A textbook example of why many don’t report: Dr. Blasey Ford

In the days following the publishing of Christine Blasey Ford’s account of sexual assault we have seen stereo-typical victim shaming across social media. It has gained a large amount of attention because the perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh, has been nominated by The President for a position on the Supreme Court of the United States Justice. A close friend of Dr. Ford articulates this best- “How is it that a woman who has been a victim of sexual assault can’t be on a jury for 1 sexual assault case, but a perpetrator of sexual assault can be a SCOTUS Justice who rules on all sexual assault cases?”. It has been consistently insinuated that her coming forward has been politically motivated or that she has been paid by the Democrats to make the accusation. Whilst the timing coincides with a political occasion her decision to tell her story was in her own words, ‘her duty as a citizen’.

It should be acknowledged that Dr. Ford’s original letter was published without her consent. Whilst her name was kept anonymous her story was being told without her say so despite the fact she had asked for complete confidentiality. Ford had already decided not to come forward as she assumed doing so would upend her life and not affect Kavanaugh’s conformation to the supreme court. She said, “why suffer through the annihilation if its not going to matter?”. Her choice had once again been taken away from her. She decided to come forward and name herself, so she could be the one to tell her own story.

The saddest thing about this is that she was right. The chaotic aftermath she predicted happened. Like most victims she weighed up the pros and cons of coming forward and had decided to stay quiet for her and her family’s self-preservation. She is now being judged in the court of public opinion by people who do not understand sexual assault and who believe false accusations are more harmful and more prevalent than cases of sexual assault. This is not the case. In the UK only 4% of reports filed are false accusations. Considering the already small number of people coming forward to report is 17% it is apparent that false accusations are a rarity. So why are false reports prioritised in this conversation when they are merely a minority? That isn’t to say it isn’t a credible issue. False reports only go to undermine real victims and harm innocent people. But why is the less likely injustice of false reporting being prioritised and spoken about more than the more pressing injustice of the lack of sexual assaults being reported and the lack of convictions for the perpetrators of the assaults (only 5.7% of reports end in convictions)?

The fact that so much time has been lent to pondering whether the reports are false is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the claims and the credibility of Dr. Ford as a witness. Even the President of the United States has weighed in tweeting, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”. Lots more people, with smaller platforms than the president but who are adding to the noise are asking ‘why did she come forward now?’. This is a perfect example of rape culture. These questions completely negate the complex reality of trauma and sexual assault. Furthermore, they focus on the victim rather than the accused perpetrator of the assault. If Kavanaugh is to be believed as innocent until proven guilty then surely Dr. Ford should be afforded that same right, instead she stands to be investigated more than the perpetrator and will be seen by many as lying until proven truthful.

Until we listen to survivors, until we believe them every time, perpetrators will continue getting away with sexual assault. The 2017 crime survey for England and Wales showed that ‘5 in 6 victims (83%) did not report their experiences to the police’ and only 5.7% of these reported cases ended in convictions as survivors are continuously failed by the CPS as they fail to take cases to the prosecution stage. Survivors watching how other survivors are being treated right now are seeing that they will not be believed or that action won’t be taken. If we really care about true justice, we have got to believe victims. If we don’t, that number is never going to decrease. We only need to look to the hashtag that went viral during this time (#whyididntreport) to see just how prevalent rape culture is and how it prevents so many survivors from coming forward.

It should be known that there is no ulterior motive for coming forward and reporting a sexual assault. Often the sole purpose is to pursue justice. When a person is assaulted their autonomy and choice is taken away from them in a gross violation that they have no control over. Often reporting and speaking out is a way for survivors to claim back the power that was taken away from them and to get accountability for what was done to them.  We only need to look at statistics and survivors personal accounts to see that by choosing to come forward you risk losing everything. We shouldn’t need a viral hashtag to tell us these things. But unfortunately, myths have been spread widely and survivors are still being questioned for coming forward.

The choice to report is a big one. It is often not taken lightly, and a lot of thought goes into deciding whether to pursue justice. Often a person may not be ready to face what has happened to them and they may feel that by not reporting they will not have to re-live that trauma. This is often why a person may not report until months or years afterwards as it takes time to mentally heal and be ready to deal with what happened. Additionally, the most basic defence mechanism denial comes into play. The mind is a powerful thing and a person can subconsciously forget what has happened to them or even actively try and forget or deny what has happened to them. Sometimes the memory of the assault doesn’t come to light until years later, sometimes it never will. As has been the case in Dr. Ford’s assault and another victim of Kavanaugh; Deborah Ramirez who has since come forward. They were under the influence of alcohol and the assaults occurred during a party. Deborah Ramirez herself has acknowledged the gaps in her memory due to drinking. This is the case in lots of other survivors’ stories too and feeds in to the fear of not being believed because their clarity of mind will be questioned. If our memories aren’t complete it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But it often gets used against us to attack our character and credibility as a witness. If you are under the influence of alcohol you do not have the capacity to consent.

Furthermore, survivors may not realise that what has happened to them constitutes sexual assault. This may be due to a lack of consent education, and old-fashioned attitudes towards sex in general such as the idea that sex without consent within a relationship is compulsory. These attitudes are often held by other people especially elder members of families. Therefore, there is a fear of judgement which many may want to avoid. Likewise in the case of Dr.Ford we look at how survivors are treated and decide to keep quiet. Why would we put ourselves through more suffering when the conviction rates are so low? Is it worth it? It feels like a lose-lose situation. If we don’t report we aren’t believed, if we do report we also aren’t believed. In both situations the perpetrator gets away with their criminal behaviour and all we do is suffer. Suffer from the trauma that occurred to us, suffer from losing friends and family and our previous support systems, suffer due to trying to battle with the legal system. It is unfair, and we need change.

During this very public conversation we have seen the perpetrator being protected to no end and the victim not believed. Approximately 90% of victims know the perpetrator prior to the assault. It is so important to bear this in mind as the established relationship may affect a person’s choice to report. It is normal to want to protect a friend or family member from punishment, regardless of what they have done to you. It is normal to feel guilty and ashamed, survivors often try to justify or minimise what has happened because it makes the assault that less awful. No one wants to think that a friend or family member would intentionally harm us. Victims also may not report because it could upset their family dynamic or relationships with other friends. They may even suffer societal repercussions. Many survivors lose support and contact with friends and family entirely when they choose to report. With the chance of justice being so low, why would victims’ risk more upset in their lives?

One of the main reasons most survivors cite for not reporting is a lack of trust in the justice system. We hear so much negative noise surrounding sexual assault cases that victims fear the reporting process. Information on how to report and the investigation process is not widely known. Like with most things, people often only share negative experiences. We hardly ever hear the positives.

It is so important to believe victims, to listen to them. To offer support or be able to direct them to support services. We are real people who have suffered trauma and often need help coming to terms with that and overcoming it. There are so many reasons why victims may choose not to report. Each person’s story is individual and personal to them. We have got to create a safe space for survivors to tell their stories, without the fear of being judged for what has happened to them. That is the sole purpose of the justice system, not the job of individuals on social media. Until we can feel safe and heard and comfortable victims will not come forward and abusers will continue getting away with their crimes.

Figure 14_ Reasons why victims aged 16 to 59 of rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) experienced since age 16 did not tell the police

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