Why Survivors Of Sexual Assault Often Wait To Come Forward

produced by Anna Jay; photographed by Eylul Aslan; produced by Meg O'Donnell.
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Christine Blasey Ford is the author of the confidential letter accusing Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, of sexual assault. In the '80s, when Ford and Kavanaugh were teens, she alleges that he pinned her to a bed at a house party, groped her over her clothing, and tried to remove her bathing suit and clothes. At one point, she alleges he put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. "I thought he might inadvertently kill me," she told the Post. In a statement from the White House last week, Kavanaugh said he "categorically and unequivocally" denies the allegation.
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When Ford, a research psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University in Northern California, first approached the Post with her story in early July, she intended to keep her identity concealed, because she feared how the public news would impact her life and family. But when the letter she wrote to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California detailing her accusations against Kavanaugh was made known to the public last week, Ford made the difficult decision to come forward. "I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation," she told the Post. Since revealing her identity, Ford has been doxxed and mocked on Twitter.
Some people questioned what took Ford so long to come forward. "Decades-old allegations against Kavanaugh come out just days before a vote....victim or opportunist?" tweeted Fox News's Tomi Lahren. Senator Orrin Hatch told CNN he thought Ford was "mistaken."
"I think she’s mistaking something, but I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know her," Hatch continued. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats — and indirectly Ford — for waiting until "the 11th hour" to bring this up. "Now an accusation of 36-year-old misconduct, dating back to high school, has been brought forward at the last minute in an irregular manner," McConnell said on the Senate floor today.
It's common for survivors of sexual assault to wait to come forward, or not to come forward publicly at all, because they fear they won't be believed or will experience retaliation from the perpetrator. Sharing details about a traumatic encounter inherently requires you to trust that other people will be responsible with your story, which is understandably difficult for survivors. And this is especially true when the situation involves a high-ranking individual with a public position, says Kristen Houser, MPA, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Plus, judging by the way Anita Hill was treated in 1991 when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, it's not at all surprising that Ford initially wanted to keep her identity private.
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"You know that you are walking into a situation where people are going to discount your version of a very personal, traumatizing thing that's happened to you," Houser says. "It is likely they will attempt to pry into your personal life and find any example of miscommunication or anything that can be construed as dishonesty." In fact, last month Ford's lawyer suggested that she proactively take a polygraph test in case people called her a liar, the Post reported. The test found that Ford was telling the truth.
Certainly we have witnessed this happen with survivors who have come forward in the midst of the #MeToo movement. People may have heard stories in the news or had friends go through the process of reporting sexual assault, and not want to face the same stigma, says Bryan Pacheco, a spokesperson for Safe Horizon, a survivor assistance organization. But the #MeToo movement has also given lots of people the vocabulary to discuss troubling events that happened in their past. "Once survivors learn that there's an abuser that has the potential to abuse others, they feel motivated like it's their responsibility to come forward and help others," he says.
In the Post article, Ford says it wasn't until she was in therapy in 2012 — long before the current #MeToo movement existed — that she told anyone about what had happened to her back in high school. According to Pacheco, this is a common way that survivors grapple with trauma. "It's unfair to say, Why did it take you so long," he says. "They may have had to work it out to come to a place where they feel safe enough to come forward." It could take months or years for someone to realize how a traumatic event impacted their life, he says.
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When people encounter traumatic events, their brains also can't "file" the memories properly in some instances. In the moment, an experience might register as life-threatening, but they may not be able to categorize it as problematic until much later in life. "It leaves long-lasting imprints on your life," Houser says. "That's why it's not at all surprising that 30 years later [Ford is] discussing it in her private therapy." And if you're someone who has been carrying around your story for decades like Ford, then it can feel intimidating or vulnerable to eventually speak up publicly about it, she says.
As evidenced by the criticism Ford is receiving on social media, this case highlights why so many survivors hesitate to tell their own stories. If you're a survivor and planning on sharing your story publicly, Houser suggests it's important to have conversations with your family and friends beforehand about what to expect. "It’s important for people to have as much control over their story as they can, and usually people are willing to give support," she says.
And Ford coming forward has already made an impact. Today, Kavananaugh said he would talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the incident, and Ford's lawyer said she is willing to testify before Congress, too.
"Sexual assault is a crime, and every allegation should be thoroughly investigated," Jodi Omear, vice president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) tells Refinery29 in a statement. "The allegations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford are very serious." Historically, however, Omear adds, hearing allegations like these often leads others to reach out for help.
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Alumnae from the high school that Ford attended have since created an open letter of support for Ford, stating her experience is "all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton [the high school she attended]."
They added: "Many of us are survivors ourselves."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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