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.
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