By Racheal Hebert, LCSW
Founder, President & CEO of STAR
The recent flurry of news targeting Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser as being exploitative, politically motivated, or even an outright liar reminds us that we live in an oppressive culture of disbelief and judgment towards survivors of sexual violence. We simply cannot accept that those we love, work with or admire are capable of committing horrifying acts of violence against others.
The U.S. Department of Justice reported that only 32% of rapes were reported to police between 1993 and 2015. Why so low? There are many reasons why survivors choose not to report their assault, including the need for privacy, shame around sex, fear of retaliation and fear of being stigmatized, just to name a few. A survivor’s decision to remain silent is self-protection. And let’s not forget that our actions as individuals in a society that would rather believe rapists than survivors forced them into this position.
We know the coded language of blame. We hold survivors responsible for not preventing an assault committed against them and we question them about their actions when they come forward. We give survivors polygraph tests to prove they aren’t lying when they report to the police. When they remain silent about an assault in hopes that it will just go away, and then they come to understand what happened to them as sexual violence years later and speak out, we ask why they didn’t report right away.
Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what survivors do, they will be held responsible for these acts committed against them and they know it. Coming forward is a calculated risk. It is unfair and unjust and this has to stop. Haven’t they suffered enough?
If we hope to end sexual violence in our communities, we have to start by believing survivors. We have to start worrying more about the violence and trauma afflicted onto the victim instead of the reputation of the perpetrator. We have to allow for the possibility that the people we know or look up to can and have committed violence.
Here at STAR, we are seeing a shift. Survivors have started to speak out, whether their experience of sexual trauma was months ago or decades. But the time is now to start believing instead of shaming. To listen instead of question. To learn instead of assume. And, above all, to recognize the ways that we each contribute to a culture where survivors would rather swallow their trauma and suffer the pain alone than speak out.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 1993–2015. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv15.pdf
Polygraphing sexual assault survivors has been prohibited by Federal law since 2005, but it’s something survivors are still subjected to. See 42 U.S.C. sec. 3796gg-8.
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