The deluge of high-profile sexual assault and harassment allegations in the news has barely stopped over the past two months. But a common response to decades-old claims is, why didn’t the victim report this sooner?
Mental health experts, law enforcement and victim advocates all say the same thing: Faced with a legal system in which reporting a sexual crime often means further trauma and no guarantee of justice, many victims feel they are better off staying silent.
“A lot of times, we have people come and they report things, and we have to tell them that the prosecutor’s not going to take this case,” said Detective Curtis Oja with the Yakima Police Department’s Special Assault Unit. “We’d like to be able to say that we solve every single case that comes through ... but these cases are sometimes more difficult to prove than a homicide. With a homicide, you at least have that one crucial piece of evidence: the body.”
Evidence of abuse may be scant or long since gone. And victims often don’t want to wreak havoc on the abuser’s life, or they fear retaliation — such as losing a job — if they come forward.
Everyone responds differently to trauma, experts say. When children and adolescents are sexually abused, it can lead to long-term depression, aggression, trust issues or high-risk sexual activity later in life.
But even if people manage to bury it for years, trauma has a way of asserting itself.
When therapist Ruby Aguilar worked with Comprehensive Healthcare, she saw elderly patients in nursing homes who were having nightmares about sexual abuse they’d suffered as children but never reported.
“What does that tell us? This is something that’s been going on for years and years,” said Aguilar, who now works in Behavioral Health Services with Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. “That needs to change.”
The Yakima Herald-Republic has agreed to withhold the identity of sexual assault victims for this story, referring to them by the initial of their first name.
C. was abused by a family member when she was 6 years old, and didn’t tell anyone for a decade. Now 22, she’s finally pressing charges.
“It is because we know that we will be doubted, it’s our words against the attacker,” she wrote in an email. “We were scared. We tried to repress the memory and act like it never happened, but it lingers and takes its toll.”
All too common
S., a Central Washington University student, was molested by a family friend on several occasions more than a decade ago. He’s an adult now, and only started talking about the teenage abuse in therapy and with his family in 2013.
The man was a medical professional, and S.’s family held the alleged abuser in high regard, he said.
Once, his father picked him up from the man’s house, and asked straight out if S. was being abused.
“And I said no,” S. recalled. “And I remember distinctly when he asked that question, all I felt was just embarrassed at the whole nature of the question. That was the prime motivator for saying ‘no.’ ... It was a distinct feeling of shame.”
At the time, he was unsure whether he could really label what happened to him “assault,” because it never escalated to rape, and occurred under the guise of medical care.
The man was a family friend and S. didn’t want to ruin his life or get him thrown in jail.
“It’s harder to tell on a ‘friend’ than someone who has the classic profile ... of a villain (or) criminal,” he said.
S. did go to police in 2013, a few months after he first started talking about his experience. But nothing happened, he said.
That outcome is all too common for victims who try to report their abuse, leaving many to wonder why they bothered, advocates say.
Yakima Valley native H., now 40, was abused by her stepfather from the ages of 13 to 15. She first confided in a close friend while sleeping over one night, and together they planned to tell the friend’s parents. But before that happened, H.’s stepfather grew suspicious and refused to let her go to that friend’s house again.
Next she went to a trusted adult — her youth pastor at church. But the youth pastor shared the information with the senior pastor, who happened to be her stepdad’s father.
The senior pastor held a family counseling session.
“My stepdad was like, ‘I’m sorry, blah blah blah,’ and the pastor was like, ‘There you are, don’t you feel better? He apologized!’” H. said. “I was so shocked and horrified — ‘No, I don’t feel better!’ I got really angry. But that was that.”
She wanted to report it to the authorities or Child Protective Services. But her stepdad had convinced her that if she talked, CPS would take her away from her mom.
“He’d said my mom would hate me,” H. remembers. “There was just a lot of hesitation in reporting it.”
At 15, she did go to CPS, but her mother had warned her against using words such as “touch” or “feel.” She ended up in a room with four male CPS workers questioning her.
“I just went in there and didn’t say anything,” H. said. “I just sat there and cried.”
Mountain of doubt
Kim Foley is the program manager at Aspen Victim Advocacy Services at Comprehensive, which provides support for victims of sexual assault and other crimes. She and her team of six, along with many dedicated volunteers, work around the clock to make sure victims aren’t alone as they go through steps such as a medical rape kit or an interview with police.
“Most people in that situation are overwhelmed — they don’t think it will happen to them,” Foley said.
Victims’ minds are often in overdrive thinking through their options, she said: “Am I going to be believed?” “Can this person affect my employment?” “Can I just avoid him, or say the right thing next time?” “What’s going to happen if I tell?” “What’s going to happen to his family?”
“They see how people are treated publicly when they’re exposed; that’s a big threat,” Foley said. “The biggest thing they want to do is to get out of the situation and hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Disbelief at the situation and blaming themselves for what happened are some of the most common responses to sexual assault, she said. And the loss of control victims feel is only heightened by the fear of telling their story to police or lawyers and then having the case go nowhere.
Reporting abuse can feel empowering, but victims are not going to come forward until they feel safe, Foley said, and that may take a long time.
But even if people report abuse the moment it happens, they still face a mountain of doubt.
“‘Why did you go on that trip with him? Why did you wear that? Why did you be alone with him?’ There’s so many questions to answer, as if she’s the one that did the wrongdoing; as if she’s the one at fault,” Foley said. “It’s backwards.”
Meanwhile, trauma sustained from the abuse worms its way into victims’ brains, rewiring them in ways that may not be obvious from the outside.
“Your brain, when you’re traumatized, it’s trying to survive; it’s trying to keep you alive. And unbeknownst to you, you now have triggers. ... You’re making choices based on something that happened to you years ago, and often you’re not even aware of it,” Foley said.
Those triggers could mean that victims avoid good opportunities because they don’t feel safe; or it could make the dangerous feel familiar, or like “that’s what I deserve,” she said.
Triggers can be small, Aguilar said. For example, if a boy was abused by a man wearing a red shirt, then seeing red in the future may induce feelings of panic.
“If you don’t deal with that trauma, you will continue to be triggered throughout your life,” she said. “Any type of trauma that isn’t dealt with has big effects with your adult life ... with relationships and personal well-being.”
Sometimes kids or teens who are abused go on to be hyper-sexual or struggle to establish boundaries, she said, because their very first sexual experiences taught them that their bodies were objects made to be used by others.
That learned carelessness around sex then puts them at greater risk of sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy, she said.
Some victims act out aggressively, and it’s only after intensive therapy that the root cause of sexual abuse is revealed.
One boy who received counseling at Behavioral Health was shoving rocks down his throat and trying to jump out of moving cars, Aguilar said. When therapists started working with him, they learned he was being raped by a member of his family.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence for a criminal case, Aguilar said.
Since then, the victim has asked her, “What was the point?”
“It’s so heartbreaking, even to us as providers,” she said.
‘All those details’
In Oja’s Special Assault Unit, interviews with children and victims of sexual assault happen in a separate building across from the police station, where it feels more like a counselor’s office than an interrogation room.
Detectives follow Washington state protocols for interviewing children, and the same outline works well for other victims of sexual assault, Oja said. They start by building a rapport, which paves the way for the victim to feel more comfortable providing a narrative form of events. Detectives are careful to ask open-ended questions and not introduce details of their own.
At the same time, detectives are trained not to respond with facial expression or body language to the often horrific details victims are sharing.
“They’re going to read that, and if they sense that they’re making you uncomfortable, they may stop sharing,” Oja said. That’s why parents are usually not included in interviews with their children. “Children want to please adults, so we have to be very cautious that we’re not badgering them to give us the response that we want.”
Detectives let victims take their time to work through emotions during interviews, but Oja said victims’ response during those initial conversations is a sort of barometer for whether they’ll be able to proceed with a court case.
If victims can’t bear to talk to detectives about what happened, “there’s really no way that they’re going to be able to tell defense attorneys that can be pretty nasty in asking questions and the way that they phrase things,” he said.
That’s why K., 34, decided not to go to police after she was raped three years ago.
She’d been on a jury for a sexual assault case several years prior to her own experience. The defense attorney grilled the young woman about when she’d lost her virginity; how many drinks she’d had that night; why she’d worn a certain outfit.
In the end, the accused attacker walked free, K. said.
“Once it happened to me, I could not imagine myself having to go through all those details,” she said.
In her case, she was on a third date in Tacoma with a man she liked. They went out for brunch one Saturday, then drove to the waterfront. But while kissing in the car, he became aggressive, and though she didn’t want to sleep with him, she knew that he wasn’t going to stop.
She opted to go back to her house instead of continue in the car, and he raped her.
It took almost a year for K. to be able to say out loud what had happened to her, and then another year of intensive therapy to believe that it was not her fault. She was a good girl with a good education, “And things like that just don’t happen to girls like me,” she said.
“There were so many times where I would replay the situation in my head — why did I let him come back to my apartment? Why didn’t I run?” she said. “And then finally my therapist goes, ‘Well, why did he rape you?’”
•Reporter Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.