Linda Lewis Griffith

Guilt, doubt, fear: Why women don’t report sexual assault

Sexual assault has been in the headlines in past weeks, due in large part to the high-profile cases of Bill Cosby and Brett Kavanaugh. In both situations, women failed to report the alleged attacks for decades before finally coming forward.

This fact raises some eyebrows about the veracity and motives of the accusers. But non-reporting is actually the norm when it comes to sexual assault.

According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network statistics, only one in three sexual assaults is ever reported to the police. College students report a mere 20 percent of their sexual assaults — elderly victims, 28 percent.

A survivor’s relationship to the offender plays a key role in the likelihood of reporting.

Research from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that if the perpetrator is or once was the survivor’s intimate partner, the victim will report the crime 25 percent of the time. When the offender is a friend or an acquaintance, 18 to 40 percent of the assaults are reported.

If the offender is a stranger, victims report assaults roughly half of the time.

Why don’t victims bring charges against their accusers?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, here are some reasons sexual assault survivors don’t come forward:

• Victims fear retaliation.

• They believe the police won’t do anything to help them.

• They feel the assault was a personal matter.

• They believe it was not important enough to report.

• They don’t want the offender to get in trouble.

• They don’t want their families to know.

• They don’t want others to know.

• They don’t have enough proof.

• They’re unsure of the perpetrator’s intent.

In addition, victims may feel responsible for what happened to them, or embarrassed about their lack of knowledge or judgment. They might feel guilty that they’d had too much to drink or were engaging in a risky, inappropriate behavior.

And young victims living at home might worry that their parents will be angry and unsupportive.

Unfortunately, keeping sexual assault a secret interferes with the survivors’ healing. By sharing the trauma with supportive professionals, friends or family members, they can begin to reclaim their lives and bodies and eventually move past the pain.

Wondering what to say?

The Rape, Assault & Incest National Network suggests using these specific phrases when talking with someone who discloses she or he was sexually assaulted.

“I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” Victims may feel ashamed and worried they’ll be discounted. The best thing you can do is listen and believe them.

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind them that they are not to blame.

“You are not alone. I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Provide a safe space for the telling of their stories. Assess if there are others in their life who can also be supportive.

“I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has been traumatic and has negatively impacted their lives. Statements such as “This must be really tough for you” and “I’m so glad you’re sharing it with me” encourage further communication and let them know you care.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a retired marriage, family and child therapist who lives in San Luis Obispo. Reach her at
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