The Unfair Stigma Surrounding Sexual Assault Victims
Although statistics have proven that sexual assault cases are only false 2-8% of the time, when victims of sexual crimes come forward about their experiences, they are almost always faced with intense scrutiny and judgment, from peers and authority figures alike. Women are often bombarded with unfair and victim-shaming questions that should not be relevant to the issue, inquiries about where they were, why they were there, and the all too frequent, “what were you wearing?”. Men are often ashamed to come forward out of fear that society will treat the crime as if it was warranted because “all men want it,” or that they’ll be seen as weak or emasculate for being a victim at all.
The experience of sexual assault can deeply affect an individual, and impacts victims in different ways. The brain registers the event as trauma, and in order to help the body survive the event, generally responds in one of three different ways: fight, flight, or freeze.
Victims cannot choose how their body reacts to trauma, so assertions that they could have fought or should have said “no” are harmful, as it puts blame on the victim for their instinctual reaction, rather than blame the assaulter for the actions they chose to perform.
While most individuals know of the fight or flight method, which can incite people to ask victims harmful questions such as, “why didn’t you fight back?” and “why didn’t you try to get away?” – many are unaware that sometimes the body simply shuts down in these situations, leaving the victim unable to fight back, say no, or call for help. Victims cannot choose how their body reacts to trauma, so assertions that they could have fought or should have said “no” are harmful, as it puts blame on the victim for their instinctual reaction, rather than blame the assaulter for the actions they chose to perform.
This is one of the reasons that campaigns such as Yes Means Yes have started, emphasizing that sexual assault can happen regardless of whether or not the victim verbally or physically refuses the sexual encounter, and making efforts to eliminate the misconception that assault is only assault if the victim fought back. Despite these efforts, victims are often shamed for silence or perceived submission, and this unfair stigma can result in them blaming themselves for what is an involuntary response to trauma.
Self-blame, the fear that they won’t be believed, and the stress of having to retell their experience, sometimes over and over to an often disbelieving and disparaging world, are all factors which affect the victim in tandem, and are barriers that may prevent a victim from opening up about their assaults in the first place
The trauma endured by a victim of assault can further complicate things, as it can distort memories, making it difficult for a victim to fully understand, piece together, or tell their story. Being unsure of exactly what happened is a natural response for a victim, but it’s also frequently contested and can lead to the victim being accused of being unreliable, or a liar.
Trauma can further hurt the victim by causing psychological reactions including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, contemplation of suicide, anxiety, nightmares, and increased phobias. For victims who may already be suffering from these concerns, it can be extremely daunting to speak about their assault, even when speaking with friends and family. Simply sharing the details, and being forced to rehash the memories, can be difficult for a victim, and when opening about about their experience to law enforcement or other figures, they may be expected to answer a number of invasive or inadvertently distressing questions.
To an outsider, it might seem that it would be simpler if every victim immediately made a report to the police and then went to the hospital to have any available forensic evidence collected, procedures that a victim might find intrusive and unpleasant. It’s important to remember that this is unlikely to be the first thought of a victim following a traumatic sexual assault. Victims of this crime will feel powerless, a result of having their autonomy taken from them, and it is vital to restore it to them by ensuring they are as comfortable as possible. They may decide they would rather not pursue the issue further, and may just want to begin healing in their own way, and their decision on the issue is ultimately the only one that matters.
Self-blame, the fear that they won’t be believed, and the stress of having to retell their experience, sometimes over and over to an often disbelieving and disparaging world, are all factors which affect the victim in tandem, and are barriers that may prevent a victim from opening up about their assaults in the first place. Of those who do pursue legal action, many victims end up recanting, or withdrawing their statements. Although this is frequently viewed as evidence that a victim is lying, the reality is that there is a myriad of reasons why a victim would change their mind about their public accusation.
Accusing a victim of being a liar is an unfair display of aggression, and it can cause unnecessary pain for an individual who is already at their most vulnerable.
Sexual assault is a display of power over someone else, and typically, the assaulter has more power than their victim. They might be better off socially, economically, or they might be an authoritative figure. This position can benefit them in the legal system, where athletes, for instance, are often given few, if any, charges, and out of it, where victims might be threatened to keep quiet or recant by their assaulter, and where a victim’s peers might be likely to take the attacker’s side or harm the victim in other ways.
Rather than scrutinize victims and focus on the small fraction of people who lie about sexual assault, we as a society should focus more on the high number of sexual assault cases. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men report being sexually assaulted within their lifetimes, and given the amount of barriers associated with coming forward, these numbers would be significantly higher if they included the amount of sexual violence that goes unreported.
A victim trying to heal from their assault will never act in a single uniform way. Just as the body reacts differently to trauma on a situational basis, a victim must move forward in their own way, and it’s paramount that they are given the option to have support and find peace however they choose. Accusing a victim of being a liar is an unfair display of aggression, and it can cause unnecessary pain for an individual who is already at their most vulnerable.
When confronted with a victim who claims to have been sexually assaulted, remember that victims are almost always telling a painful truth, and respect their needs by not questioning them or shaming them with questions that put the blame of the attack on them. As with any population who has lost their autonomy and seeks support, the important thing to do is respect their needs and ensure that they know you are there for them and believe them.