Since the #MeToo movement took hold in the mainstream in late 2017, more people than ever have been bravely—and publicly—sharing their past experiences of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. Their stories have played a major role in bringing such crimes and transgressions out of the shadows, highlighting a particular insidiousness within our society. But they’ve also uncovered another ugly truth: the fact that, in many cases, victims are met with skepticism or flat-out disbelief when they come forward.
The most obvious example of this involves Christine Blasey Ford, who spoke out last fall about a long-ago sexual assault she says she experienced at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, who’s now a Supreme Court Justice. A poll taken after her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee showed that 48 percent of Americans believed her (while 49 percent of Americans believed Kavanaugh was “the target of a politically motivated smear campaign). Then, of course, there’s R. Kelly, who has been accused of sexual abuse and assault against women and underage girls since the mid-’90s. (He continues to deny all accusations.) Although he may be about to face a grand jury in response to another flood of claims, many of his fans still attest that his accusers must be lying.
The thing is, falsified sexual violence reports are rare. A 2010 meta-analysis found that only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false. (That number would likely be even lower if it took into account the estimated 63 percent of rapes that go totally unreported.)
It’s also important to point out that even if a sexual assault case is dropped or deemed “unfounded,” that doesn’t mean that the assault in question didn’t happen. “It has more to do with the amount of evidence that’s available at the time the [victim] makes a report—or, unfortunately, the responsiveness of police and prosecutors that they made a report to,” says Laura Palumbo, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. In many cases, she adds, victims wait to come forward about sexual violence due to direct trauma from the incident, feelings of shame and self-blame, or a fear of how others will react. This makes it harder to prosecute an assailant. “Ultimately, if and when the survivor chooses to disclose their experience, there is little to no hard evidence available to law enforcement, making it easy for the defendant to claim the assault did not happen,” says Andrea López-Yianilos, PsyD, licensed psychologist and member of the Alma mental health co-practice community.
Falsified sexual assault reports are extremely rare. A 2010 meta-analysis found that only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false.
Yet the idea that most people deliberately lie about their experiences persists. Consider this disturbing exchange captured in Esquire magazine’s February cover story, “The Life of an American Boy at 17.” After the story’s subject, Wisconsin teen Ryan Morgan, was allegedly “smacked” and “clawed” by a female classmate in retaliation for opening and closing a door during class—and “smacking” her back—his mother urged him to take pictures of his injuries. “‘That girl could go home,’ Ryan recalls his mom saying, ‘slit the whole side of her cheek with a knife, and come to school Monday and say, Hey, look what he did to me,'” the story’s author writes; “‘I guess girls sometimes just do that,’ [Ryan] says. ‘It happened once when my mom was in high school. A girl purposely broke her own arm just to get another person in trouble.’”
Experts say publishing these kinds of unsubstantiated statements can be incredibly damaging to victims of all kinds of assault, sexual assault included. If a victim doesn’t think anyone will believe them—and sees that fear play out over and over in the news and on TV—they’re less likely to come forward and seek justice or medical help. “It’s similar to the fear-mongering about casting fake ballots [in elections],” says Zuleyma Rivera, LCSW, a mental health social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. “It’s a tactic of suppression used to rob people of their voice.” Unless something changes, rape culture will persist, she says. “Sexual assault relies on the silence of its victims to continue to happen.”
There are many complex reasons why people don’t believe sexual assault victims
Thanks to #MeToo and the mental health realness movement, we’ve made some progress toward destigmatizing sexual assault. But that doesn’t mean that the stigma has vanished—it’s actually still rampant, says Dr. López-Yianilos. “The general public has been conditioned to view sexual assault survivors through a certain lens—they’re weak, broken, asking for it. How could a husband, a partner, a boyfriend rape them?” she says.
The situation’s especially dismal for women of color. According to the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence: “[Sexism and racism] may make it difficult for women of color to access support services or receive fair treatment within the criminal justice system.” For example, an illegal immigrant might not report a crime to the police for fear of law enforcement, or people might not want to seemingly “betray” a member of their community by accusing them of sexual assault. And women of color—black women in particular—are often less likely to be believed or taken seriously. This was driven home by Chance the Rapper during an interview for Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly documentary series. (He had collaborated with R.Kelly on a song in 2015.) “Maybe I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women,” he said. Later, on Twitter, he added: “We are all capable of subconsciously discrediting black women and their stories because it’s indoctrinated.”
Another barrier to people believing victims: Many people simply don’t want to believe that someone they look up to (or someone they love) is capable of doing such horrible things. “If we really accept the prevalence of sexual assault, it also means coming to terms with the fact that the individuals committing assault aren’t just bad guys in dark alleys—they’re neighbors, friends, family members, loved ones,” says Palumbo. “It’s a challenge for people to understand that there is someone you can love trust and admire who is also capable of violating another person in a way that’s very harmful.” This is especially true in places with an uneven power dynamic, like the workplace, says Dr. López-Yianilos. “The assailant holds power—often perceived as credible power due to their position—which makes it challenging for others to ‘believe’ the survivor,” she says.
Ironically, Rivera says sometimes past experience with sexual assault can make a person react with skepticism when they hear another person’s story. In some cases, that person may not have come to terms with their own victimhood—or, perhaps, they’ve even been a perpetrator of sexual misconduct in the past. “A common psychological defense mechanism used by our minds to protect us from overwhelming emotions is denial,” she says. “And what does denial look like? It’s an ‘I don’t believe you,’ ‘Why are you lying to me?’ ‘Why are you making this up?'”
Failing to believe victims has dire consequences for their health
When a sexual violence victim’s story is dismissed by someone they trust—whether it’s a friend, a family member, or the authorities—the implications are incredibly damaging. “It can lead the person to think that they’re deceiving themselves, that they were to blame, or that they should have prevented it,” says Rivera. As such, says Dr. López-Yianilos, they may not seek physical or mental health treatment for their trauma. “The thought may be that ‘those medical or mental health providers won’t believe me either,'” she notes.
This can lead survivors to suffer with chronic conditions for years, significantly impacting their quality of life. Of course, there are mental health implications—for instance, suicidal and depressive thoughts are likely to increase after one experiences sexual violence—but that’s not all. “Trauma not only manifests mentally and emotionally—depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, isolation—but also physically,” says Dr. López-Yianilos. “Often individuals who have experienced sexual trauma develop other conditions, such as chronic pain.” The stress of withholding a traumatic incident can also cause a damaging hormonal response with wide-ranging ramifications, adds Rivera. “Stress hormones can be useful in the short term, but the prolonged release of cortisol negatively impacts your immune system and heart and cholesterol health,” she says. “Everything in our bodies is connected.”
What to do if you (or someone you know) have been accused of faking a sexual assault allegation
If you ever end up in this situation, all of the experts I consulted had the same advice: Reach out to a professional, because they will believe you. A good place to start is by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or visiting rainn.org to chat online with a support specialist. “It does not matter how long ago the assault happened, keeping this daunting secret is exhausting and damaging,” says Dr. López-Yianilos. “There are professionals that can assist you in coming forward to the authorities, if that is what you wish to do, or provide support and treatment for injuries resulting from the sexual assault.”
Rivera also recommends finding a support group for sexual violence survivors. “Support groups are very beneficial because they help you feel connected, know that you’re not alone, and understand that this is common,” she says.
Even if you’ve never been personally impacted by sexual violence, it’s still worth educating yourself so you can be an ally for those who have. “A vital step in turning the tide is actually taking the time to understand this issue— to understand how serious it is and how deeply it impacts those who have been affected by it,” says Palumbo. “Whether someone is disclosing to you directly or they’re just hearing you make a dismissive comment in passing, it’s impacting whether or not they see you as someone who’s safe to come forward to and whether or not they would be believed coming forth.”
Given that one in six women (and one in 33 men) have experienced a rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes—not to mention the thousands upon thousands of others who’ve experienced other forms of sexual assault or harassment—your words and beliefs carry a lot more weight than you may realize.
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