It's often asked why victims of sexual assault don't report their abuse. The line of where responsibility lies is blurred when victims' silence, not the abuse, becomes the focus. Rather than recognize the trauma survivors often feel while trapped in their silence and empower them to seek support and speak their truth, our society often further burdens them with fault for their silence.
There are myriad reasons victims stay silent.
The accounts of those who report their abuse are often ignored or dismissed. To relive one's abuse in painfully vivid detail can be triggering and heartbreaking. Why would one subject oneself to such vulnerability only to have their experience diminished? A survivor's healing is either aided or impeded by the handling of their abuse. Too often, rather than seek to validate survivors' voices, those entrusted to pursue justice take it upon themselves to eschew the truth.
Two high-profile cases of men who faced allegations of sexual abuse, those of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and former U.S.A Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, have again been in the public spotlight. New reports show that the FBI's investigation into each case was flawed, constrained, and far from exhaustive. In both cases, first-hand accounts and thousands of tips were swept under the rug.
Of course, not every survivor of assault is disbelieved. They're often believed and blamed. Victims of assault are often revictimized once they come forward. Their lifestyle, decisions, and character are scrutinized and put on public display. Their trauma is flipped and spun until it's so far removed from their abuser that it becomes something of their own doing that they should have been able to prevent. Guilt further darkens the shadow of their assault.
Silence sometimes results when victims suppress what's happened to them. They don't recognize the abuse for what it is because it's a hard reality to know how to face. Further removing them from the reality of their situation, victims of assault are often gaslighted by their abuser and his allies. When an abuser showers his victims with love and gifts and others sing his praises and believe him incapable of committing such monstrous acts, it's easy to be convinced of something less ugly than the truth.
Haunted by their memories, some stay silent to protect themselves from being hounded and threatened by their abuser or his family and friends.
Some stay silent to protect those they love from having to bear the weight of their trauma. Victims' silence keeps them from giving light to their shame and embarrassment and keeps their fear of being viewed differently in the dark.
Some stay silent because the experience of being sexually assaulted is a heavy load to carry, and it's hard to know where to place it. Once it's set down, it will create a crater in the center of a victim's life, pulling not only the victim in but also all those to whom they're closest.
These are all reasons I stayed silent for as long as I did. Maybe the question shouldn't be, "why didn't they come forward?" but instead, how can we create a society that supports and trusts survivors so that they don't feel safer in their silence than in seeking support and healing.
Danz is an avid runner, reader and writer. She’s a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead who lives, works and believes in downtown Fargo. She’s a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion pages.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.