Opinion

Why are women still having to explain why they didn’t report sexual assault?

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Moya Crockett
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Almost a year since #MeToo, the subject of why some women don’t immediately report sexual assault is still up for debate. Let’s put the issue to rest, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.

I was on the bus earlier this week when the young woman sitting behind me began talking into her phone. “Have you heard what happened on Saturday night?” she said. “It’s really, really bad.”

Something about the tone of her voice – quiet, quavering, serious and scared – made my back stiffen. I listened as the woman, who couldn’t have been much older than 21, recounted how her female friend had been raped by a male acquaintance over the weekend.

I waited for the young woman to answer the question I knew would come, regardless of who she was talking to. Had the friend gone to the police? “No, she doesn’t want to,” she said. “She was really drunk at the party, obviously, and she knows it was kind of stupid to get out of the taxi at his house.” She paused. “Apparently they can do tests to confirm whether or not you’ve been, you know… But she said the thought was just too horrible.”

I got off the bus without making eye contact with the woman, who was still talking in a low voice into her mobile. Her story made me feel sick and angry and desperately sad. Here, on a London bus on an unseasonably warm September evening, was a real-world, textbook example of a subject that has been widely discussed around the world in recent weeks: why women don’t report sexual assault.

Actor Padma Lakshmi has shared her story of why she didn’t report being raped 

It seems remarkable that this subject is still up for discussion; that some people still don’t get it. Yet here we are. Over the last week or so, women have been taking to social media to explain why they didn’t immediately go to police after being sexually assaulted, using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. Some of these women are famous names – such as Cara Delevingne, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino – who have also made sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

But many of the women sharing their #WhyIDidntReport stories are not famous. They are perfectly ordinary women with distressingly ordinary stories about sexual violence and its traumatising effects. 

On 25 September, the actor, TV presenter and activist Padma Lakshmi wrote a lengthy essay for The New York Times in which she explained why she stayed silent after being raped while she slept as a teenager. She had been dating her assailant, a man in his early 20s, for a few months when the rape took place.

“I don’t think I classified it as rape – or even sex – in my head,” Lakshmi wrote. “I’d always thought that when I lost my virginity, it would be a big deal – or at least a conscious decision.”

Elsewhere in the piece, Lakshmi detailed the messages she had absorbed by age 16 about what happened to girls who spoke about men’s sexually abusive behaviour. 

“When I was seven years old, my stepfather’s relative touched me between my legs and put my hand on his erect penis. Shortly after I told my mother and stepfather, they sent me to India for a year to live with my grandparents. The lesson was: if you speak up, you will be cast out.”

Actor Ashley Judd has also shared her story using the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag

Why are women sharing these stories now? As with several of the world’s problems, it can be traced back to Donald Trump. The US president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is currently facing three allegations of sexual misconduct. These include one claim made by university professor Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who says the judge sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers. (Ford testified about her experience in front of US senators on Thursday.)

Many US politicians want to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation onto the Supreme Court until these allegations can be properly investigated. But Trump has cast aspersions on the judge’s accusers, tweeting that Ford or her parents would have “immediately filed” a police report about the alleged sexual assault in the Eighties “if the attack… was as bad as she says”. He is far from the only politician to suggest that Ford and the other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, may not be being accurate or truthful.

But while this discussion might have been sparked by American politics, its relevance extends far beyond that bubble. Data released last week by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) shows that more than two-thirds (68%) of rape prosecutions brought against men aged 18-24 did not result in a conviction in the five years leading to 2017-18. (Similarly, more than 50% of rape cases involving male defendants aged 25-59 do not result in a guilty verdict.) 

Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that around five out of six victims of sexual assault in England and Wales do not report the attack to police. 

Women protest the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court 

Like #MeToo and #TimesUp, the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag is powerful. There is a degree of solidarity in seeing so many women come together to share their stories online. But it also makes me furious. It has been almost a year since #MeToo went viral, a movement we were told had fundamentally changed the nature of male-female interactions and permanently altered how society responds to allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Yet what we are seeing now is that prominent men still think it’s OK to question why women didn’t come forward sooner when they make allegations of sexual misconduct. It’s almost as if the myriad historic allegations against Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar made absolutely no impression on them at all. And, once again, sexual assault survivors are having to share their deepest, darkest traumas on Twitter in order for the world at large to ‘get it’.

I don’t want to live in a society where a viral hashtag is necessary for people to understand and respect survivors. I don’t want thousands upon thousands upon thousands of women, including multiple celebrities, to have to publicly share harrowing stories before men start to wonder whether they might have a point.

Instead, I want to live in a world where people recognise that there are endless reasons why someone might not report being sexually assaulted; where they accept that a person’s story or desire for justice is not rendered invalid because they didn’t come forward immediately. But almost a year since #MeToo exploded, that world doesn’t feel much closer than it did before.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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