When Reporting Sexual Abuse Makes Your Life WorseS

As anyone who's attended a freshman orientation rape prevention seminar can tell you, sexual victimization is much more common than most people are comfortable admitting, and most sexual abuse goes unreported. And while profiles of sexual abuse victims are more diverse than fast food restaurants' Kidz Klub mascots, the reasons many crimes go unreported are often eerily, heartbreakingly similar: for some survivors, to report abuse is to run the risk that they'll end up worse off.

Because of Jerry Sandusky's creepy ass, a lot of people have been thinking about sexual abuse and silence lately. His victims, some of whom have testified against him, are no longer children, but their reason for remaining silent remains fresh in their minds. The man known in court documents as Victim 1 remarked that he feels guilty that he didn't report Sandusky's crimes as they were happening, that he thinks he could have prevented the victimization of more than a dozen boys had he just told another adult what was going on.

As fucked up and horrible as it feels to admit, not reporting sex crimes is often an individually rational decision.

That's not to say that reporting rape, or molestation, or sexual assault isn't good for society, since reporting sex crimes, in an ideal world, would result in the perpetrator of the crime being removed from society, or at least put in a place where he (or she) is in no position to hurt anyone else. And reporting a crime should be empowering for a victim, a reclaiming of power from a predator who felt enabled to commit his crime, in part, because he correctly assumed that his victim would remain silent. But the world we live in is about as far from ideal as a February time share in North Dakota — one Massachusetts prosecutor estimates that his county only prosecutes about 20% of child sex crimes that are reported. And rape statistics are equally disheartening; according to RAINN, out of every 100 rapes, only 46 are reported and only 5 result in a felony conviction.

In addition to the long odds that justice will be served, there's also the pesky reality that reporting a rape or sex crime, to a victim, can be an act that prolongs a traumatic event for months or years. After reporting the crime, the alleged abuser is investigated, families are affected, lives overturned. Women, especially, are taught to be accommodating, to get along, to refrain from rocking the boat, and there are few things more boat-rocking than a sexual abuse allegation. Additionally, many victims — especially victims who are children — fear that even if they did come forward, they wouldn't be believed. It's no wonder that some victims of sex crimes just don't think reporting it would be in their long term best interests, even though reporting a crime can prevent future harm to others.

Reporting sex crimes can seriously mess with a person's life. When I was in college, a woman who reported that she'd been raped by members of the football team was so ostracized and reviled that she ended up dropping out of school. A girl I knew in high school was literally kicked out of her family when she was 7, sent to live with her aunt and uncle in another city after she confessed to a church elder that her brother had been molesting her. Other women I knew who had been victimized sexually never said anything to anyone in a position of authority, never named names, because they just wanted to move on with their lives and let their assaults fade into the past. Can you blame them?

A similar cost-benefit analysis prompted Slate's Emily Yoffe, author of the widely read and widely loved Dear Prudence column, to remain silent about her childhood sexual abuse until yesterday. Her brave, honest piece about the abuse explains how she was molested three times by three different men as a girl and young woman and didn't report any of the incidents because, like other victims, she didn't think it was worth it. One molester was a cousin, one was a friend's father, and one was a respected priest and congressman. The first time it happened, she didn't say anything because she didn't want to upset her family or be accused of lying. The second time, she didn't want to cause a rift between her and her friend. And the third, she "had no desire to make accusations against a congressman, especially one I admired." Yoffe spoke with experts on child sexual abuse, who said that her mindset was common among victimized children.

It's a survival technique, silence; a tourniquet around a trauma. As the mind goes into shock, it's not considering the social implications of self-preservation. It's just trying to stay alive.

Should victims report crimes? Absolutely. But will they? Probably not. And that's perfectly understandable.

[Slate]