I have encountered in my experience working with patients that suffer PTSD, depression, anxiety, and diverse mental health problems and challenges, is a high percentage of patients that have been victims of sexual assault. The circumstances of victimization differ from case to case but there is one common thing among them: NO ONE HAS REPORTED THE SEXUAL ASSAULT TO AUTHORITIES.

Sexual Assault An Underreported Crime

  • Only 32% of females age 18-24 (higher risk) do make a report.
  • Only 20% of female student victims, age 18-24, report to law enforcement. (Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Rape and Sexual Victimization Among College-Aged Females, 1995-2013 (report 2014).

See the source imageFew victims of sexual assault report the incident/s to friends, classmates, parents, etc. and fewer victims report the abuse to law enforcement. Some of my patients are in this category. They have disclosed the incident to a family member or a friend or to the clinician. When asked about reporting it to authorities they don’t see the benefit to report it for different reasons. There are many psychological reasons why a person prefers to remain quiet. Sometimes a survivor’s relationship with the offender has a strong effect on the likelihood of reporting (e.g. a family member). Or when an offender is an intimate partner or former intimate partner, or a friend or acquaintance.

Why victims of sexual assault do not report it? Here is a brief summary of reasons why people do not report sexual assault (Extract from writings of Beverly Engel L.M.F.T.) 

  1. Shame
  2. Self-blame
  3. Being blamed
  4. Afraid that they will not be believed
  5. Fear of retaliation from perpetrator
  6. Afraid of their reputation to be ruined
  7. They don’t believe it will do any good
  8. They want to put it behind them (forgetting it ever happened)
  9. They don’t want to go through the “hassle” of reporting it to the authorities.
  10. They are too traumatized to report the assault.

One thing we know for sure is that every person reacts to traumatic events in different ways and that’s why there are different reasons victims don’t report the abuse.

  • Shame

“Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women (and men) experience when they are sexually violated. Sexual assault is, by its very nature, humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person.” says Beverly Engel.

See the source imageShame is the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. It’s the feeling of disgrace, ignominy, to be publicly humiliated.

“I felt so humiliated when I was raped. I felt dirty and disgusting. The thought of this horrible man being inside me made me want to vomit. I felt contaminated. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was afraid to look anyone in the eyes because I felt so much shame.”
—Sylvia, age 24

When personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless.

Being sexually assaulted in one of the most shame-inducing traumas that a person can experience. So it is understandable that victims don’t need to be further shamed by being shamed for not reporting the crime. And yet, that is exactly what happens whenever we hear, for the first time, about a sexual assault that occurred months or years ago. “Why didn’t she report it before?” we ask. “Why didn’t she come forward a long time ago, right after it happened?”.

  • Self-blame
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Self-blame is a common reaction to stressful events

Self-blame is a cognitive process in which the victim attributes the occurrence of the stressful event to herself. Self-blame is a common reaction to stressful events and has certain effects on how individuals adapt. Sometimes even present as a reaction to the death of a love one. Self-blame is present in people experiencing depression and mixes with guilt and self-disgust.

“Self-blame is by far, the most devastating after effect of being sexually violated. This is particularly true for former victims of child sexual abuse and adult victims of sexual assault. In fact, ninety percent of rape trauma recovery is undoing a victim’s tendency to self-blame. Ten percent is everything else. But the ten percent has to come after the end of self-blame: it can’t happen while the former victim is still ashamed and guilty.” (Matt Atkinson – Book: Resurrection After Rape: A Guide to Transforming from Victim to Survivor)

  • Victims are afraid of being blamed.
Image result for sexual abuse Victims shame

This makes sense since we have a victim blaming culture in which we make the assumption that if something bad happens to you it is somehow your own fault.

Blaming the victim is by far the most common reaction people have when a victim tells others that she was sexually assaulted and is, by far, the most damaging and an important reason of why sexual assault is not reported. We have all heard things like: “She shouldn’t have gone to that party,” or “What does she expect if she wears a dress that short. She’s just asking for it.”

The idea is that the victim “put herself in that position” or was “asking for it.” The victim not is further shamed by being blamed for her own victimization. Some people go as far as defending the aggressor and blaming the victim. It’s the thought that women are the ones who bear the duty to prevent rape. This can be a way of convincing themselves that they will never be raped because they would never put themselves in that position.

“My boyfriend got so angry with me. He yelled at me for going to that party in the first place. ‘I told you those guys were trouble! You should have never been there.’ And then he yelled at me for not leaving the party earlier: ‘And why didn’t you leave when Linda did? That was so stupid of you to stay there all alone! And you were probably drunk, weren’t you? Dammit Gina, what did you expect?’”

  • Afraid that they will not be believed

Most women have heard or witnessed in the media negative stories about how other victims have had jump through hoops in order to be believed and often the perpetrator’s word is taken over hers. 

“I was raped at a party by a popular football player,” she told me. “When I reported it to the police it ended up being my word against his. And I became the town pariah. Everyone at school hated me and constantly made comments like, ‘How could you accuse Randy of doing such a thing!’ ‘You’re ugly—he can get any girl he wants, why would he chose you?’ ‘You’re just trying to hurt him—why would you do such a thing?’ It got so bad I had to drop out of school. But Randy just kept on playing football. By the time the case went to court I couldn’t even step outside my house. There was a mistrial because half of the people on the jury supported Randy. My family had to move out of town so I could get a new start.”

Cornie (victim, survivor and a patient)

Sexual misconduct is one of the most under-reported crime because victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion and there is a long history of women not being believed when they attempted to report a sexual assault. Although friends and family usually believe a woman when she tells them she was sexually assaulted, when it comes to reporting the crime, it is another story.

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“People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status. They don’t want to lose face” (Michael Price)

  • They are afraid of retaliation by the perpetrator.

Eight out of ten victims know their rapist and because of this, many are afraid that if they report it to the authorities their perpetrator will retaliate in some way. In addition, rapists who are strangers often threaten to kill their victim if she reports the sexual assault. There have been only a few well-known cases of a rapist returning to harm a former victim, but enough to scare women with this possibility.

  • They are afraid of having their reputation ruined.
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A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was. (Joseph Hall)

Male and female victims are afraid of the stigma connected to sexual assault. They are afraid of it getting out and it hurting their reputation. This is especially true of adolescents, who focus on their “reputation” obsessively. And there is good reason for them to be concerned. I’ve had many adolescent clients whose named were smeared after the news that they were sexually assaulted came out at school. Girls often called “whores” and “sluts” and received many rude and threatening comments and gestures from the boys at school. Males who are sexually assaulted have even more fear of their reputation being ruined and many are labeled “queer” or are considered “weak” if the news gets out.

  • They don’t believe it will do any good.

Most victims know that very few rapists are caught and even fewer are convicted and serve any jail time. In fact, ninety-nine percent of perpetrators walk free. With these odds, it is understandable that victims would have serious doubts about reporting and that they would question whether it is worth having their integrity and their character questioned. Those with a history of childhood sexual abuse who never received justice are particularly prone to feeling it will do no good to report a current sexual violation.

  • They want to put it behind them—to forget it ever happened.

See the source imageI often hear clients tell me that this is why they didn’t report the sexual assault. “I just wanted to move on,” they will say. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Former victims can’t just put it out of their minds. The pain and fear and shame surrounding sexual trauma continues to haunt them. They suffer from troubling flashbacks, nightmares and difficulty sleeping, depression, extreme anxiety, and have difficulties with issues such as trust and low self-esteem. Their sexuality suffers, either causing them to have difficulty engaging in the sexual act or the other extreme, to become promiscuous. Many repeat the trauma by continuing to be victimized or by becoming abusive themselves.

  • They don’t want to go through the “hassle” of reporting it to the authorities.

This is an interesting excuse when you compare sexual assault to what happens when someone gets their car stolen or their house broken into. We seldom, if ever, hear people say, “I didn’t want to go through the trouble of reporting the robbery to the police,” in these circumstances. Most people don’t get their car or other valuables back when they are stolen but this does not stop them from reporting the theft to the police. The truth is, this excuse probably reflects the victim’s lack of self-esteem.

  • They are too traumatized to report the assault.

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), is a severe anxiety disorder with characteristic symptoms that develop after the experience of an extremely traumatic stressor, such as a violent assault on one self.  Many understand that those who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached and estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life. See the source image

What many don’t realize, however, is that PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms and is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and problems of memory and cognition.

In some cases, the symptoms of PTSD can become more debilitating than the trauma. Some characteristics of PTSD can actually run counter to a victim reporting the sexual assault. She may be so overwhelmed by avoidance symptoms such as emotional numbing, or a strong desire to stay away from anything that reminds her of the assault, that she is incapable of taking the action of reporting. Or, she may be overtaken by feelings of helplessness and passivity that can be symptomatic of PTSD.

Sexual Assault Prevention

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Instead of asking why victims don’t tend to report sexual assault, we need to ask, “What are we doing to make it safe for them to report?” and “What can we do to make reporting processes less threatening and more trauma-sensitive for victims?”

Here are some possible ways for us to educate and de-stigmatize sexual assault so that more victims will come forward to report and get the help and support they need.

We need to better educate girls and women about the risks of sexual assault and coach them in how and where to report sexual violations.

We need to stop blaming victims. We blame the woman who was raped for wearing sexy clothes, or for drinking too much, or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time because we want to hold on to the fantasy that we all have choices—that we are in control. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that sometimes we don’t have a choice—that sometimes we are not in control. The biggest lie is that “Nobody can abuse you without your consent.” There is only one thing that causes a woman to be raped: a rapist.

We need to help women understand that they need to stop blaming themselves for sexually harassing and sexually abusive comments and behavior. Even in today’s culture, women tend to blame themselves (and other women) when a man tries to force himself on them. No one is responsible for a man’s behavior but the man himself.

We need to encourage girls and women to acknowledge and get help for their experiences with child sexual abuse. Sexual violations do more damage to a girl’s self-esteem, body image, and sexual self-esteem than anything else. A girl who is sexually abused in childhood starts out her life with a huge deficit and she is far more likely to be sexually assaulted as an adult than a woman who has not been abused in childhood.

We need to understand that there are good reasons why victims often do not fight back and then educate both males and females about this.

“I felt so ashamed of myself because I couldn’t defend myself. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t even try to scream. I was just frozen in fear and I just let him do whatever he wanted to do to me. He had a knife and he told me he would kill me if I moved or made a sound and I believed him. I felt so weak, like such a victim. I should have tried to fight him off. I should have screamed. Maybe someone would have heard me and come to my rescue.”

Ramona (a survivor)

We need to take the stigma out of “not fighting back” against sexual assault. If a man being mugged and cooperatively hands over his wallet and does anything else demanded of him out of a desperate hope that the assault will end without further injury or death. No one questions this cooperation: police even advise it. But when the crime becomes sexual, people lose all these same insights about the importance of compliance to reduce harm. Why didn’t I fight back? What would have happened if I had resisted him?

During a sexual assault the body’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, instinctively regulating the bodies’ responses for the sake of survival. That means our conscious mind stops choosing what to do, and our physical systems take control, producing one of three basic responses: flight, flee, or freeze.

Each of these three instincts have both helpful and harmful aspects to them; they may either increase or decrease your safety. Contrary to what we see in movies or what we read in material written by the self-defense industry, the “fight instinct” is actually rather rare in both women and men. By far the most common instinct we all default to is the “freeze instinct,” which causes the body to become very still, rigid, and silent—the “deer in the headlights” response. This is called “tonic immobility,” and it is a simple but powerful survival behavior. During rape, temporary paralysis is very common; in fact, it occurs in up to 88 percent of rape victims.

Young women are being sexually assaulted in significant numbers. Many are afraid to report the rape because of a long history of cases being mishandled. Twenty Seven (27) Colleges and Universities were surveyed, approximately 150.000 students participated, and a high percentage responded not reporting the sexual assault. Raising awareness is part of sexual assault prevention and believing it is some “isolated” case increases the risk of ignoring it.