Opinion: A lesson on why victims of sexual assault stay silent

Back to Article
Back to Article

Opinion: A lesson on why victims of sexual assault stay silent

David Pradel

David Pradel

David Pradel

by Sydney Karlos, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Sexual assault is becoming a prominent topic in society. From college campuses to the White House, issues of sexual assault can be seen everywhere. With more awareness of this issue coming to light, some may question why victims do not speak up sooner.

The most common reason why victims do not speak up is the feeling of shame. According to the author of the book “Shame: The Power of Caring by Gershen Kaufman,” “Shame is a natural reaction to being violated or abused. In fact, abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing.”

Many victims get this feeling of being invaded or feeling helpless as the consequence of another person’s actions. The very act of being sexually assaulted causes a feeling dehumanization.

Human beings “want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated,” Psychology Today reports. This loss of control over one’s life is what causes shame. Living in a very individualistic society, having control over one’s life is an important aspect. Once you lose that, it is not uncommon to feel shame.

This sense of shame can carry over to victims blaming themselves for the actions of their perpetrator. This feeling of being responsible for what happened is what causes some women to not speak up sooner. When people feel ashamed, they hide. This concept of isolation sets victims apart from the crowd, translating to low rates of reporting cases of assault.

Another reason some victims don’t speak up is because traumatic experiences can sometimes scramble your memories. And, when the assault first happens, it is a difficult topic to speak about. Over time, these memories become fragmented. However, this is not on purpose. The brain naturally struggles to cope with traumatic events.

According to Amy Hardy, a clinical psychologist at King’s College London, “We know that if people dissociate during trauma – where the cognitive part of the brain shuts down and they go a bit spacey or numb – it exaggerates this fragmentation process, so their memories have an even more here-and-now type quality.”

Sometimes stories don’t add up but that is not the victim’s fault. According to a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, James Hopper, “Not only does memory fade with time, but when the brain’s defense circuitry is activated, the prefrontal cortex, which normally directs attention, can be rapidly impaired, affecting what information is recorded in memory.”

This does not mean the victim doesn’t remember the attack, but that the order of events may be mixed up. The fear of not being believed because of the inability to recall events in order causes some victims to not report their abuse.

Additionally, the stigmatization of sexual assault in our society causes many victims to shy away from reporting their assault. Our society features a rape culture where we normalize and excuse this type of behavior.

The main example of rape culture is blaming the victim. Many people that blame victims will usually say “She asked for it,” or “Maybe if she wasn’t wearing that.” This kind of thinking instantly marginalizes the victim, making it harder for them to speak up. The victim will not feel comfortable speaking up if they feel society is blaming them for their assault. This belief gives power to the abuser by not holding them accountable for their actions and instead casting that blame on the victim.

Some victims refrain from speaking up about their assault because they know their abuser will not face any consequences. Police statistically pursue sexual assault crimes at lower rates than they do other crimes. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “out of every 1000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free.”

These statistics are dangerous for victims to see. Victims will believe police won’t take their stories seriously, making them reluctant to come forward. Many don’t see the point in coming forward if there will not be justice.

Many victims live in fear, being another reason why many do not report their abuse. They fear retaliation from their perpetrators. There is a stereotype that only victims in high-profile cases, like those involved in the Harvey Weinstein case, can experience retaliation from their abusers. People think if the perpetrator is powerful, the victim is more likely to experience threats of retaliation. This is not true.

According to Psychology Today, “This fear of retaliation does not only apply to high-profile cases; people who wield their power to prey on other people are often quite adept at holding onto that power by any means necessary.” Retaliation from perpetrators is spread across all industries. Victims working in food service can experience just as much retaliation from their abuser as some of the top actors and actresses.

Victim blaming also causes victims to shy away from reporting. A particular type of victim blaming involves people telling the victim “they don’t act like a victim,” as people tend to forget there is not one way to respond to sexual assault.

People react to trauma in different ways. Our society expects a victim to act depressed or fearful after experiencing abuse, leading to an automatic blaming of the victim when they do not react in this way. Shaila Dewan of The New York Times reports “Later, (victims) may react by self-medicating, by engaging in high-risk sexual behavior, by withdrawing from those around them or by trying to regain control.”

While people may see this as a victim not acting like a victim, this is sometimes the only way a victim feels like they have control of their life again. Being sexually assaulted takes away every ounce of control somebody has over themselves, causing those who have not experienced abuse to think survivors that act in this way are not acting like a victim.

Many victims don’t speak up in fear of losing their jobs. This is seen often with women who work in male-dominated fields. With huge power disparities within these jobs, many women don’t speak up for fear that they will be fired.

This is especially common among women who already face financial issues. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Earning low wages may also make it more difficult for a worker to leave a job, or to risk losing it by making a complaint.” Many sexual assaults go unreported for this reason. Fear of those in power has a lot more control over people’s decisions than some may think.

The automatic assumption that the victim was wearing something provocative discourages victims from speaking up. When a victim feels their choice of clothing may lead to scrutiny from those who blame the victim, they tend to blame themselves for the assault.

While clothing has nothing to do with why people are assaulted, our society likes to assume that the victim was “asking for it.” Psychologist Sandra Shullman explains, “These are arguments to transfer the responsibility of control and power from the perpetrator to the victim.” Society tries to come up with any reason to blame the victim for the assault, even going as far as blaming clothes for the reason why the assault happened. Society’s resistance to blaming the perpetrator is what leads victims to not speak up.

Sometimes the trauma of speaking about the abuse is too much for a victim to speak about. Survivors sometimes do not speak up because they cannot. Survivor Alison Turkos, explains that “Even when I did report and ‘did the right thing,’ my reporting process was horrific and traumatic and terrible. So I’m thinking about that a lot when I’m seeing all these people, and people in positions of power and elected officials, who are telling us: ‘Why did you do this? Why didn’t you do that?”

The act of reporting the assault to the police can be traumatic. The idea of talking to a group of uniformed officials about a horrific event while they ask personal questions is an idea that scares many victims away from reporting their assaults.

When a victim feels as though the whole world is against them, they see no point in speaking up. When society blames everything and everyone but the abuser, the victim will not speak up. We need to do better as a society. Victims need to feel safe to speak about their assault. No survivor should ever fear of speaking out against the abuse they endured.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email