Emotional Health

Fighting to be Heard: Women Report Sex Crimes

One of the most frequent worries is that the spotlight will turn on her instead. This was Anita Hill’s experience. The victim herself is accused.  She might be characterized as egging the abuser on by dressing in a provocative way, by being drunk or out of control, or maybe, secretly “wanting it.” Last week, even a reporter, Megyn Kelly, was demeaned for trying to ask questions about assault in a heated exchange with Newt Gingrich. He said, “You are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy.” She responded, “You know what Mr. Speaker, I’m not fascinated by sex, but I am fascinated by the protection of women.”

These kinds of fears have kept many women from reporting their experiences. A 17-year-old girl told me in a session that she was raped in the ladies’ room of a nightclub but was afraid to tell anyone about it or go to the police because she “shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Concerned, I privately asked a former prosecutor I know if I should encourage a girl in such a situation to press charges. He said that women who do so need to be prepared to be “crucified” on the witness stand by the defense. Her entire sexual history might be open for speculation. It is psychologically risky because the victim is often re-victimized.

She decided not to press charges but a few years later, another victim did, and she testified then. Soon to graduate from college she now felt strong enough to do so. I felt complicit in the conspiracy of silence, and I couldn’t help wondering if I had pressed her to testify years before, would have prevented this other rape from happening?

Another factor that inhibits victims is the fear that the accusation might do harm to the perpetrator. This has been a familiar refrain in some of the campus rape cases: why are you ruining this poor boy’s life over this? The implication is that assault and/or rape are minor or unimportant incidents, compared to someone’s “future.”

But, in truth, the reliving of these events is painful and the victim either blocks out the pain, or sometimes even the memory of the incident itself. And abusers are often good at choosing their victims, recognizing women who, for various reasons, are most vulnerable. Sexual assault and rape are first and foremost crimes of power and violence. The abuser wants to “win.”

Many victims know their abusers and feel that even if they are believed, revealing the abuse can be awkward, at the very least. But the central factor underlying all these others is shame. No matter how unwanted the action, when someone approaches you in a sexual way, you feel shamed. Talking about it not only revives those feelings, but also potentially makes you vulnerable to further shaming. Many women are not comfortable talking about sex with strangers, and cannot bring themselves to overcome their embarrassment.

The woman I referred to earlier, who remembered five incidents of assault as a teenager, is me. The first occurred when I was 13, when a man on a bus touched my behind. I was with my 17-year-old sister, and whispered to her quietly about what was happening. To my horror, she turned and yelled at him to “take your hands off my little sister,” and hit him with her purse. (It’s no wonder he chose to grab me instead of her.) I was incredibly embarrassed as the whole bus turned and stared, though also proud of her strength.

Had I been alone or with anyone but her, even my mother, I wouldn’t have said anything. I never told anyone about the next two incidents, on a subway and a train, or the two others, assaults by the husband of my mother’s good friend and by a doctor. In the last two incidents I worried about the awkwardness of accusing someone my parents knew and trusted. I worried about the effect my accusations would have on their families. And, as always, I was ashamed.

Like many woman, my reaction was to “freeze.” Not just at the moment, but afterward I remained guarded and cautious about exposure. Men have been taught to fight and stand up for themselves. Woman, in contrast, withdraw and stay silent, avoiding danger being their only defense. Hillary Clinton may not have been sexually assaulted, but she has been attacked for 30 years and playing “defense” is her go-to response. She is a fighter for others, but her approach when attacked herself is to withdraw — what New York Times columnist Charles Blow calls “a pattern of ill-fated insularity.” It is this “insularity” that may have led her to use a private email server, a questionable decision but not a crime, as the FBI concluded. Still, this issue continues to plague her, though Blow and others have protested the “false equivalency” when her critics try to compare this error in office procedure to Trump’s confession of a history of sexual assault.

Looking at the large numbers of women who have come forward recently, which resonates with my own experience, that of many patients, and of friends, there’s no question that sexual assault is a common occurrence. National politics continues to underscore this: at the eleventh hour, yet another sexual predator has entered the center stage of the news: former congressman Anthony Weiner,who has a history of “sexting” with young girls.

The women who have revealed their stories of abuse, have exposed themselves to shame and ridicule (“Look at her,” Trump said suggesting that several of his accusers are not attractive enough to bother with), but they are forging a path for the rest of us. Holding back and hiding our shame is one of the things that has allowed abusers to flourish unfettered and unchallenged all these years. Fighting for our right to be heard is the first step in a long process.

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  • Jan Neavill Hersh October 26, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Well said. It is time for us to stand up and stop abuse.

    Reply
  • Cecilia M. Ford November 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    The more of us who speak out, even anonymously, the more this issue can be understood and fought. Liz Meriwether has an interesting piece in New York Magazine this week (http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/10/laughing-until-we-cry-conversations-about-getting-groped.html) about a dinner she had with her parents. As she and her mother recalled their history of assaults, her husband and father became more and more uncomfortable. She writes, after he dad left the table, “I realized what it means to include men in these conversations.” Most men are unaware of how widespread this problem is and don’t understand our shared history of experiences.

    Reply
  • Andrea November 3, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so important for our voices to be heard!

    Reply
  • Dr Pat November 3, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Dr Ford,
    You have courageously described traumatic events in your younger life as a result of the national conversation about sexual assault. We thank you and support you and the too many to count girls and women who have been victimized.

    Reply