Why A Woman Might Not Report Sexual Assault: A Psychotherapist Survivor's Story By Sarah R. Souri, MSW, LCSW
There are many reasons a sexual assault victim might not report her assault, but I think all of them have a common thread: FEAR. A survivor might be afraid of being blamed, shamed, or stigmatized, or she thinks nobody will believe her. She may fear that talking about it out loud to anybody will be a painful reminder of the traumatic event, so maybe it would be easier to pretend it never happened. Perhaps she is frightened by the thought of repercussions, depending on who her assaulter was. A woman’s ultimate fear may be that the consequences of reporting the sexual assault will be worse than the consequences of not reporting it.
I understand these fears all too well. I am a survivor of a sexual assault incident that happened almost 30 years ago, when I was a senior in college. I have told only three people in my life about it, until now.
What started out as a fun night with friends quickly turned into a nightmare for me. My assaulter had me pinned down in his room, and I couldn’t get away. He made his plan clear to me, and he was much bigger than I was. I froze. My mind was racing with possible ways to escape, but I couldn’t think of anything that might actually work, given the circumstances. I’m not sure exactly how much time passed, but suddenly my assaulter’s roommate came back to their apartment and burst into the room. He said he was looking for something. The interruption threw my assaulter off just long enough for me to get out of his grip, and I ran. I ran down the hall, out of the apartment building, and back to my own apartment. As I was running, this is what I told myself: “Nothing really happened. He didn’t actually rape you. It could have been a lot worse.”
And...”DON’T TELL ANYONE.”
I still remember the relief flooding over me as I turned the key to get into my college apartment. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I slammed my front door shut behind me and locked it with the deadbolt. Finally, I was back in the comfort of my own place. I was fine.
The only problem was that I wasn’t fine. I slept fitfully that night and had disturbing dreams. I woke up the next morning in a cold sweat with flashbacks of being trapped in a room with my assaulter. I couldn’t bear to look at the clothes I had been wearing the night before, so I rolled them up into a ball and hid them in the back of my closet. Later, I threw them into the dumpster in the parking lot of my apartment complex.
As the days progressed, I tried to go about my usual business of attending college and social activities, but something was wrong. Generally a diligent student, I started skipping classes. I didn’t want to see friends or anyone else. I was afraid to leave my apartment, especially at night. I got behind on homework and projects. I feared I was going to fail all my courses that semester.
In a moment of desperation, I anonymously called the local Rape Crisis Hotline. I was hoping they would say what happened to me was not really a big deal compared to an actual rape. I was hoping they would tell me to calm down and advise me to get back to my regular routine. I wanted them to say I was just being dramatic, but this is what the counselor at the Rape Crisis Hotline told me:
“I know you weren’t raped, but you were sexually assaulted. All the feelings and behaviors you are describing are typical of victims of sexual assault and rape. You have been traumatized, and you need to get help. I’m so glad you contacted us. It’s good you are reaching out for assistance.” She then referred me to the campus counseling center, which I called immediately after I hung up with her.
At the counseling center (my first encounter with psychotherapy), I was assigned to a therapist who understood my situation. I chose not to report the incident to campus police, but I started seeing my new therapist on a weekly basis. In bits and pieces, I told her about my experience and how it had affected me. She listened patiently and without judgment. She explained the effects of trauma and sexual assault to me. As we talked about the issues that stemmed from my sexual assault, I began to feel better. I resumed attending my classes and started getting together with friends again. Session by session, my therapist helped me work through the trauma of my assault. She was a safe person with whom I felt comfortable sharing my story. Under her guidance, I continued my journey toward healing.
Later that year, I graduated from college with a journalism degree and got a job as a newspaper reporter. But the experience of being sexually assaulted and finding a helpful, supportive therapist had affected me in a profound way. It laid the foundation for me to eventually attend graduate school and become a psychotherapist myself.
I have now been a therapist for more than 22 years, and I have my own private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. Most of my clients initially come to me with issues completely unrelated to sexual assault or rape; they are struggling with depression, anxiety, the loss of a loved one, or work or marital problems. But, sometimes, after several months of therapy, a woman will reveal to me that she was sexually abused, assaulted, or raped at some point in her life. Often, I am the first person she has ever told. I might the only person she will ever tell. But once she says it out loud to me and to herself, she can begin the process of recovery, just as I did the day I called the Rape Crisis Center back in college.
If a woman chooses not to report her sexual assault, I understand why.
I also understand how important it can be to start talking about it, even if it happened almost 30 years ago.
If you liked this story, please feel free to share it on Facebook, Linked In or Twitter. If you have experienced any type of sexual assault and need to talk to someone, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
The other day, I received a letter in the mail by error. It was an invitation to join AARP! However, as I opened and read the letter, I found out there was no mistake. The letter was meant for me. I am turning fifty years old tomorrow, which is the minimum age to join AARP. I know many people lament turning fifty, but I’m looking forward to celebrating this milestone in my life. I have lots of fun things planned for my Fifty and Fab birthday weekend, including a disco party with friends and family tonight, then a special birthday brunch with my husband and kids, and a game night later in the weekend with my family and my sister’s family, complete with my husband’s homemade, deep dish, Chicago style pizza!
However, while I am choosing to celebrate this weekend and to be grateful for turning 50, I am also sad, because I can’t help but think of my mom’s life and her death. She had a chronic illness which incapacitated her for many years, and she eventually died at the age of 50, a few days after my wedding. I cannot imagine suffering in pain while trying to smile for the camera at my fiftieth birthday party, but that’s what my mom had to do. I cannot imagine being so nauseous from pain meds at my daughter’s wedding that I was vomiting into an empty coffee cup at the reception, but that’s what my mom had to do. I cannot imagine never seeing or knowing my grandchildren, but that’s what my mom had to do. I cannot imagine dying a few weeks after I turn fifty, but that’s what my mom had to do.
I know that none of us knows what the future holds and that all our days are numbered. I have found that one “benefit” of being raised by a chronically ill mother is that my siblings and I were, and still are, much more aware of the fragility of life and good health than most of our friends ever were. In some ways, we were forced to grow up more quickly than other kids because of the daily reality in which we lived. That reality also helped us forge an unbreakable bond with each other, and with our father. I can see now that it has served us well, as we are now all high functioning, successful adults who have a strong faith in God and know how to reach out for help when we need it. And we are blessed to have the unwavering support of our amazing dad and our stepmom, who has graciously been a mother/grandmother to us and our kids in the absence of my mom.
As a psychotherapist, I am constantly looking for new, positive ways to reframe difficult life circumstances, including those in my clients’ lives and my own. But I also believe it's cathartic and healthy to let oneself feel and experience difficult emotions. So when I woke up feeling sad today about my mom, first I let myself grieve and shed tears for the life that my mom had and also for the life that she didn’t get to have. Then I thought of what my mom would do in this situation, and here’s what I decided:
This weekend and this year, I will celebrate turning fifty and fabulous for me AND for my mom. I will honor the life she gave me, the family and legacy she created, and the physical and emotional strength she showed through all her years of physical pain and suffering. As I turn fifty years old tomorrow, I will thank God for continuing to give me life and good health, as I realize it is a blessing to grow older and experience all that life has to offer. And it is not something I will ever take for granted.
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I still remember the day well, perhaps too well. My husband and I had just arrived at my grad school apartment, returning to Pittsburgh from our honeymoon in Toronto and Niagara Falls. It was 1994, so cell phones weren’t popular yet. The first clue that something was wrong was that there were 14 voice mail messages on my answering machine, all from family members and close friends. Why were so many people calling me when they knew I was out of town for a week? And everyone sounded really stressed out, but nobody said why. Each message said the same thing: “Please call me as soon as you get back from your honeymoon.”
My mom had been ill with a chronic illness for 16 years and had been suffering and in severe pain for much of that time. However, she was alive and happy to attend our wedding just the week before. Because she had been in and out of hospitals for so many years, it was not unusual that she once again had been admitted to the hospital a couple of days after my wedding (and after we had left for our honeymoon). My mother being in the hospital had become, sadly, our family’s “normal.” I had called her a couple of times from our honeymoon, on a calling card. During the last conversation I had with her, she said, “When you get back from your honeymoon, will you come home to Ohio and see me?” Of course I said yes.
What neither of us realized at the time is that I would be coming home to Ohio for her funeral.
The next few days were an absolute blur. I still don’t recall much of that horrible time, other than at some point during the funeral I stood up and told a funny story about my mom eating mangos, and everybody chuckled. My mom would have liked that. She loved to share a good story, and she thoroughly enjoyed telling jokes and making people laugh. She loved life, even though living it often became emotionally and physically difficult for her, due to her illness.
I am a Christian and believe that my mom is in heaven, and finally out of pain. However, that belief did not stop me from feeling MY pain of losing my mom when she had just turned 50 years old. People didn’t know how to respond to the situation, so they said things like “Well I’m sure your mom was glad to be at your wedding!” and “At least you have Ron (my husband) now!” Those statements were true, but they weren’t necessarily helpful to hear. And they certainly didn’t even begin to diminish the trauma of the intense loss I was experiencing.
I found comfort in my faith, and for several months I saw a Christian counselor, who helped me acknowledge and begin to accept my mother’s death. I also joined a grief support group after my mom died. It was nice to meet others who had lost a loved one, but everyone’s stories were so different from mine. I found it hard to relate to the middle-aged man who had recently become a widower or the high school girl who was grieving the death of her grandfather. Yes, we all had experienced losses; however, what I really needed was to be around other women who had lost their mothers.
A few months after my mom’s death, I was browsing at a bookstore and found the book, “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman, which had just come out that same year. It was a book specifically about my loss, so I bought it and read it cover to cover with hardly a break. Finally, someone understood what I was going through. I had just become a therapist a few weeks before my mom died, but after reading that book I knew that, someday, I would facilitate the type of group I wished I could have joined back then…a Motherless Daughters support group.
And that brings me to this point in my life. I have been married to the same great guy, Ron, for more than 20 years. We have two awesome teenagers. I have worked in many different areas of mental health and therapy during that time, often working part time jobs around my kids’ schedules. I now have my own private practice as a psychotherapist. My main specialty, near and dear to my heart, is working with Motherless Daughters. I see my clients for individual therapy, and I also run a Motherless Daughters support group in Pittsburgh, PA. I am beyond honored and blessed to be able to give these amazing women what I wished I had 20 plus years ago: an emotionally safe place to meet with, connect with, and learn from other Motherless Daughters.
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Sarah Rashmee Souri, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She has undergraduate degree (BA) in journalism. Sarah has been a therapist for more than 20 years and has also been a Motherless Daughter for 20 plus years. She provides individual therapy and runs a Motherless Daughters support group in her private practice office in Wexford, PA. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org