Change starts from within

Our response to survivors’ stories in the media

We will not be silent
With heightened attention on sexual assault in the media, we are witnessing very public criticism and scrutiny of survivors’ stories. From the well-publicized Rolling Stone article on the UVA gang rape to the ever-growing list of women accusing Bill Cosby of drugging and raping them, we continue to witness countless individuals attempt to silence survivors by questioning and criticizing rather than empathizing and understanding. Where one is silenced, however, others speak up.

More and more survivors are sharing their stories now, and members of our community have a choice to make: either hide behind the uninformed assumption that survivors are lying about having been raped, or become informed about the realities of sexual trauma and support survivors who come forward.

As survivors disclose long-silenced stories, the visibility of the issue is unleashing firestorms of public debate and dialogue as some raise questions about whether these survivors are fabricating stories of assault and why many of them have waited so long to come forward.

As advocates, we are confidential witnesses to the estimates that less that 10% of reported sexual assaults lead to arrest, and from that only 4% lead to a felony conviction. We work closely with our dedicated partners in law enforcement and prosecution to improve response to sexual assault, but systemic change is only one part of the solution. Every individual has a responsibility and a role to play.

If you have not experienced sexual trauma and have never attended one of STAR’s trainings, you may struggle to understand why only 40% of sexual assaults are estimated to be reported to police. But because of how we commonly shame and stigmatize survivors for the violence others commit against them, they are often reluctant to disclose what happened to them—even to their closest family and friends, even for many years. For the informed, this is not confusing—it’s typical. It is also what we’re working to change.

Beyond the shame we heap on victims, however, is another entrenched problem: the pervasive blindness to sexual violence that comes in the form of automatic disbelief. We are much quicker to assume a victim is lying, even though a victim has little to no incentive to make a false report. We are barely willing to allow for the possibility that the offender is lying, when the offender usually has every incentive to lie. The predominant myth that women commonly lie about rape, or that they report regretted sex as rape, contributes to a continued culture where we tolerate rape and collectively silence and re-traumatize survivors. Survivors’ first fear is usually that others will not believe them.

Let us now say this: it is true that false reports are made. Those of us who work at sexual assault centers know this. What else do we know about false reports? That they are extremely rare and that most false reports consist of scenarios depicting what we usually see on screen – unnamed, masked strangers who abduct and rape. False reports do happen–rarely–and we are educated about the red flags of how to spot one. However, the unquestionable fact is that both unreported rapes and true reports of rape being perceived as “false” vastly eclipse the rare instances of false reports of rape as an issue.

Why are reports and disclosures deemed false when an assault actually happened? For starters, traumatic events impair memory. People often think that if they were confronted with a horrific experience such as a sexual assault (or car crash/burglary/kidnapping/attack) that they would remember every detail, but this is not the case. This is one common reason why survivors are reluctant to report–they can’t remember everything about what happened. It is also one common reason why reported cases are dropped – survivors are unable to recall the assault in a linear, chronological fashion as many prosecutors and members of law enforcement expect them to.

In the words of Casey Gwinn, experienced prosecutor and president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance: “The mess of their story corroborates what happened to them.”

During this time of intense media coverage of sexual assault–-when many brave survivors are coming forward to talk about their experiences in order to raise awareness, improve the system and help others find their voice—your individual response to these stories matters. A response supportive of survivors lets your loved ones who are survivors know that you can be trusted and that you are part of the solution.

Many people and institutions would rather focus on disproving one specific assault than recognize and challenge our own attitudes that lead to thousands of unreported and mishandled reports of rape. We are calling on everyone to acknowledge the facts of how trauma impacts memory and to recognize that inconsistencies in a story are insufficient for concluding that an assault did not occur. It is everyone’s responsibility to make a conscious choice to start by believing and commit to listening and learning from these stories in order to contribute to a culture of positive change.

A culture of change can be challenging, but we are here to tell you that this change cannot come soon enough.


Further reading:
Why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories
How the neurobiology of trauma affects rape accusations
False Reporting Overview | National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

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