“Why were you drinking?”
“What were you wearing?”
“Why did you leave with him?”
“How come you don’t have any bruises?”
“Didn’t you know what would happen?”
These are some of the questions that are commonly asked of survivors seeking help after a sexual assault. And while there are many reasons that someone may not want to report an assault, victim-blaming questions such as those are one of the main factors that prevent survivors from coming forward.
The repercussions of speaking out can be traumatic. Victim-blaming, public shaming and humiliation, fear of retaliation from one’s attacker, and not being believed are some of the many reasons why survivors do not report their assault to the police or seek help from friends and family members.
Additionally, statistics have shown that most assaults occur between people who know each other, raising a whole new set of concerns. The survivor may care for their attacker and not want to get them in trouble. They may fear being ostracized by their social group if they accuse a friend of rape. Friends not wishing to have “drama” in the group may ignore or write off an assault, leaving the survivor without any support.
Further, many survivors don’t want to believe that something so awful could happen to them, so they may deny that what happened was rape. Others may not know what rape is: After a lifetime of seeing rape portrayed on television as a scary, violent stranger-in-the-bushes attack, a survivor may not realize that unwanted, non-consensual sex with their boyfriend was actually rape.
When many survivors experience such a profound lack of support after reporting an assault, it’s little wonder that many people choose to not report at all. And it seems even worse to face such negative consequences for reporting when you consider that the justice system is so broken that the perpetrator is very unlikely to be convicted of a crime. RAINN estimates that out of every hundred rapes, only 3 of those will end in the rapist seeing even a single day in jail. And that’s after an emotionally difficult and sometimes humiliating trial experience for the survivor.
This is not at all to suggest that survivors shouldn’t report a rape or sexual assault. But rather, understanding the challenges of reporting can help us be more empathetic when supporting a survivor. We should all begin with telling the survivor that we believe them and that the assault was not their fault. At its core, rape is about taking power and control away from the victim. Making demands and decisions on their behalf – even with the best of intentions – doesn’t support the survivor. But helping them work through the options and make a decision for themselves, and then standing by them in that decision – that’s true support.
Many survivors’ concerns stem from feelings that they somehow caused or deserved their assault and that no one will believe their story. It may be difficult to understand why survivors would doubt themselves or feel self-blame. But these legitimate fears are upheld by society’s perception of rape and how it can be reduced.
Women and girls are often bombarded with tips that advise women not to walk alone, not to drink, to carry a cell phone at all times, and to adhere to a certain dress code. These are all strategies focused on not getting raped, and thus when an assault does happen, the blame shifts to the survivor for having disobeyed these rules. Rather than these risk reduction strategies that place the responsibility for avoiding rape on potential victims, we should focus on primary prevention strategies that encourage rapists not to rape or that encourage bystanders to intervene in dangerous situations.
Survivors want to be believed, supported, and validated. We must all take steps to create a more supportive community so that survivors feel safe to share their stories, pursue legal action, and receive support. In order to support survivors, we must first educate ourselves. Once we develop a supportive and encouraging environment for survivors of sexual violence to disclose their experiences, more survivors will feel comfortable reporting violent crimes to law enforcement.
Julia Da Silva has interned at the Center since 2011. She has worked on a variety of projects, from fundraising and communications to client services and outreach.
Alyson Culin is our Development and Marketing Director. She works behind the scenes to support the Center and its mission through fundraising, communications, and advocacy.