When women started coming out of the woodwork stating that they too had been sexually harassed or assaulted by a man, people wondered, “Why did they wait so long to report it?” and “Why didn’t they speak up at the time?”
As a psychotherapist who has specialized in working with former victims of abuse for nearly forty years, I have found that there are actually many reasons why women don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assault, including:
- Denial and minimization. Many women refuse to believe that the treatment they endured was actually abusive. They downplay how much they have been harmed by sexual harassment and even sexual assault.
- Fear of the consequences. Many fear losing their job, not being able to find another job, being passed over for a promotion, being branded a troublemaker.
- Fear they will not be believed. Sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime because victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion and there has been a long history of women not being believed.
- Shame. Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women (and men) experience when they are sexually violated. Abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled, while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person. This sense of shame often causes victims to blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of the perpetrator. Case in point, Lee Corfman, the woman who reported that, at age 14, she was molested by Roy Moore, the controversial Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama said, “I felt responsible. I thought I was bad.”
A History of Being Sexually Violated
There is yet another important reason that prevents women from reporting sexual offenses —the fact that many of these women have been sexually abused as a child or raped as an adult. Research shows that survivors of previous abuse and assault are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted or harassed in the future. Women who have already been traumatized by child sexual abuse or assaulted as an adult are far less likely to speak out about sexual harassment at work or at school.
You’ve no doubt heard it said that sexual assault is not about sex—it is about power. It is about one person overpowering another. When a victim of sexual abuse has the experience of being overpowered they experience a sense of vulnerability, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that is unmatched by any other experience. Once a girl has been sexually abused she loses the sense of ownership over her own body, her self-esteem has been shattered and she becomes overwhelmed with shame. This sense of shame further robs her of her power, her sense of efficacy and agency, and her belief that she can change her circumstance.
This sense of shame has a cumulative effect. Depending on how much a woman has already been shamed by previous abuse, she may choose to try to forget the entire incident, to put her head in the sand and try to pretend the incident never happened.
Those who experienced previous abuse will also tend to respond to overtures of sexual harassment much differently than women who have not been previously abused. It has been found that many children who have previously been sexually abused freeze when yet another person makes a move on them. Some have described feeling like they are standing in cement. They can’t move, they can’t run away, they can’t protect themselves. Instead, they feel powerless and are triggered by memories from previous abuse. I believe this is what happens when some women are sexually harassed or assaulted at work. Their first reaction may be to freeze or go into denial. As one client shared with me, “I couldn’t believe it was happening, I just stood there and let him touch me.”
Some women realize that their reactions to inappropriate sexual advances is strange or inappropriate. Some may have realized that the reason they didn’t report was because they already felt so much shame from previous experiences of child sexual abuse or rape. But many are completely in the dark, not able to connect the dots between their present behavior and their previous abuse experiences.
Those who were sexually abused in childhood often have such low self-esteem as a result of previous trauma that they don’t consider something like sexual harassment to be that serious. They don’t value or respect their own bodies, so if someone violates them, they downplay it. As one client who had been sexually violated by a boss when she was in her early twenties shared with me, “My body had already been so violated by the sexual abuser that my boss grabbing my butt and breasts didn’t seem like any big deal.”
In the last several years there has been a focus on raising the self-esteem of girls and young women. We want our young women to feel proud and strong, to walk with their heads held high. We try to instill confidence in them and tell them they can do whatever they set their minds to do. We send them off to college or to their first jobs with the feeling that they are safe, that they can protect themselves and that we will protect them. But this is a lie. They are not safe, they don’t know how to protect themselves and we don’t protect them.
How ironic that we now have movements to encourage and empower girls and women all over the world but the fact is that 1 in 3 girls are either sexually abused or raped in their lifetime, traumas that undermine or even wipe out any gains in self-esteem they may experience.
Those with a history of sexual abuse or assault are more likely to keep quiet since they may have already had the experience of not being believed and not receiving justice.
My own personal experience with not being believed when I reported having been sexually abused by a family friend at age nine had a powerful and lasting effect on me. The feeling of helplessness was devastating for me. It followed me throughout the rest of my childhood, into my teens and into my adulthood. When I was raped at twelve I didn’t tell my mother, nor did I report it to the police. I assumed no one would believe me. When I was sexually harassed at my first job, I didn’t report it for the same reason.
It is vitally important that we all realize that those with a history of sexual abuse or assault, especially if they reported it and were not believed, are far less likely to report any further sexual misconduct. The #MeToo movement has empowered a lot of women to come forward to tell their truth and this is encouraging. However, the fact that women with a history of abuse have a much harder time both defending themselves from and reporting sexual misconduct right away is an enormous problem that needs to be exposed. Only then can we make a significant change to the climate of secrecy and silence that still surrounds the issues of sexual harassment and assault.