On Friday morning, Donald Trump sent out a tweet questioning why Christine Blasey Ford—the woman who has come forward accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape—waited until now to report her accusations.
“Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don’t want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay. Facts don’t matter...” Trump wrote. "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 [sic] by either her or her loving parents.”
However, according to those who have studied sexual assault reporting, the reasons why Ford and others with a history of sexual assault do not immediately come forward are not only clear but quite common. In an email to Broadly this morning, Dr. Kim S. Ménard, Professor at Penn State and author of Reporting Sexual Assault: A Social Ecology Perspective says, “Because our society is not supportive of victims, but rather blames and stigmatizes them, research shows that a majority understandably do not report their assaults to police or other authorities (only approximately 30 to 40 percent report to police according to the National Crime Victimization Survey).”
Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in America. According the the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, this is because many survivors “feel that the criminal justice system re-victimizes them in its process,” and abusers rarely face punishment. According to the Department of Justice, 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, while only seven cases will lead to a felony conviction and six will lead to incarceration—a 0.02 percent conviction rate.
Shortly after Trump’s tweets were posted this morning, the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport began trending on Twitter as victims of sexual assault echoed one another’s fears of facing stigma, victim-blaming, and re-traumatization as key reasons victims choose not to go to authorities after being assaulted. One of those women is Sydney Leathers, who tweeted, “I was still in middle school. He was in high school. A popular athlete from a rich family. My family didn’t have money so I didn’t think anyone would believe me, that it mattered, or that it would be worth the hell I’d endure if I told. #WhyIDidntReport”
Broadly reached out to Leathers, who shared her thoughts on Trump’s tweets with us:
I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump wouldn’t have the ability to grasp the numerous reasons why a woman might not report a sexual assault to the police—but not being surprised that he doesn’t understand doesn’t make it any less hurtful. My incident happened in my early teens, and it comes up a decade later in trauma counseling. It’s not any less serious or damaging because I didn’t go to the police.
“Victims with the courage to report, often take time—in some cases, years—to report their assault,” Dr. Ménard explains. “Victims generally consult others regarding what action they should take following an assault, and because our society still adheres to rape myths and victim-blaming attitudes, victims are frequently discouraged from reporting and are blamed for the assault. In addition to being blamed, there are a number of other reasons why victims don't report, including the belief that the police will not do anything, victims not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble, or the fact that they are too traumatized.”
The statistics are so stacked against victims and the stigma so pervasive, that even those who believe and care for victims often discourage them from reporting. “People don't report because they're not supported in their reports,” Dr. Ménard told Broadly earlier this year. “It’s a vicious cycle.” And now, a cycle perpetuated by the president himself.