Sexual Assault - Why They Don't Tell

Sexual abuse was in the news again last week. This is the third time I’m writing that as the opener to my blog this year, and it’s heart breaking every time. This blog is not a political space and I am not going to write about the current events that we are all aware of or take a position on any of those issues.

But last week’s news has brought issues of sexual abuse and sexual violence into the national discussion, and I don’t feel that I can ignore it.

Sexual trauma is a major social ill that hides in the shadows. In fact, only about 38 percent of victims of childhood sexual trauma disclose what happened to them, according studies compiled by the Darkness to Light Foundation in Charleston, SC. Many never disclose.

I first started doing therapy with sexual trauma survivors in 1998, when I went to work for the Giarretto Institute in San Jose, CA. Psychologist Hank Giarretto pioneered the treatment of sexual abuse in families and developed a treatment model that has been replicated around the world.

I still do therapy with sexual trauma survivors – both men and women. Many still experience the ripple effects of the trauma that have damaged their lives over the years or decades - depression, including thoughts of suicide, post-traumatic stress symptoms, inability to sustain relationships, anxiety, issues with drugs and alcohol and self-harm behaviors, such as cutting. Some never told anyone what happened to them until they felt safe enough in a therapy session many years later, or they told a spouse, when they could no longer avoid it.

There are many reasons why people don’t disclose sexual trauma.

Among children who have been sexually abused or assaulted:

  • Between 30 percent and 40 percent were abused by family members,

  • Another 50 percent were abused by someone outside the family whom they know and trust,

  • About 40 percent are abused by older or larger children whom they know.

Shame: Many sexual trauma survivors feel ashamed of what happened to them and are afraid to tell the adults in their lives. Often, the adult abusers tell them they will get in trouble if they tell anyone. Children are by nature narcissistic. They often feel that they are responsible for everything that happens. This sense of shame often causes victims to blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of the perpetrator.

For example, Leigh Corfman, the woman who reported that, at age 14, she was molested by Roy Moore, the controversial Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama said, “I felt responsible. I thought I was bad.”

Many carry that shame into their lives for decades, feeling that people will think less of them if they know what happened. That makes it harder for them to disclose subsequent sexual assaults or harassment.

Fear they won’t be believed: Many fear that they won’t be believed. I’ve known childhood sexual trauma survivors who tried to disclose to a parent and were punished for saying bad things about a beloved family member or friend. They didn’t speak of it again until decades later, when they sought therapy for the issues mentioned above. In fact, how a parent responds is the most important factor in how a child will recover from sexual abuse.

In the case of Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of teen girls over decades as team doctor for USA Gymnastics, one young woman eventually committed suicide after Nassar’s abuse was disclosed and nobody moved to stop it, according to a story in the Washington Post. The story also recounted how another family was destroyed after a mother believed Nassar’s denials over her daughter’s reports of abuse.

Denial is an important psychological defense. For many, the reality of a sexual assault is too overwhelming. So, survivors minimize its significance and downplay how much they’ve been harmed. Decades later, the anxiety, PTSD experience and fear of relationships become too much, and they disclose what happened to a therapist. Many still never tell close family members or friends.

According to a rape survivor’s victim impact statement read to the court:

“I was not ready to tell my boyfriend or parents…If I told them, I would see the fear on their faces, and mine would multiply by tenfold, so instead I pretended the whole thing wasn’t real…I said, this can’t be me, this can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information…”

Public perception and response: Sexual trauma survivors are often afraid to disclose to family members, police and other authorities. Many fear being retraumatized by having to recount a traumatic story over and over again to people who may or may not believe them. They may face a barrage of questions about why they didn’t speak up sooner, why they were where they were at the time, why they couldn’t stop the attack, had they been drinking, and so on.

In 2015 Stanford University student Brock Turner raped a woman behind a dumpster on the university campus. Turner was convicted and could have received 14 years in prison. Instead, the judge sentenced him to 6 months in county jail because he was a “champion swimmer” and the judge feared a longer sentence could damage his future. I’ve heard sexual trauma survivors say the Turner case was a powerful reminder of why they feel there is no point in going to the police.

Turner’s victim read a powerful victim impact statement to the court:

“I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name. After a physical assault, I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me…”

In 1896 Sigmund Freud presented his findings that sexual trauma was a major contributor to psychological disturbance. In fact, he found that all of the women in his study had been sexually abused and that their pain and suffering were directly related to the abuse. Unfortunately, Freud's findings were roundly criticized and dismissed by the psychological establishment of the day, and Freud retracted his findings. It would be decades before childhood sexual abuse and sexual trauma survivors would be taken seriously again.

Only in the last 30 years has childhood sexual abuse received the validation and attention it deserves. Now sexual trauma is in the public eye again, and with it, the discussion of why so few people disclose sexual assault and trauma. This new attention is a good thing because many abuse survivors never reveal what happened to them or get help healing the trauma. I hope this new attention will encourage more sexual abuse survivors to come forward, to get the help they need, to get the beautiful life they so richly deserve.

If you’re still struggling with the effects of sexual trauma, I’m here to help. I offer therapy for adults who were sexually abused as children and for other sexual trauma survivors. If you’re a trauma survivor and you feel I may not be the right therapist for you, I know a lot of other therapists who can help. I also have resources available for parents seeking therapy for children. You can download my booklet “Self-Care Tips for Trauma Survivors” here. You can also find more self-care tips on the Resources page of my Web site. Feel free to contact me at (812) 371-6330, or at ken@insight-counseling.org.