Women aren’t telling people they’ve been sexually assaulted. Here’s why.
Stastical lede or anecdotal lede — a common predicament for journalists. But what if I told you that it didn’t matter?
I could start this column by giving the statistics everyone sees during health classes, on the news and in a book every so often. The rate of rape and sexual assault increased from 1.1 in 1,000 in 2014 to 1.6 in 2015 — with an estimated U.S. population of 326,764,660 when I started writing this article, that amounts to about reported 522,823 cases of rape and sexual assault a year (that doesn’t count unreported cases). If you add in domestic violence instances, we’re looking at something like 980,294 cases a year.
Think about those numbers, which have been staying flat or rising every year, and imagine how many sexual assault or domestic violence victims you’ll meet throughout your life. Some are suffering higher rates of violence because they are transgender or Native American. Those who are disabled, like me, experience higher rates of assault as well. Some victims are men and children, but most of them are women (which is why this article focuses on women).
Being subjected to horrific violence takes a great deal of courage as survivors seek help, speak out and try to recover. The after effects of sexual assault and domestic violence can be lifelong, and it’s only with support from family, friends, coworkers and communities that survivors can keep surviving. Sexual abuse and domestic violence is still our society’s No. 1 biggest public health crisis, but it doesn’t seem to be treated as such.
This means we have to begin to ask some uncomfortable questions about ourselves. Think about how many women you know who have told you they are a survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence. If that number is not very high, think about why that is.
It certainly isn’t because women aren’t talking about it. From the growing number of reported cases to the police, greater attention in the news, the surge of women speaking out on blogs and social media, it seems women have had quite enough with backlogged rape kits, victim-blaming behavior and the lack of legal protection and prosecution options.
I could tell you about the latest celebrity domestic violence case in which actor Johnny Depp long-termed abused his ex-wife Amber Heard, hardly an anomoly in tabloids but striking in that that I’ve seen little to no condemnation of him for it online, in the news or in Hollywood.
I could also tell you that I’ve been a victim of sexual assault multiple times and a victim of domestic violence twice, both which culminated in assaults in my own home. These are not hidden facts, but are things I’ve been open about with family, friends and colleagues in order to keep me protected at home, in my community and at work.
Without knowing the details of women’s stories, intellectually men can process the odds. Using probability, men can safely assume that a large percentage of the women they befriend, date, work with or pass on the street have been victims of sexual violence. And yet, from my own and other women’s personal experiences, it still is surprising to men when a women relates a story of abuse, trauma and assault.
True, it can be hard to process that such vicious acts of abuse occurred to someone you care about, or even someone you just met. It can be hard to know what to say. (A few pro-tips: “I just never imagined that sort of thing could happen to you/in this city/in this country/in this day and age” is never helpful. Sexual violence has existed as long since humans have, and there’s nothing to suggest it’s going away any time soon.)
But there’s a worse problem. For many women, there is no reaction at all. What’s more, men aren’t asking about it, or taking an active interest.
Of the handful of men I dated in between my first and second domestic abuse experiences, only one man asked about my first abuser — that man was my second abuser (a vulnerability-scouting tactic used by many serial abusers, a pattern therapists, researchers and a friend who’d known my second abuser would verify). The one man I dated in the years after my second abuser didn’t ask a single question about any of it.
This is a problem I see reflected in my social media communities. Every so often on Facebook, a woman will post about her experiences with assault or abuse. Sure enough, all her status likes will be from other women. Some, I see, even jokingly ask with frustration in follow-up statuses where all the social support from men has gone, which may spark a second wind of minimal support from men. And some, sadly, who write about their survivor journeys in the resulting months and years will post how “coming out” as a victim has backfired and resulted in a lack of social support, compounding their trauma and hurting their ability or desire to be trusting and intimate again in romantic and even platonic relationships.
While social media isn’t always respective of our societal truths, this one is. Of the half dozen panels on sexual assault and domestic violence in my community I’ve attended in recent years, the attendees (and organizers) are overwhelmingly women. Of the victims we see in media reports and the fundraisers looking to assist them, the supporters are overwhelmingly women. Whether it’s within my own family or in Twitter wars or in public policy debates, women are at the forefront of the call for support and action for sexual violence. The men just aren’t showing up.
I don’t think it’s because men don’t care — a quick perusal of the Internet shows some men are trying to hash out ways to be more supportive online and off. Women who are afraid to open up to dating partners or spouses about past abuse are encouraged to be open. “I would want to know what my partner is going through,” “It’s important that I know the person I’m dating,” and “Honesty is a must-do in relationships” are common reactions and advice I see on message boards and in advice columns.
But the very reason many women aren’t opening up right away (or at all) is because they’re afraid men won’t listen and leave. Men who think that sounds ridiculous are the exact same men who need to be listening to women and taking our advice on this.
Abandoment is a legitimate concern, even to women who are just looking to casually date or have sex. Every 98 seconds, a person is sexually assaulted in the United States. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. So in spite of the overwhelming likelihood that someone you’ll match with on Tinder or Bumble is an assault survivor, the stigma associated with being one is still enough to make people swipe left or ghost after a few dates.
Facing trauma and building recovery isn’t just something women need to confront alone and check in with their partners about every once in a while. Partners and spouses need to be directly involved. Considering how many seemingly supportive men are actually just serial abusers waiting for their turn to be the next in control, women have every right to be wary with trust and take their time in disclosing painful memories. Men wanting intimacy (whether as a friend, family member or partner) should be patient, encouraging and present — not just to avoid creating more trauma, but because that’s how functional, healthy human relationships work.
Sexual assault and domestic violence, while often tackled by women’s organizations, are not women’s issues — they’re societal issues. Men who don’t address sexual and domestic violence at home and in communities are not only likely to bail on complex relationships but also are likely to be dumped for one. Compassion is a turn-on, and a lack of it is a deal-breaker.
I’m not going to tell people who to date or sleep with, or give men a laundry list of what to do. That’s what Google is for — and men bringing themselves to the table without directive from women to tackle sexual assault and domestic violence is exactly my point.
But I do want to encourage men to start these conversations, for once. Bring the subject up at home, at work and in your communities. Whether she’s your best friend since high school, your wife of seven years, your girlfriend of four months or a woman you just bought a beer for at the bar, approach women with facts, empathy and respect for situations they have already experienced or fear experiencing every day.
Even if it’s not directly affecting you, sexual violence is something we’re all indirectly tied to somehow. We all are responsible for confronting and trying to end it, and we all can support survivors — even it’s just asking one simple question: “Do you want to talk about it?”