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Why Women Discourage Each Other From Reporting Sexual Assault

As more and more women come forward with their experiences of sexual assault, some are being discouraged from taking legal action. We spoke to a sexual assault and criminal justice expert to find out why.

by Leila Ettachfini
Nov 14 2017, 7:45pm

Image via Stocksy

Following the New York Times story confirming rumors that Louis CK had been sexually harassing women by masturbating in front of them for years, comedian and writer Nicole Silverberg tweeted the following:

I was told to delete a tweet I wrote about Louis CK abusing women before I applied to a high-profile comedy job because the people conducting the hiring process might not like it. These women who have spoken up are brave, and we owe them so much.

The tweet, which has received over 30,000 likes, raised many questions about the ways we police and protect women, which often serve to protect perpetrators. “I was told to delete that tweet by friends, who were advising I do so to protect me from being punished for speaking up,” Silverberg later explained in a follow-up tweet.

Dr. Kim S. Ménard, Professor at Penn State and author of Reporting Sexual Assault: A Social Ecology Perspective tells Broadly that this sort of policing women, while intended to protect victims, ultimately enables perpetrators. “Sadly, it protects both [victims and perpetrators],” she says. “It protects the perpetrator and it does protect the victim to some degree. Were she to have [kept the tweet] she probably wouldn't have gotten the job and she probably would've gotten a lot of backlash, but it serves to silence the victims and allow the perpetrators to continue their abuses over and over again because people don't report because they're not supported in their reports.”

While for Silverberg, the advice she received from friends was out of concern for her career, women disclosing experiences of assault to loved ones in private settings can also be met with attempts to police their behavior and reactions.

Last year, Zelda*, who requested that we use a pseudonym, was out of town visiting a man she had recently started seeing. She says that while she was under the influence of alcohol and xanax, he secretly removed his condom during sex. A couple weeks after returning home, she says, she found out that he had given her chlamydia.

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Confused, upset, and angry, Zelda turned to her female friend, a student at a liberal university who she considers “woke” and understanding, and disclosed what had happened to her. Zelda’s friend offered her some advice: “He’s a lawyer, he’ll ruin your life [if you report].”

Zelda admits that though it may not have been the right thing to say to someone who has just been sexually violated, she knows her friend was only trying to protect her when she discouraged her from reporting her abuse. “She was thinking of me and trying to protect me from what she perceived as a bigger threat,” Zelda explains. The “bigger threat” was the possibility that she wouldn’t be believed, that she’d be branded with the reputation of being “a troublesome woman,” and that her allegations might be used against her in the future.

Her friend’s concerns are certainly not unfounded: sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in America and for sound reason. According the the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, many survivors “feel that the criminal justice system re-victimizes them in its process.” According to the Department of Justice, 344 out of every 1000 sexual assaults are reported to police, while only seven cases will lead to a felony conviction and six will lead to incarceration.

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Zelda attributes her friend’s reaction to her experience of womanhood. “She is a woman which puts her in a situation where she has these fears in her own life and has seen so many other women in the same situation as me,” she explains. “She knows how victims are treated in society and the unequal power that men hold.”

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, “female partners, friends and mothers appear to describe and/or experience sexual abuse-related secondary trauma differently to their male counterparts.” They define secondary trauma as trauma experienced by family members and friends of victims/survivors who are affected by a sexual assault. Dr. Ménard agrees that gender plays a large role in how people react to the news that a loved one has been assaulted. “Men typically want to ‘solve’ problems,” she says, “but may not be as well aware of the consequences of reporting. Unlike women, they have not been doubted in ordinary context (e.g., women's voices often don't get heard in meetings), let alone an extraordinary one like rape [or other forms of sexual assault].”

Zelda knew her friend was only trying to protect her, but she wished she had understood how her words silenced her and ultimately enabled her perpetrator. “It’s not everybody’s job to be a martyr,” says Zelda, “but if they want to do it, they should.”

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