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Breaking the Silence Surrounding Sexual Assault

It’s impossible to tune into the media today and not hear about a sexual assault case. Even logging in to Facebook will bring up a host of stories about survivors coming forward, and then seconds later, the wave of disbelievers and victim-blamers. So why do we have people not reporting for 30 years? The short answer is that we have a reporting problem!

The gist of the numbers is that only about 33% of rape survivors report their assault to the police. That means that there are countless unreported sexual assaults each year. Why would these women not want justice? Well, oftentimes they do, but the sad truth is, that a college student is more likely to be kicked out of school for plagiarism than for raping another student. These statistics are bleak, to say the least, but there are many reasons that survivors don’t report their sexual assaults to authorities. Let’s take a look at them now.

Breaking the Silence on Sexual Assault

5 Reasons Survivors Don’t Report

1. Faulty Thinking

After a sexual assault, survivors are often in shock. They may feel powerless, depressed, angry, confused, guilty, shame and a number of other things. During this initial stage, victims are not thinking clearly. A number of disturbing thoughts flood their brains as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. Thoughts like, “Did I do something wrong?”, “Is it even rape?”, “But I didn’t fight back,” can flood their minds and can make it difficult to decide how to take action. Questions like these are called rape myths, and they keep victims from reporting because if a survivor does not believe that she was assaulted (even if she was), she is not likely to pursue further action.

2. Fear

Many victims feel fear that people won’t believe them, have fears of their perpetrator assaulting them again, and/or fear of community backlash. It is easy to see why survivors would worry about these things when the media is so invested in victim-blaming. When a survivor tells her story, she should be met with support, not questions and doubt. The only appropriate question to ask a survivor is, “How can I help?”

3. Costs versus benefits

When making a decision about whether to report or not, survivors unknowingly do a cost/benefit analysis. If they find that the costs (stigma, blame) outweigh the benefits (services, justice), they are not likely to go through the pain and suffering of making a police report. Furthermore, some victims believe that the police cannot or will not help or that there is a lack of proof. Survivors holding these beliefs may think to themselves, “Well, if no one is going to believe me, then why would I bother to go through the trouble of reporting.” If there is any doubt about whether services or justice will prevail, survivors may just decide it’s not worth the trouble.

4. A want to move on

Many survivors simply want to move past their traumas as quickly as possible and believe that if they chose to tell police, they will only draw out the healing process. Because of this, some survivors prefer to try to deal with it on their own. They may not tell anyone and choose to try to push it out of their minds. They may choose to tell a close friend or partner, but not to report it to authorities.

5. Other reasons

Of course, these are just some of the most common reasons that people don’t report. There are many other obstacles that stand in between a survivor and reporting. Sometimes survivors want to protect their perpetrator, and keep him from getting into trouble. This could be due to guilt, relationship, family link, work environment, sorority membership, military membership, or countless other environments. Survivors are sometimes encouraged by others not to report and faced with additional negative consequences if they do.

So what can we do???

5 Ways to Break the Pattern of Silence

1. Identify negative thinking

Remember those rape myths from earlier in this blog? That’s a form of negative thinking. Anything designed to put you down, discourage you from your mission to heal or get the justice you deserve, is a thinking pattern that is not serving you well. Think about the messages you are sending yourself throughout the day. Are you telling yourself that you are doing a great job? Or are you telling yourself that you messed up and can’t do anything right?

One way to take a closer look is to do something called a thought log. This just means having a piece of paper or a journal where you jot down the thoughts that you are having. The goal of this is to find the negative messages that you send yourself, so begin by writing down the negative thoughts that you notice you say to yourself throughout the day. Taking a hard look at this negative script is a good place to begin!

2. Look for facts

Once you have identified your negative thoughts, you can begin to challenge them. One of the best tools for challenging negative thoughts is to look for the facts that you know or the EVIDENCE against the negative message. Let’s look at a neutral example.

If your negative thought is: my boyfriend doesn’t love me, what facts do you know about your relationship that negate this? Does your boyfriend cook and clean for you? Has he signed a lease to live with you for the next year? Does he pick you up and drive you places that you need to go? Does he choose to spend time with you when there is something else he could be doing? These things would be facts that you, and anyone else observing them, would be able to notice. They are not opinions or feelings, and because of that, they are harder to argue with. Now how can we apply this to sexual assault?

Well, if you hold the belief that you are to blame for the assault, it is important that we find evidence/FACTS that this is just simply not true. For instance, rape is never the survivor’s fault. Not screaming/fighting back is a BIOLOGICAL fear response that happens when a person’s brain assesses that there is nothing that can be done about what is happening. There is nothing that a survivor could have done to “ask for it”. Rapists cause rape. The assault was devastating, but it does not define you. You will get through this. There are many resources out there to support you that can help!

3. Identify which of the above reasons have kept your silent

When you were reading the list above, what stood out to you? Which reasons keep you from disclosing your sexual assault, whether that means to law enforcement, friends, family, or helping professionals? Is it because you think it won’t do any good? Or because you will have negative consequences at work? Because you think you have got this on your own? The truth is, your sexual assault may have affected you in ways that you haven’t noticed yet.

It can affect your relationships with others, your mood, your productivity at work, your level of intimacy, your self-esteem, and so many other areas, there are not always immediately noticeable. I often see people in my office who were able to continue on as if nothing happened for a while until the mound under the rug gets to be too big to ignore. The thing is, the more you fully address the assault in the present, the less long-term effects you will see in the future. So, when you think of those reasons you are not disclosing, do you notice any of that negative thinking we talked about? When you look at the evidence/facts, are the reasons you are staying quiet serving you? Maybe there is another way.

4. Get into treatment

If you are not currently in treatment, now may be the time. Your therapist can help you to feel safe and whole again. In my treatment with trauma survivors, I use Trauma-Focused- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is an evidenced-based treatment. I help clients identify and change negative thinking, learn to relax, learn new ways of coping, process the trauma event, and engage in safety planning for the future. By spending time teaching clients to self-regulate before processing the trauma, I give clients the tools to be able to calm themselves down when they become triggered so that they do not become re-traumatized by going over the event. When the time comes to re-process the trauma, we do it in the safety of the office and take the time to pause and use those newly identified coping skills, to help clients soothe themselves before continuing on.

5. Find support

Whether you decide to enter formal treatment or not, it is important that you find support for yourself. Who do you have in your life that you can trust and lean on in times of crisis? Identify these people, and keep a list of their names and numbers so that there are no barriers when you need them. Remember that state of shock I discussed earlier? When you are in this state, you are not thinking clearly. It can feel like you are walking around in a fog, so it is important to make it as easy as possible to access resources. In addition to identifying the supportive people that you know, you can also identify crisis lines and add them to your paper list, or favorite contacts on your phone. Further, there are sexual assault support groups, and rape crisis centers in most almost all areas and college campuses.

Calling or going to the 211 websites will provide mental health referrals and support groups near you.

There is a national crisis text line that is free to use unless you already pay for text messages on your phone (text: 741-741). There is a free 24-hour sexual assault hotline through RAINN (an anti-sexual violence association) you can reach by calling: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). The resources are out there. I know that it can be extremely difficult to reach out for help after something debilitating happens, but receiving the help and support that you deserve is one of the fastest ways to recover from an assault.

Trauma is an extremely difficult thing to talk about, and yet reducing stigma and blame, and making room to openly talk about it is exactly what we need to help survivors feel safe enough to share their experiences. If you or a loved one are struggling with a past or present trauma, please give us a call to schedule an appointment. If you are not ready for therapy, please reach out to someone safe!

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Dr. Crecraft is a licensed psychologist. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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