There can be many reasons why survivors of sexual assault don’t report: shame, guilt, embarrassment, denial or disgust.
Not to mention fear – of losing a job, friends, colleagues, privacy, even one’s life. That’s why, experts say, about 7 out of 10 people who experience sexual assault never report it, according to Justice Department statistics.
So when President Donald Trump, on Twitter Friday morning, challenged the veracity of Christine Blasey Ford – who in late July accused Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault – saying that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says” she should have “immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” thousands of survivors shared their stories online.
On Twitter, the hashtag “WhyIDidn’tReport,” spurred by actress Alyssa Milano and others, was quickly trending after the president’s tweets, with survivors coming forward with their own reasons, including in Spokane.
“Because I didn’t want to embarrass him among our mutual friends. Because I didn’t want to hurt his mum. Because I didn’t think it was ‘that bad,’ ” one local Twitter user wrote.
“Because when he threatened me, my brother stood by and laughed. I knew I wouldn’t be believed. I was 15,” another from Spokane said.
Many of them had striking similarities to Ford’s account, which she said happened at a party in the early 1980s. According to a letter she sent to top Democratic officials and in a subsequent Washington Post interview, she remembered Kavanaugh forcing himself on her as he held his hand over her mouth while he tried to remove her clothing.
Kavanaugh flatly denied the accusation, saying he had “never done anything like what the accuser describes.’
On Twitter and in Spokane, local freelance writer and Spokesman-Review contributor Judith Spitzer read Trump’s comments and took to her keyboard.
“I’m a survivor and I support Christine Blasey Ford,” she wrote along with the hashtag. “I was sexually assaulted in middle school by a boy from my church.”
In an interview Friday afternoon, Spitzer elaborated. She said she was in the 8th grade and accepted a ride home after school from an acquaintance from church. But instead, he drove her into a nearby field on the South Hill.
“It’s just reprehensible,” she said of Trump’s comment.
Afraid and ashamed, she said she couldn’t figure out how to tell her mother or anyone else. The attack on her, along with other negative experiences with men in her adult life, left her constantly on guard.
“To this day I never get into elevators with a man alone,” she said.
She said she watched the Anita Hill hearings 27 years ago and thought things would change.
“They haven’t,” she said.
Kim Barnes, a novelist and English professor at the University of Idaho, recounted on Facebook a time when she was a young adult and living in an apartment with her boyfriend. She said a man came to her door, saying he was a friend of her boyfriend, so she let him in.
“When he wouldn’t leave, I shoved him out, slammed and locked the door, turned off the lights, and sat in the dark on my living room floor with a loaded shotgun, listening to him tear all the screens off my windows,” she said. “Even then I didn’t call the police until the next day, when my neighbor threatened to call them if I didn’t because the man had trampled her flower beds.”
She said a middle-aged detective met with her and handed her an album of photographs. When she identified the man, the detective told her he was a suspected serial rapist.
“He told me I was lucky to be alive,” she said. “And then he leaned back in my chair, leered at me, and asked if I would like to go get a drink.”
Morgan Colburn, the director of counseling at the YWCA north of downtown along Monroe Street, said the “list is endless” why most sexual assault survivors don’t report to loved ones or authorities, but the most pressing reasons were fear – fear of threats from the perpetrator, fear of not being believed and fear of retaliation or ostracization from others.
“In our field, we tell people ‘believe people,’ ” she said. “Our first instincts, and our brains are built this way, is to think ‘This didn’t happen.’ But what if this did happen? It’s better to think ‘How can I help this person?’ ”
She said the President’s remarks were misguided at best, likely stemming from a misconception that anybody who was assaulted or raped immediately goes to police. Another barrier, she said, is the added layer of guilt and shame that can accompany an assault.
“In the act of the assault, the victim can actually believe it’s their fault it’s happening,” she said. “Our brains just do that. That’s another fear – that I can’t report because maybe this is my fault. Or maybe I didn’t say ‘No!’ loud enough. Or because I didn’t push him off, I let this happen.”
An added roadblock is how difficult sexual assaults and rapes are to prosecute, further deterring victims to speak. In Spokane County, Colburn said law enforcement has been proactive and “wonderful” at policing reported sex crimes, but often a prosecutor’s hands are tied when it comes to filing charges, because many sex crimes essentially boil down to a “He said, she said” situation.
Colburn said this is the crux of it all: Perpetrators purposefully attack in isolation, with little physical evidence or corroboration from other witnesses. And unless the victim knows not to shower and immediately check into a hospital for a rape kit, which are invasive, physical evidence is often lacking entirely.
“A lot of prosecutors just can’t move forward with the prosecution when they know they can’t,” she said. “It’s the burden of proof.”
Jocelyn Noveck of the Associate Press and John Stucke of The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.