For this post, I am going to use the word victim, to account for the fact that both women and men are victims. I am going to use the word perpetrator, to account for the fact that both women and men can be perpetrators.
In my last post, I recounted a situation I was in at the part-time job I held in high school. My male supervisor continuously sexually harassed me, and at least one other female co-worker. I'm not going to get too into that (because I already did), but one of the reasons I never reported him was fear. Among other things, I was afraid of not being believed, and what would happen to me and my job if I reported.
Fear plays a huge role in why people don't report. I'd say it's the motivating factor behind the myriad of reasons people stay silent. I think that people who've been fortunate enough to not have experienced a situation in which they were made a victim, don't understand this fear and how strong it is. In order to achieve universal understanding, we need to dig deeper. We need to understand what victims are going through and what they may be thinking.
As someone who has been the victim of more than one type of harassment and assault, holds a psychology degree and continues to research trauma and its effects, and has worked professionally with victims of abuse, I feel that I can say with a fair degree of confidence that something victims want most (or at least near the top of the list) is to move on. They want the situation to be over. They want to be safe. They want to escape the person/situation that victimized them and move on and retake their lives. Not reporting is one way to accomplish this. As many people know from watching the news and social media, when a victim reports, they are not left alone for a very long time. They are judged again and again by friends, family, and acquaintances and also by perfect strangers who have no business judging them. They are forced to relive the trauma of what happened over and over and over again. They are not made to feel safe and protected. They face the fear of not knowing how long the judgment will go on, and the fear of wondering what the full repercussions will be. Not reporting is a way of letting go, moving on, and being safe.
I would like to specifically address sexual assault and harassment. Imagine a victim in a situation (possibly in a public place) where they are touched or grabbed inappropriately. This can happen more easily than one might think. A perpetrator could be hugging a victim and slide a hand to an intimate place, or even give the victim a non-consensual kiss on the lips. In these cases, the assault may only last a few seconds. The victim is most likely in pure shock for several seconds or even minutes or hours. The victim may be thinking something along the lines of: "Did that really happen?" By the time the victim has processed what has just occurred, the situation is likely over. The victim may then be thinking : "Why say something? It's over. I'm safe now." Fear also plays a factor in these situations. Inappropriate touches can easily be explained by things like, "it was an accident" or "that's just how I greet people." Statements/explanations like that are not okay, but unfortunately are made. Why would a victim, who is already feeling shame, fear, confusion, and violation want to risk causing a scene? What they really want is to move on and be safe. Staying silent is a way to ensure that safety.
I feel it's necessary to address this trend: after one or two victims come forward, more and more victims (often of the same perpetrator) start coming out of the woodwork. Many people are baffled by this, wondering why these victims had stayed silent and how/why there are so many suddenly speaking up. Critics also question the legitimacy of these claims. I admit that it does seem strange, but that's only if one doesn't understand trauma and what it's like to be a victim. Victims feel more comfortable when they know they are not alone. When victims realize that others have had similar experiences, some of the shame and self-blame goes away. They think: "If this happened to those others, then maybe it wasn't my fault after all. How can all of these people be at fault?"
One effective form of trauma therapy is group therapy in which the group members have all shared similar traumas, like groups for war veterans, battered wives, victims of childhood sexual abuse, etc. If you've never been a victim, all you need to do to understand this is to think about how you feel when you meet someone and realize they share your love of mountain climbing, or French cuisine, or stamp collecting or whatever. Knowing we have something in common with someone automatically makes us feel closer to them. It's human nature. So of course victims are going to be encouraged to come forward when they've learned that others who shared their experiences had. They see the bravery in their fellow victims, and feel brave themselves.
I said it in my last post, and I'll say it again: things need to change. We need to stop blaming and shaming and ridiculing victims. We need to stop living in the ignorant bliss of pretending that bad things do not happen, that abuse, assault, and rape do not happen. We need to support victims and make them feel comfortable reporting, not immediately scorn them. It's the 21st century for crying out loud. It's time to get our acts together.