The president asked and America answered.
“I waited over 20 years to report my sexual abuser,” one man wrote. “Because I was 14. Because it was my hero. Because it was my priest. Because I thought I’d be expelled. Because I feared no one would believe me. Because I thought suicide was easier than telling 1 person #WhyIDidntReport.”
“I was 16 when it first happened. Then again when I was 17. I couldn’t break anyone’s heart, so I’m keeping quiet till today although it breaks mine so hard every day,” a woman wrote. “#WhyIDidntReport because he is family.”
“I was 20, and I reached out to a woman I thought would be supportive for advice,” another wrote. “She asked me if I had been drinking when it happened. When I said yes, her response was, ‘Well, you have only yourself to blame.’ #WhyIDidntReport.”
They were too scared, hurt and humiliated to tell anyone what happened. They thought no one would believe them. They thought they’d be blamed. They thought no one would care.
They saw what happens to people who speak out.
A long time ago, a 15-year-old girl went to a high school party. There, she says an older boy — a boy who grew up to be a U.S. Supreme Court nominee — pinned her down on a bed and tried to rip off her clothes while his buddy watched.
The least surprising part of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story is the decades of silence between the attack and the allegation.
“Yes, this is happening. Yes, [in] every high school. Yes, [in] every town in Minnesota, this is happening,” said Kristen Houlton Shaw, executive director of the Sexual Violence Center, which offers crisis support to survivors of sexual assault in Hennepin, Carver and Scott counties.
Only the smallest fraction of the people who call their crisis line — that number is 612-871-5111 — or hold on to an advocate’s hands, crying through the rape exam, ever go on to report what happened to them.
“Our culture silences victims and holds perpetrators consequence-free,” Houlton Shaw said. The perpetrators can sail on with their lives and careers. That’s not who I am, they can tell themselves.
“One person left that experience and … it was like a blip on their experience,” she added. “But the victim? It knocked them off their orbit. Their life moved in a different direction than it would have otherwise.”
Reporting rape or assault or sexual harassment doesn’t guarantee justice. Dozens of women had to speak out against Bill Cosby before he was convicted of sexual assault. Of the 1,000 reported sexual assault cases the Star Tribune studied this summer, the vast majority never reached a prosecutor and barely one in every 10 ended with a conviction.
Sarah Super had her day in court, and her assailant — an ex-boyfriend who broke into her St. Paul home and raped her at knife point — was convicted. But she understands that she’s the rare exception.
“Survivors face nearly insurmountable hurdles in their attempt to be supported by the community and to find justice in the system,” she said in an e-mail. “The community invalidates, blames and shames us for the violence we were forced to endure. The criminal justice system has proven to be untrustworthy to many and a source of injustice that compounds the trauma. And psychological trauma itself changes the way we think and behave during and after these experiences. Survivors are well aware that the cards are stacked against us at all levels.”
Super knows many other survivors who didn’t report what happened to them. Some of them are sharing their stories now.
“Why I didn’t report: I was 5,” one woman wrote me. “I didn’t think people did that to people. We were only playing a game. Then I repressed the memories for 19.5 years and the statute of limitations [was] up.”
When someone shares a story like that, “That’s a gift,” Houlton Shaw said. Please don’t abuse that trust by second-guessing, or asking whether they were drinking, or what they were wearing. Don’t try to pressure them to report to the police if they’re not ready or willing to do so. That’s a choice only the survivor can make.
“The choice to report versus not to report is not an easy choice. The important thing is that it is the survivor’s choice,” Super said. “Because in the experience of sexual violence, there is no choice but to endure. We can help survivors heal by offering them choices, allowing them to choose what feels right for them, and respecting however they choose to heal.”
Here’s what you do if someone tells you that they were assaulted last night or three decades ago. Tell them you believe them. Tell them you’re so sorry. Tell them that what happened was the attacker’s fault, not theirs.
Christine Blasey Ford can’t hear you when you say you don’t believe her.
But there are other 15-year-old girls out there right now. And they’re listening to every word you say.