On behalf of all of the courageous and brave woman who I have had the privlege to work with and honor to hear your stories, this is for you.
Women don’t lie. The number one secret that I hear as a practicing psychotherapist with over 17 years of experience is about sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. Most of my patients do not share their stories with others, and learn to live with the trauma for a lifetime. With all the recent headlines regarding women’s sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, I have been involved in more casual conversations around this matter. I have come to realize how little people understand about the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, it’s impact, and why there is no incentive to tell. I also want to note that men are also sexually, assaulted, abused, and harassed. However, unfortunately woman are impacted disproportionately, and this is represented in my practice experience.
Our sexuality is the most vulnerable component of human development. When one’s sexual safety is compromised it can change a person forever, regardless of race, age, and socioeconomic class. Living with the shame of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment is one of the most painful of the psychological traumas, irrespective of one’s ability to cope. Each of these individual experiences is dependent upon the victim's chronological age, the circumstances around the incident, and the person’s relationship to the perpetrator. There are different types of sexual trauma. If someone is assaulted by a stranger, often violence occurs. It is in these cases, that victims are more likely to report. This is because they are less likely deal with the secondary ramifications of denial from friends, family members, and coworkers who share peronsal relationships with the perpetrator. However, if they do pursue legal justice, they will experience the secondary trauma through their participation in the justice system.
If someone is assaulted, abused, or harassed by an acquaintance, someone they dated, a coworker, or a family member, this involves a separate set of feelings around trust and interpersonal relationships. In order to preserve their relationships, people around them will deny the event. No one wants to think of their child, friend, or family member as a perpetrator. Look at how many beloved celebrities we have seen this year, who had families, friends, and what seemed like respectable lives that were later found to be guilty. I have heard many instances of abuse, where mothers do not believe their daughers in order to preserve her own relationships with their spouses. They can’t deal with their own feelings of not protecting their child, yet they are dependent upon their significant other for their livelihood. College peers will support the perpetrator, and are too quick to reference a victim's alcohol consumption or other sexual experiences as a justification for, "boys club behavior." For those of my patients, who were abused in childhood or adolescence, some do not share their stories with their parents, whom they know would be nothing but supportive, but do not want to cause any more emotional pain, in addition to their own.
It is not just the trauma of the actual incident itself, but the denials of others that can be most painful. This starts with our justice system. As a therapist, the decision to report instances of acquaintance or familial assault starts with me. Typically, my patients have not told anyone or one or two people, at best. They come in for therapy after the incident or years later after the impact of the assault or abuse is triggered by another life event. We make the decision together if it's worth reporting. I have been a part of this process in reporting to detectives, as well as participating in court cases. Most of the people working within these systems are good people who also feel that their hands are tied, and that they can't do more than report the incident. I have spoken to many lawyers and detectives over the years, who have sadly expressed their frustration, telling both myself and the victim that unfortunately there is little that can be done from a legal perspective. When my patients have had the courage to report incidents, most perpetrators deny any involvement, and the questioning is turned back on the women. I sat in a court hearing where my patient, who was violently raped by a person on a dating site, was asked to reveal the traumatic experience, while being persecuted for her clothing choices, and her decision to go back to her apartment to grab a coat, as somehow those circumstances could lead to a brutal assault and rape. The fact that this type of questioning is even allowed in a court room, is the reason why most victims can not tolerate reporting sexual trauma and legal testimony.
If you were assaulted, harassed, or raped, and you knew that nothing could really happen, and that you would be blamed for the incident, would you unnecessarily report, just to be further traumatized? There is no incentive to report, and often too traumatic to reveal.
Most of my patients have suffered from PTSD, and various other traumatic associated disorders. The sexual trauma (because that is what it is) impacts their sexuality, relationships, sense of self-worth for a lifetime. The mere experience of talking about the incident can cause patients to feel as if they were back there all over again. I have had many patients reach out to me this year, who are now experiencing secondary trauma as the media attention hits to close to home. So why would any woman report an experience, if nothing happens to the perpetrator and they are shamed by others? So they don’t. They live with this horror for the rest of their lives. They come into my office to cry and to heal because this is the only place that they can feel safe.
I recognize that this is a multifaceted and complicated issue, and there is no simple solution, but we need to start somewhere. We need to change our societal perspective on how we treat victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. We need to become educated around the dynamics of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, and it's lasting impact on the survivors. We need to start with believing women when they say, “Me, Too.”