The Difficulty in Speaking Up About Sexual Assault

On Thursday, Slate’s Emily Yoffe published an article describing three incidents of sexual assault she experienced as a child and a young woman, and, until now, never disclosed. In light of the current Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse trial, Yoffe states she has recently begun to think more deeply about her response to these assaults, and why she remained silent on them.

As the writer of Slate’s Dear Prudence column, Yoffe understands the power in speaking up. Nonetheless, she also understands her reaction to the incidents of molestation she experienced growing up. She writes that she was not traumatized by the abuse because they were isolated incidents; she was able to put an end to them in the moment, though they were undoubtedly crimes. Yoffe quotes director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor, who says that “From a cost-benefit analysis, it makes a lot of sense not to disclose” when the incident is isolated, as it was for Yoffe. From a child’s perspective, telling an adult would potentially lead to further conflict with friends and family.

Reporting sexual assault can be an empowering act for survivors, but taking a case to trial can also, sadly, prolong the trauma. One of Yoffe’s assailants was a well-respected priest and congressman, and Yoffe recognizes the sad truth that ending her silence on his assault may have negative consequences:

If my 16-year-old daughter had experienced what I did, of course I would want her to tell me. I would also act. A teenager who tries to molest his cousin should at the very least get intervention. A father who touches the breasts of his daughter’s friend should be reported to the police. But as much as I hate to say it, I’m not so sure I would advise her, if she were a young adult, to report a groping by a powerful man. As we’ve seen too many times, coming forward in a case like that opens a woman up to character evisceration. Father Drinan died in 2007, and I’m aware that I’ll be assailed for besmirching the memory of a distinguished man.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. According to RAINN, 54% of sexual assaults go unreported and only about 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. Yoffe spoke to an attorney who advised the importance of reporting such crimes, because “the likelihood is that the person who has done it will do it again.” Yet, despite the importance of preventing a perpetrator from causing further harm, survivors of sexual assault who do speak up are not always believed. When the Twitter hashtag #ididnotreport surfaced, many tweets cited fear of disbelief as one reason for remaining silent. Because of Sandusky’s status as a beloved coach at Penn State, one victim of his abuse says a school counselor did not believe him when he attempted to speak up. A family member of one of Yoffe’s abusers, Father Robert Drinan, released a statement that indicates some disbelief of Yoffe’s story. Due to these types of responses, Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel describes silence, social consequences be damned, as an act of self-preservation:

It’s a survival technique, silence; a tourniquet around a trauma. As the mind goes into shock, it’s not considering the social implications of self-preservation. It’s just trying to stay alive.

In the face of such disbelief, it is no shock that so few report sexual assault. To fight sexual assault it is crucial that more people speak up, but rather than simply encourage more survivors to speak up, we should also ensure that we are more inclined to believe them.

My Molesters [Slate]


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