This commentary was written by Jeanne Felter, PhD, chair of the Counseling and Behavioral Health Department and director of the Community and Trauma Counseling Program, and Astra Czerny, PhD, assistant professor in the Community and Trauma Counseling Program at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University).
Last month, during a nine-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified about issues related to her allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh, in angry testimony, denied these charges.
It was not just another day in Congress.
And yet, at the same time, this is all too familiar. This dialogue and protestation in an effort to protect someone’s reputation rather than believing a victim of sexual assault has changed little in the 27 years since Anita Hill testified during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Dr. Ford, who came forward reluctantly as Kavanaugh appeared to be gliding through the process of being appointed to a lifelong post on the nation’s highest court, has received death threats and her family has had to leave their home.
President Trump, himself accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault, questioned her veracity and her motives. Why, he asked, if she was really assaulted, did she wait more than 30 years to come forward with her story?
This type of thinking is exactly why sexual assault is grossly underreported. Surrounding this news, the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport drew thousands of stories from sexual assault victims, explaining why they did not come forward with their stories previously.
As counselors, we work with survivors—both male and female—of sexual abuse, assault and rape. There are multiple reasons many choose not to come forward, some of which we saw highlighted during Dr. Ford’s testimony. Shame, fear of reprisal, fear of not being believed and fear of the consequences of coming forward are some of the major deterrents for many victims.
The psychological impact and emotional fallout from sexual assault and rape are clear. For some, the healing journey can take a lifetime. Many have never disclosed to anyone other than their therapist, and many who have disclosed more publicly are riddled with shame related to having their stories questioned and their integrity scrutinized.
Statistics back this up. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported. What we do know is this: One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetimes. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Between 20 and 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men are victims of forced sex during their college years. Research shows that rape is the crime least likely to be reported and that few rape allegations are false.
Victim blaming, such as linking the assault to the victim’s clothing or drinking, the assumption that the accuser is inherently dishonest, and refusal to acknowledge that power dynamics play into sexual assault, are common responses. Movements such as #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport are helping, but much more needs to be done to ensure that victims and survivors of sexual assault are treated with the respect and due process they deserve.
Though we have made gains in the decades since Anita Hill’s courageous testimony, we remain in the midst of an epidemic. Women today remain fearful of reporting and they continue to be disbelieved. And though social media has inspired a collective movement of survivors to come forward, it also poses a new danger—far-reaching avenues to attack, shame, dismiss and re-traumatize those brave enough to finally speak. If we are going to end the prevalence of sexual assault, we must listen to, and believe, the victims. And we must help and respect survivors by adopting a trauma-aware approach that inspires hope and healing.