Many of us have seen or heard about the hashtag #Me Too, however, many of us failed to realize this was a movement created more than 10 years ago in Harlem, NY. This movement was created to bring awareness of sexual assaults against people of color living in underprivileged communities. In October of 2017, “Me Too” started being used as a two-word hashtag on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. The hashtag gained momentum after several actresses came forward to reveal sexual harassment and misconduct they allege was committed against them by Harvey Weinstein.
Once a few women stepped forward to disclose what they allege happened to them by Harvey Weinstein many others quickly came forward. Not surprising, especially to survivors of sexual abuse and harassment many of the allegations go back almost three decades. The lengthy time between the sexual assault/abuse begs the question why do survivors take so long to report the abuse? Needless to say, there is no one answer that will truly capture why disclosure is not often made. Many survivors struggle with coming to terms with “why they were assaulted”, “what they could have done differently”, “was it their fault”, etc. Although, there may be an extended period of time between the assault and disclosure this by no means suggest the sexual assault did not occur. There are many reasons why a survivor (I purposely chose to replace the word victim with survivor to recognize both the strength and the courage it takes to report assault and abuse) may not report sexual assault including but not limited to, shame, guilt, embarrassment, fear, denial, do not want to ruin the family, break up the family, feels responsible, etc. Unfortunately, society still tends to blame the survivor for the abuse committed against them. Blaming the survivor can result in confusing and conflicting feelings as they struggle with thoughts or beliefs they could have prevented or stopped the abuse. When survivors begin to question their own actions in response to the assault/abuse they inadvertently render the perpetrator blameless.
Too often, following a sexual assault survivors may not report sexual assault, hoping that by remaining silent they can avoid reliving the assault. Having to disclose or discuss the assault with others can cause many survivors to re-experience the assault as if it were happening for the first time or happening again. Thoughts of out of sight, out of mind can be a motivating factor with preventing disclosure. Unfortunately, some survivors believe if they do not talk about the assault they can forget or pretend it didn’t happen. Sexual assault can have crippling implications for survivors that have not had the opportunity to resolve negative feelings associated with the assault. Negative feelings that go unresolved can lead to ongoing emotional challenges such as, PTSD, depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, thoughts or actions of self- harm, uncontrolled anger, etc.
Persons that sexually assault or abuse others usually fall into the following categories, those that are known to the survivor, or someone more powerful (high profile, known to the family, etc., however, this may not all be the case). Persons that are known to or more powerful than the survivor can create additional barriers with disclosure. The perpetrator may be someone a survivor interacts with regularly, and the survivor may think the perpetrator is a good person in other areas of his/her life; as such, the survivor may not want to “hurt” the perpetrator.
Reasons Why Some Survivors May Not Report Assault/Abuse:
- Fear of or threats by the perpetrator
- Fear of having to relive the assault
- Confusion (they had a physical reaction to the assault, e.g., orgasm, etc.)
- Fear of the consequences of reporting
- In denial
- Fell at fault or had a role in the assault
- Low self-esteem
- Concerns about how to report the assault/who to confide in
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of helplessness
- Fear they will not be believed
- Fear they will be blamed
Sexual assault can be a very humiliating experience for the survivor to recount privately, let alone publicly. Survivors of sexual assault that occurs in adulthood often question why they “allowed the assault to occur”, “why didn’t they protect themselves”, “what is it about me that led the perpetrator to feel as if he/she could do this to me”, etc. It is often easier to blame oneself than to admit that you were rendered helpless or victimized by another person. As adults, we often believe that we are in control of our own lives, no one has the power to control what we do, who we are, we define ourselves. When we are victimized by another person we are reminded we are not always in control, someone else has entered our lives changing it course, coloring our present, possibly our future.
The question should never be, why didn’t you say something sooner? Rather, what can I do to support you? There is no denying there is strength in numbers, if we provide the support and encouragement without judgment, more survivors will have the strength to tell their truth.