A large portion of America seems to be having trouble understanding why a survivor of sexual assault might wait decades to speak up about what happened to them.
It appalls me that it’s 2016 and we still have to explain things like this. But it’s become apparent that we do. So let’s dive right into it.
There is not a single survivor out there who wants to spend weeks, months or years publicly reliving and rehashing their assault.
There is not a single survivor out there who wants to be openly labeled a victim for the rest of their lives.
There is not a single survivor out there who wants to be publicly shamed and blamed for what happened to them – to sit through a trial in which their clothing choices, their conduct and their sexual history are torn into and openly debated.
To come forward about a sexual assault means to willingly place oneself under one of society’s most unflattering spotlights.
I wish it wasn’t this way. I hope that in the future, it isn’t. But for now, there is nothing easy or risk-free about accusing someone of sexual assault.
And when you look at it this way – when you stare down the genuine reality of what it means to speak out against the person who assaulted you – it becomes a whole lot easier to understand why so many survivors stay silent about what happened to them.
Because here’s the thing about experiencing something as traumatic as a non-consensual sexual experience – the #1 thing it leaves its survivor aching for isn’t justice. Or a settlement. Or even to see their assailant behind bars (though none of those things would hurt).
What any sexual assault survivor wants, more than anything else, is to heal and move on from what happened.
To reclaim ownership over their bodies. To find peace within the pain of what’s happened to them. To move forward with their life as normally as they are possibly able to.
And this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t crave justice. In a perfect world, 100% of sexual predators would be placed behind bars (and you’d likely be surprised to find out how many of the people you know would be locked up).
But when someone has been sexually assaulted, the pain has already been inflicted. The crime has already been committed. No verdict or settlement can reverse what happened.
And so the survivor is often faced with two choices: to take the case to court and spend years of their lives reliving the event in as public a fashion as possible, or to move on from it quietly and do whatever they need to do to heal.
And in many cases, the second option looks a whole lot more appealing. Especially when the survivor is living in a society that blames, shames and ridicules victims of sexual assault for the crime that was committed against them. Especially when you factor in the fact that the survivor is incredibly likely to blame themselves – internalizing the messages they’ve heard their whole lives about how they ought to behave in order to not get assaulted.
However, many survivors of sexual assault choose to speak up once they realize that they were not their perpetrator’s only victim.
Why is this?
Because when a sexual assault survivor realizes that their assault was not an isolated incident, a very important piece of information often clicks into place at last – the assault was not their fault.
The assault didn’t happen because of what they were wearing, what they’d had to drink, who they chose to leave a bar with or how hard they did or didn’t fight. The assault happened because someone else made the active choice to assault them. Full stop.
And because the assault was the assailant’s fault – not the survivor’s – this means that their rapist might rape again. And this often serves as a motivation to speak up. Particularly if others are beginning to speak up against their same assailant. Particularly if it seems like their allegations may finally be taken seriously.
As people, we ache to protect each other in the ways that we were never protected ourselves.
And so, when it becomes clear that the assailant may go on to harm others, speaking out against him or her starts to look like a much more viable option. Particularly if years have passed, the shock of what has happened isn’t as raw as it once was, and the survivor has had time to psychologically process their own assault.
But it’s no surprise that this process often takes years – if not decades for this to happen (if it ever happens at all). It’s no surprise that the majority of sexual assault victims never report the crime. Many go their whole lives without repeating it to another soul.
Because here’s the unfortunate truth: we still live in a society that boasts the rapist’s swim times at the bottom of an article about how he assaulted an unconscious victim. There is still no guarantee that justice will be served when a woman or man chooses to speak up about what has happened to them.
But here is what I know for sure: we will never arrive in a place where we’re seeing justice served unless and until we stop automatically doubting those who do choose to speak up about their assaults. Until we stop asking what they were wearing, what they were drinking and why it took them so long to say anything before we take their allegations seriously.
If you for a moment have to wonder why a sexual assault survivor might stay silent for decades about what happened to them, I feel glad for you.
Because if you have to wonder for a second, it definitely hasn’t happened to you.