Expecting Women to Describe How Sexual Assault Affected Them Creates Barriers to Reporting It
“Can you tell us what impact the events had on you?” Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Christine Blasey Ford during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
It was the primary of several questions aimed toward getting Dr. Blasey to outline the toll on her life of sexual abuse that she testified involved Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Many people who add the world of trauma found her answers, including “anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms,” familiar and credible. But they said it’s important to remember something Dr. Blasey, a research psychologist drew attention to during her testimony.
“I think the sequelae of sexual abuse varies per person,” Dr. Blasey told the committee, using a scientific term for aftereffects.
Sometimes those effects are difficult to discern or articulate, one among many reasons that women often fail to report sexual assaults to authorities — or maybe discuss the incident with loved ones, researchers say.
“There is a large amount of research showing the survivors cope in many various ways, but there does seem to be a societal image of how they have to act — and if not they're not believed,” Antonia Abbey, the editor of the journal, Psychology of Violence said in an email.
Kevin Michael Swartout, a psychology professor at Georgia State University who studies sexual violence agreed.
“Research indicates that folks are less likely to believe a victim’s account and believe the assault was less severe when the assault and victim’s response doesn’t follow people’s scripts.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Dr. Blasey was asked by Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor hired by the committee to question her and Judge Kavanaugh, how she might be certain that the PTSD and anxiety she experienced was caused by the assault she described.
Though she appeared certain that the solution was yes, for several victims, the consequences are murkier, researchers said. Reinforcing the thought that one must be ready to clearly outline the concrete effects of trauma within the sort of poor grades, broken relationships or days spent weeping so as to be believed, they said, can do more harm than good.
“This is one among the explanations survivors don't report their assaults to police immediately after,” said Dr. Swartout.
This phenomenon can also push a lady to attenuate the incident for herself. She may feel like her own experience wasn't deserve documentation or discussion because she didn't observe an equivalent effect other victims mention.
“I think we intuitively understand that if a gun was forced into your mouth or put to your head, you'd be traumatized,” said Neil Malamuth, a scientist at UCLA who studies sexual violence.
But within the realm of sexual abuse, many people’s view of the crime continues to be shaped more by the response of the victim than by the actions of the perpetrator, he said.
“If you're too upset, you're crazy,” said Mary Koss, a professor at the University of Arizona who has published numerous studies on sexual abuse, in an email. “If you are not upset enough, people don’t believe you were raped. So you have to be just the right degree of upset, whatever that is.”