Like many women, I’ve been sexually assaulted. And, like the majority of those women, I never reported it. Yet after watching two documentaries on the sexual assault of young women recently — Audrie & Daisy and The Hunting Ground — I began to wonder. Why didn’t I report my sexual assaults to authorities? After all, sexual assault is illegal as much as it is immoral.
On reflection, there are several reasons why I didn’t speak up. Firstly, I didn’t know I had been sexual assaulted, especially since my first experience happened when I was nine (but more on that shortly). Later in life, I would associate the term ‘sexual assault’ with violent images of women being raped in dark alleys. So, when a friend of my boyfriend pushed his fingers inside my vagina while we were on a dance floor when I was 25 years old, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t like or want it, but nor did I know what to do with it, other than to shove his hand away and keep dancing.
Another reason I never spoke up is, sexual assault wasn’t something I was emotionally connected to. Sexual assault was serious and awful but it was something that happened to other women. So, when, as a 24-year-old, I passed out from inebriation only to wake up to find the man I was on a date with having sex with me, I didn’t know how to react other than with shock, which promptly turned into denial.
I never spoke of these experiences with anyone until over 10 years later when I finally met with a therapist to deal with the depression and anxiety I was experiencing. When I shared the memories with her, she explained that I had been sexually assaulted. I told her she was wrong, that these experiences were “no big deal”. Most women have had similar experiences. Plus, in relation to the last incident, I had been drunk and put myself in a compromising position. In short, I had brought the man’s actions on myself. The therapist disagreed, pointing out the facts which were independent of my careless behaviour: I did not want to have sex with this person. I did not consent to having sex with this person (unconsciousness is not consent). This person had sex with me anyway. This, she told me, according to the literal definition, is rape.
Hearing the therapist use this word jolted me out of the state of denial I’d been living in. She explained my symptoms which I was seeking help for as “textbook” for sexual assault victims. For years, I had suffered bouts of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, isolation, inability to form healthy intimate relationships, had contemplated suicide on multiple occasions and even made one attempt. While I’m sure there were other contributing factors to these symptoms, I had certainly been ignoring the impact of what these men did.
Recognising that I had been sexually assaulted helped my recovery process, a process that continues. Yet throughout this process, while I considered reporting these men to authorities I knew this was out of the question. To do so would require naming names. I knew what happened to women who stood up against ‘powerful’ men. My version of events would be denied, my character would be brought into question and my life would be made a living hell. I wasn’t about to subject myself to even more abuse than what I had already experienced.
Although, there was a time when I did speak up. I was 19 years old when I finally summoned the courage to report the man who sexually molested me when I was only nine years old. He was my diving teacher and he liked to rub and fondle my private parts while whispering sexually suggestive comments in my young ears.
The police took my statement and called a few weeks later to inform me that five other women had come forward with reports of similar experiences at the hands of the same man. Yet, despite these multiple reports, the officer explained that they would not be pursuing the matter any further due to “a lack of evidence”. A lack of evidence? I was confused and angry. It had taken a lot of courage to report my abuse. But why go through the trauma of speaking up if nothing was going to be done about it?
I applaud any person who comes forward and reports a sexual assault. It takes immense courage. Unfortunately, the people who do speak up are in the minority. I know personally many women who have experienced sexual abuse or assault in some form yet have never told anyone, other than one or two trusted people. Certainly none have reported their sexual assaults to authorities or formally named their abusers.
I believe their reasons are similar to mine. They don’t class what happened to them as sexual assault. They don’t see themselves as ‘victims’. Or perhaps they do but can’t see the point of speaking up when the result is likely to cause them to come under further abuse. Better to keep quiet, let sleeping dogs lie and hope that in time the memories subside and eventually they just forget.
Unfortunately, sexual assault is not something you ever forget. Sure, life goes on, time passes and wounds heal. But not always. For many sexual assault victims, life is a process of repair and recovery. For others, the pain is all too much to bear. In which case, it’s not just the victims who suffer but their families as well. While some people do report their assault, many more do not, choosing instead to fight their battles from behind closed doors.
I wish things were different. I wish authorities were equipped for handling the sensitive nature of sexual assault cases. I wish the media treated sexual assault victims with more respect and care. I wish sexual assault cases were less sensationalised. I wish sexual assault victims were presumed innocent rather than being made to feel guilty. I wish the statistics proved that perpetrators of sexual assault crimes were brought to justice more often. I wish documentaries like Audrie & Daisy and The Hunting Ground didn’t have to be made. Yes, I wish things were different.
Fortunately, things to appear to be changing. Just recently I read in a news article that a corporate executive was jailed for five years for having non-consensual sex with an unconscious woman. Reading the article was like reading my story, only with the ending that could have been had I spoken up and reported my abuser. But I didn’t and I’m not going to. Unfortunately, the price for reporting a sexual assault is still too high and, until things are different, it’s a price that most sexual assault victims, including myself, are simply not willing to pay.