During Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process to the Supreme Court, two (and possibly more) women have come forward to talk about a sexual assault that happened many decades ago and naming Kavanaugh as the offender.

That has raised many questions about the motivation of the accusers, the truthfulness of their accounts and why they would be talking about those incidents now when they never reported them at the time of occurrence.

Why don’t sexual assault survivors report the crime?

Reporting a sexual assault is never an easy decision. When a sexual assault occurs, the victim is traumatized by that crime. It is asking a lot to make such a huge decision when the survivor is coping with the aftermath of the crime. They often need time to think about who they want to tell, what the possible reactions will be, whether they want to engage in a criminal investigation that they fear could easily turn its attention to their behavior, and whether they want to get up in court and tell the most intimate details of a horrible, very personal crime.

In Maine, sexual assault survivors can have evidence collected of the crime without their specific name being attached to that evidence. They are given a tracking number, and then have at least three months to decide if they want to move forward with a criminal complaint. This system was created in recognition that survivors may need some time to make that big decision, and to think through the consequences for them and their family.

The reasons survivors may not report are as individual as they the people themselves are. They may fear they will not be believed or will be blamed for the assault. They may not want their family or friends to know about it. They might fear that the information will be made public. They may have been threatened by the person who assaulted them and they may be afraid. Maybe they just feel like it won’t make a difference … that nothing will happen and it is not worth it. Or maybe they want to just try to forget about it and get on with their lives.

Whether or not a report is made, the impact of the assault continues for the survivor, affecting their relationships, their ability to go to school or work, their self-esteem, and their sense of safety in the world. With the passage of time, the thought of reporting the crime to the police becomes less and less of an option.

But sometimes, something happens which causes a survivor to reconsider their decision. Maybe they hear from other survivors and suddenly find the courage to speak up about their own assault. Maybe the person who assaulted them has died and they are no longer afraid. And sometimes it is because the person who assaulted them is being recognized as an upstanding member of the community, or is running for public office, or is doing something else that the survivor feels is highly inappropriate, given their past behavior.

And so, the survivor speaks up because they feel it is important or should be considered before honors are awarded, or decisions are made. For Christine Blasey-Ford, Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court caused her to speak up about an alleged assault that occurred decades ago. She believes it speaks to Kavanaugh’s character and should be considered before decisions are made, even though it requires her to testify publicly and be cross-examined if she is even going to be taken seriously.

And sometimes, when one person who has been hurt by another gets the courage to speak up, then others who were hurt by that same person decide that they, too, must tell their story. Maybe they feel if the original accuser can speak up, then they can find similar courage. Or, maybe they know that the chances of the original accuser being believed will be increased when others say “me too.” Or maybe they also feel it is imperative that all of the information is out on the table before important decisions are made.

The choice to report a sexual assault is an enormous one. But whenever the survivor decides to speak up, shouldn’t we at least listen?

Marty McIntyre is executive director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

Marty McIntyre

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