Emotional Health · Sex & Sexuality

Sexual Assault, Intimidation, and the Fear of Being Rude

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


embed_nymag_coverThe 35 women on the cover of New York magazine (July 27, 2015) who are leveling sexual-assault charges against Bill Cosby.

Many years ago, when I was leading a group of young women with new babies, one of them asked how she could recognize any signs that her child was being sexually abused. This led to a frank discussion among the members about the topic in general, and it turned out that every one of the seven members of the group had been victims of some kind of sexual assault. Not one of them had reported it. While only one had been violently raped by a stranger, the rest had been victims of more “subtle,” but certainly injurious, abuse. For example, one woman had been abused by a psychiatrist throughout her late teens. Two had been victims of date rape. Yet another described a harrowing scene featuring her father showing her “what not” to allow boys to do to her.

Statistics on sexual abuse are not as grim as those in this random sample in my practice, but the lack of reporting makes it hard to know what the real extent of the problem is. For women, the fact that they haven’t felt entitled to see the abuse as a crime is a serious issue. Women are much more likely than men to take responsibility when something goes wrong. Last week, a New York Times report exposed a widespread culture of sexually predatory behavior at one of the country’s most elite prep schools.

At the extremely selective St. Paul’s boarding school, a young man (then an 18-year-old senior) is now on trial for the alleged rape of a (then) 15-year-old fellow student—a charge he denies. The incident was part of a ritualized culture of sexual assault at the school, called “Senior Salute,” during which senior class members compete to see how many girls they can “slay” during their reign as upperclassmen. A secret key to a private boiler room where they can lead their victims and conduct assaults undetected has been passed from class to class for years.

On the witness stand the victim was described like this:

“Her voice shook as she described the escalation of the encounter. ‘I wanted to not cause a conflict,’ she said, as she started to cry. ‘I didn’t know how to deal with it because I’d never been in a situation like this,’ she said, adding: “’I felt like I had no control.’”

Both during and after the encounter, she did not react angrily, even though she felt violated, because, again, she said, she “didn’t want to be offensive.”

This young woman is bringing her alleged attacker to trial because she reported the crime eventually, despite her misgivings. Comedian Bill Cosby, accused of sexually assaulting many women, denies the crimes and has never been indicted—and probably won’t be, because his alleged assaults are past the statute of limitations. For the past year, more and more women have come forward claiming that he abused him. The faces of 35 women on a New York magazine cover last month —all of them alleging crimes dating all the way back to the 1960s—was the most powerful statement yet of the seriousness of the sexual-assault charges against Cosby. Representing just a portion of the women who have come forward so far (three more came forward just last week), the women photographed were also interviewed in the pages within the magazine. But it was their silent, unnamed faces, many of them the faces of women now well into their 60s and 70s, that struck a chord with me. So many years of silence!

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  • Agnes Krup August 27, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Dear Doctor Ford, I am a regular reader of your always insightful contributions to WVFC, but this one struck particularly close to home. Just as for the previous commentator, the most powerful paragraphs to me were those about your own daughter. Not only did they bring back to mind no less than three (!) very similar encounters I had as a teenager on public transportation (perhaps all women who have NOT endured such encounters should raise their hand — that might make for much quicker polling). But your story also made me realize the responsibility we have towards our daughters (mine is 16), to make sure that they know and are able to insist on their right to safety and respect vs. their sense of politeness and not wanting to make trouble or be difficult — a sense deeply ingrained in them by much of their social and cultural environment that does, alas, include us, their mothers. Thank you for pointing out what I need to do in the next couple of years, the conversations I need to have with my daughter.

  • Dawn August 27, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Thank you, this is brilliant. I can’t believe that Cosby will walk away from his crimes, but at least his reputation as the doting father is permanently tarnished. I have a 14 year old daughter and find I frequently need to balance my comments to her between what our society considers “polite” and what she must do to stand up for herself. Your article gave me a great starting point for a discussion with her.

  • sally August 27, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Thank you for this. I have been following the St. Paul’s story (after reading Anita Shreveport’s “Testimony” and thinking back to my 16 yr old self who didn’t want to be a prude, a goodie two shoes, or worse, a tease. Even now, I think ‘I know the train is crowded but does that guy need to be so close?’ I have found it easier to stand up for other women; maybe we need to be more vigilant for each other as the woman behind your daughter was.