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Don’t doubt it: it can take decades for men and women to come forward about sexual assault

People who have been sexually assaulted hesitate to report it. Instead of using that fact to attack their credibility, we need to understand why.

Warning: This story contains details of a violent sexual assault. The individual involved has given permission to the writer to tell this story.

At the age of 14, a member of my family was a victim of sexual assault. She was living in Vietnam at the time and never felt completely safe there. She was a young and innocent girl who loved to dance. She would always walk home from dance class feeling proud and happy. It was the one place she felt safe. That was until one day when she chose to take a shortcut that involved going through an alley for the first time. She was apprehensive at first but decided to walk through. As she strolled down, she noticed a man wandering back and forth around the back of his house who looked like he was in his thirties. She started to quicken her pace but as soon as she darted past this stranger, he grabbed her, covered her mouth, and put a gun to the side of her head. She was terrified. As much as she wanted to fight back, she couldn’t. The man forced her into his house and raped her.

She didn’t tell anyone then, not even her sister, who she was best friends with. She felt sorry and felt that she had disappointed herself for the foolish decision she made, to go through an unknown alley. She put the blame on herself. She would not go to school or dance which made her feel upset. The fear that everyone would feel differently about her was one of many reasons why she did not try to seek help.

At that time, she was working at a restaurant with the nicest employees. This was an important part of her life because her family didn’t have a lot of money and this was the only way for her to support them. She was afraid she would lose her job and not be able to find a new one.

Keeping everything inside and isolating herself from her loved ones dragged her into depression. Her personality changed. Where she had once been an outgoing girl, she now shunned herself from her friends and family. The fear of being violated again tormented her. She thought no one would believe her.

It wasn’t until 22 years later that she finally told her parents and siblings what had happened. They reacted with love and support. It made her feel safe and comforted. Now with some distance from what she felt at the time, she regrets waiting so long and wishes she could have spoken out sooner, and perhaps healed sooner instead of suffering alone for many years.

When I learned about it, I was in shock. I felt sorry for the experience she went through and the way it affected her emotionally. I never would have expected such a terrible thing. I have so much empathy for her, knowing she went through such a harsh time. I also feel proud of how strong she was throughout it all. She survived.

A staggeringly large amount of people have experienced sexual assault or harassment. On average, there are 460,000 victims per year in Canada and only 3.3% of these people have come forward. Everybody thinks that they are able to protect themselves and have control over what happens to their body. Feeling helpless and powerless in a situation where their body is being violated can lead to the victim feeling humiliation and wanting to hide what happened to them. Most people do not report their experience of sexual assault or harassment because they feel ashamed. If we educate people about the reasons why people take long to come forward, we can learn to be empathetic towards the victims.

Women and men tend to blame themselves for the unforgivable behaviour done by their abuser because they feel inferior to them. Additionally, society sometimes creates an image that it is the victim’s fault based on how they present themselves. Comments such as “she is definitely asking for it because she is wearing that outfit” affect the victim’s choice to report what had happened to them. Many of the victims try to deny the fact that it was actually abusive. They would rather convince themselves that it was not a big deal, try to forget it, and move on.

Sexual assault or harassment is a real problem and it can happen to anyone. It is important that we understand why people often do not report it for many years, and not use that fact as a mark against the credibility of the victims. In the past, women and men would have to just deal with the fact that they have been sexually assaulted as if it was their own problem. One may not want to relive the experience by talking about it and would prefer to put it in the past. Over time, however, they may come to a point in their life that it is safe and right to do so. My own family member has been through a lot for so long, and wouldn’t want any men or women going through the same thing she did. With help from others, we can learn to advocate for victims and ourselves because no one should feel obligated to feel shame and alone in it.

By understanding the deep effects of sexual assault, and by believing people when they come forward about it–even after many years–we can make a difference for everyone.

Cover image: Pexels/Kat Jayne

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