My heart aches every time there is a very public questioning about the veracity of reports of sexual assault. The accusations about Bill Cosby and the recent Rolling Stone story about an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia have provided great opportunity for these kinds of questions.
I do not know what happened in any of these situations. But I do know that our willingness to engage publicly in the questioning of the truthfulness of sexual assault victims tends to further discourage victims of sexual assault from reporting the crime.
I also suspect that the questioning itself is rooted in misunderstandings about victims and perpetrators of sexual assault.
First, it is not uncommon that we have a hard time believing that someone we know and possibly love could behave in a way that is so totally outside our experience with that person. Witness myriad interviews with family and neighbors after it is revealed that someone has shot people at a school or shopping mall. These folks generally talk about what a good person the shooter is, and how they would never have believed that he could do something like that.
The same is true about sexual assault. When someone we know and/or love is accused of sexual assault, it is not uncommon to react with disbelief.
So, it is difficult to believe that Bill Cosby could possibly have sexually assaulted anyone, much less multiple victims. And yet, if we cannot be open to those possibilities, then we deny the realities of sexual assault victims and instead support the frequent warning of perpetrators that “No one is going to believe you.”
Secondly, there is an assumption that if someone experienced a traumatic event like a sexual assault, they will remember in graphic detail every single part of the assault. Further, there is a belief that the survivor will recount the assault in exactly the same way every time they tell about it.
Not so. There is evidence that trauma changes the way our brain stores memories, and it is not uncommon for sexual assault survivors to have “missing pieces” in their recall. If you have experienced a car accident or another traumatic event, you understand that you sometimes have difficulty reconstructing that experience exactly as it happened.
And, let’s face it, we all tell our experiences in different ways over time. It’s the nature of being human. Our recall can be influenced by new recollections, loss of some memories, and even the influence of how people react when we do tell about our experiences. This is especially true when we are asked to recount something that happened many years prior. And none of this makes the experience untrue.
Another misimpression about sexual assault is that if it really happened, victims would of course report the crime right away. It is, after all, a crime and should be treated as such. And yet, that is just not the case for sexual assault survivors. The decision to report the crime is intensely personal, and is influenced by many factors.
First, consider the nature of the crime and the kind of very personal information one has to divulge to a law enforcement officer. No matter how sensitive that officer is, the subject matter is personal, humiliating, and terribly difficult to talk about.
Try this — go up to a complete stranger and tell them in graphic detail about your last sexual experience, and then subject yourself to questioning about that experience. No? Imagine, then, how difficult that is for a rape survivor.
And, sexual assault survivors who want to report the crime generally need to go to a local hospital. Their body has become the scene of the crime, and so a very lengthy and often difficult exam and evidence collection process ensues. We now have sexual assault forensic examiners who are specially trained and have great empathy for victims, and it is still a difficult process.
Add in trauma response, possible threats made during the assault, worry they won’t be believed, worry about what their family/friends will think, etc., and the decision to report becomes much more complex and personal.
Finally, it is important to note that the rate of false reports of sexual assault is no greater than false reports for any other major crime. So why do we so intensely and so publicly debate the truth of these reports?
We give the accused the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Shouldn’t we give sexual assault victims that same consideration?
Marty McIntyre is the executive director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.