seconds.
Women and girls experience sexual violence at high rates, with college students being three times more likely than women in general to experience assault. Women of the same age who are not in college are four times more likely to be raped. Only 20% of female students report their sexual assault, and only 32% of non-student female victims of the same age make a report. Their reasons vary, but all are indicative of a society that does not support survivors in the way it should.
Here are seven common reasons women don’t feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault:
1They fear for their safety and well-being
A sexual assault is a violent encounter that leaves you feeling frightened, vulnerable, and traumatized. The perpetrator may threaten the victim or her loved ones if she ever speaks out about the assault. This is especially common in cases of childhood sexual abuse and among those who are in relationships with their abusers.
Sexual assault is not only physical abuse but emotional and psychological abuse as well. The victim may choose to remain silent in the hopes that it won’t happen again or to protect themselves or someone else.
2They didn’t think it was important enough to report
Assault can take a wrecking ball to your self-worth, and many people feel that their experiences or, in fact, they themselves aren’t important enough to report the crime. A lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual assault also contributes to this. Groping, for example, is a serious crime but is often brushed off as part of the daily harassment that women face.
Because we haven’t been properly educated on what the term sexual assault includes, women sometimes feel confused about whether their experience even counts as sexual assault. But it’s always better to get the truth out, even if you don’t think it’s a big deal. Because anybody violating you and your body is a very big deal, and you shouldn’t have to endure that alone.
3They’re afraid of being victim-blamed
Sexual assault survivors are wildly mistreated, so it’s understandable that a woman wouldn’t want to report her rape. We’ve all heard the victim-blaming language: “She was dressed provocatively,” “She was drunk,” “She shouldn’t walk home alone at night,” “She’s a gold-digger,” and on and on.
Being sexually assaulted is traumatic enough without having your name dragged through the mud for speaking out. This is part of the larger problem of rape culture that needs to be addressed in this country, and until the general public can truly understand the ramifications of victim-blaming, survivors will continue to choose not to come forward.
4They don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble
Surveys show that seven out of every 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim—not a stranger. Survivors of sexual assault could have had a loving, trusting relationship with this person before the attack, in which case it can be especially difficult to think about turning them in. This could be someone you are in a relationship with and are in love with, a parent, a family member, a friend. It becomes a lot harder to report someone you care about when you know they could get in trouble.
5They don’t think anyone will believe them
If ever we hear about a sexual assault in the media, we’re bound to also hear a chorus of people saying that the survivor is lying. For example, look at the case of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who purposefully victimized Black women and people with addictions because he knew they wouldn’t be believed. Luckily, he was convicted, but unfortunately, this kind of targeted abuse happens more often than it should.
There are many labels placed on women who are raped that make them less “believable.” The expectation of being the “perfect victim” can stop women from speaking their truth. But no matter who you are, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
6They don’t want to re-live the trauma
The majority of sexual offenders do not go to jail or prison, and the process of reporting a sexual assault to police can be almost as traumatic as the assault itself. Rape kits are extremely invasive, and having to tell your story over and over to police and during a trial can be awful. It’s totally understandable that a survivor might decide they can’t cope with all that in the aftermath of an attack.
7They’re in denial
It can be very difficult to accept that you’ve been sexually assaulted, particularly if you were intoxicated or knew the perpetrator. Your mind can employ self-preservation techniques and you can subsequently convince yourself that what happened was not assault. It’s a way to protect yourself from further trauma. Many times, it takes years for victims to realize they were sexually assaulted.
The nuances of processing the trauma of sexual assault are different for everyone. It’s important to be aware of what resources are available to you and others in the unfortunate event that assault occurs. When in doubt, always reach out to someone you trust for help. You’re not in this alone.