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Shame, Fear: Survivors Explain not Reporting Sexual Assaults

by Jocelyn Noveck
Sunday Sep 23, 2018
Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh   (Source:Associated Press)

Shame. Guilt. Embarrassment. Denial. Disgust.

And fear — of losing a job, friends, colleagues, privacy, safety, even one's life.

There are myriad reasons why survivors of sexual assault wait years to come forward — if at all. Indeed, about 7 out of 10 people who experience sexual assault never report it, according to Justice Department statistics.

So survivors responded with fury Friday to President Donald Trump's remarks challenging the veracity of Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The president said she would surely have reported the assault to police "immediately" if the attack was "as bad as she says."

On Twitter, the hashtag "WhyIDidn'tReport" was trending, with survivors coming forward with their own reasons.

"Because he was a member of our family," one user wrote. "Because he threatened to kill me," wrote another. "He was supposed to be my friend, but he beat me when I said no," wrote yet another.

One of the most searing came from Ashley Judd, the actress who was an early Harvey Weinstein accuser.

"The first time it happened, I was 7," she wrote. "I told the first adults I came upon. They said, 'Oh, he's a nice old man, that's not what he meant.' So when I was raped at 15, I only told my diary. When an adult read it, she accused me of having sex with an adult man."

And actress Alyssa Milano, whose tweet last year launched the #MeToo hashtag, wrote that she had been assaulted twice, once as a teenager, yet "I never filed a police report and it took me 30 years to tell my parents."

On Facebook, Kathy Gosnell, a retired newspaper copy editor in DeKalb, Illinois, was inspired by Ford's revelation to finally share with a group of Facebook colleagues — a day before Trump's tweet — that she had been drugged and raped, she said, by a colleague more than three decades earlier.

"It's time to say something," Gosnell, now 73, wrote on Facebook. "In the early 1980s, I was drugged, beaten and raped by one of our colleagues at the L.A. Times. ... Never again did I say his name or speak to him."

In an interview, Gosnell said the man is now deceased and she still has no desire to say his name. He had invited her to dinner, she said, then gave her a drink, and that was the last she remembered until she woke up hours later in his bed, naked and bruised around her arms, chest and neck. She went home, "took seven or eight showers" and told no one until 15 months ago, when she told her daughter.

"I wanted to keep my job," Gosnell said. "And I was afraid I would be ridiculed by colleagues, who might have said, 'But he's a great guy!'" (The newspaper did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.)

Gosnell said she's furious at the treatment of Ford, especially Trump's tweet. "Of course I understand why she didn't report. She must have known what would happen to her. And look what's happening to her now."

Scott Berkowitz, president of the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, said reasons for not reporting assaults include fear of retaliation, fear of the perpetrator attacking again, social pressure from peer groups and simple shame.

"The president is misguided about standard behavior following a sexual assault," Berkowitz said of Trump's tweet.

There's also, Berkowitz added, a guilt factor: "People are often blaming themselves, even though they are clearly not at fault."

The same reasons are only exacerbated when victims are in their teens, he said, adding that 54 percent of those under 18 who call the National Sexual Assault Hotline say they have not told a single other person.

Ford and Kavanaugh were high school students — she 15, he 17 — when she alleges the assault occurred. And that, Berkowitz pointed out, was decades ago, when the environment was even less welcoming than it is today for reporting an assault.

Katie Cogan, a trauma psychotherapist in the Washington, D.C., area, said teenagers especially "almost never tell anyone (about an assault), and if they do it's usually years later. They think it's their fault or try to convince themselves it was no big deal."

Cogan said she received a number of calls on Friday morning, following Trump's tweet, from patients expressing distress over the comments and feeling anew that "they will never be believed."

Lea Grover was 14 and a freshman in high school when, she said, she was raped at a basement party that she had agreed to attend to accompany a friend, who never showed up. She said her assailant fed her alcohol for several hours until she was extremely drunk, then led her into a utility closet where he assaulted her.

She had been saying "no" all evening, but finally agreed to go into another room with him, she said, thinking she could grab someone on the way and escape. But she didn't have that chance.

She was "paralyzed with fear," she recalled. "I didn't think I had anywhere to go or any other option" but to submit.

She didn't report it — "I was utterly convinced it was my fault because I had gone to a party where I didn't know anyone," she said. Soon after, she attempted to take her own life, she said.

Years later, as an adult, she suffered another assault, and she did report that one, though she did not ultimately press charges. Last year she wrote an article about the fear involved in coming forward, titled "Don't Tell Me Not to Speak Up When I Can't Even Say His Name."

Asked her response to Trump's remarks, Grover, now 34 and a writer who works with survivors of gender-based violence, noted that her assault in high school was so bad that she was still unable to discuss it with her parents until 15 years later — when she began speaking publicly about it.

Coming forward was — and still is — painful for both them and for her, she said. "Only someone incapable of human empathy wouldn't understand that."

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