- Survivors of sexual assault face many barriers that make reporting abuse or speaking publicly about it much more difficult than keeping quiet.
- The psychological response to trauma is to bury painful memories, but retrieving them is required if a victim turns to the legal system.
- Allegations of sexual assault may be met with hostility from family, friends, and the public.
- When the perpetrator holds a position of power, the cards are stacked even higher against the victim.
- Speaking up doesn't guarantee justice for victims — and often, an expert said, it "makes your life so much worse."
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Less than a month after a top Navy officer raped her, Kimberly filed a police report. For six months, nothing moved forward, despite her twice-monthly calls to the department, she said.
Her case was moved to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Judge Advocate General's Corps, but the first special agent who took the case never interviewed her or the officer, and the JAG prosecutor didn't listen to a recording in which she and man argued about the incident, she said.
She provided time-stamped pictures of her black eye and bloody lip from the day of the alleged assault too.
Insider has seen the police report, listened to the recording, viewed the photos, and asked the officer and the prosecutor for comment; neither responded.
That was two years ago, and Kimberly, who asked to keep her last name concealed to protect her safety, is still waiting for justice — or even just to be listened to. She stopped working for a period, temporarily became homeless because she was too distressed to do her job, and lost friends who sided with the sailor.
She's heard the man's career has advanced.
"It's been a nightmare, and I don't wish it on anyone," she said.
Kimberly waited only a few weeks to file her report; she said the delay was because she was "very scared and in denial." Many sexual-assault victims wait years — if they don't stay silent forever — and Kimberly's story illustrates why.
Societal scripts teach girls to please others, imbalanced power dynamics pressure victims to keep quiet, and psychological forces cloud memories in favor of survival. With a legal system that protects the accused, it's a wonder any come forward at all.
Those like Kimberly who do speak up can be bullied, go broke, and lose friends and community trust.
"We want to get this out there. It's important," Laura McGuire, a sexual-health educator in Florida, told Insider. "But then it makes your life so much worse."
The body and brain protect you from remembering, and retrieving the memories can be retraumatizing
Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who in 2018 accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her in the early 1980s, is a very public example of someone who was criticized over the inconsistencies in her account, including exactly when and where the alleged attack occurred and how many people witnessed it.
But when you experience a traumatic event like sexual assault, your body releases stress hormones that prepare you to fight or flee, muting the parts of your brain responsible for the kind of rational decision-making that you normally have access to.
"Being able to have the foresight and the stamina and the outward expression of rage at what just happened is frequently cut off by that adrenaline response and by the powerlessness and by the mind's inability to grasp 'wait, what just happened?'" Janice Stevenson, a licensed psychologist, told Insider. "And nowhere in there is 'I need to get the police. I need to get some help.'"
In the days and weeks afterward, victims aren't necessarily in a better cognitive spot to report an assault, since their brains tuck it away in order to function. Some research suggests a fuzzy memory helps protect victims from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It does anything it can to kind of compartmentalize or minimize or erase what happened, because from this survival perspective that's going to be the easiest way to move forward," McGuire said, "to get up and brush your teeth and eat breakfast instead of being paralyzed by that trauma and by those memories."
That can make it easier to justify the attack — the victim could think, for example, that "it wasn't that bad, it could have been worse," or that "they didn't mean it," McGuire added.
And while it may be possible to retrieve those memories accurately, some research suggests a person might have to return to the state of mind in which the memories were formed to do so. That's a lot to ask a survivor of assault.
All the while, the legal system — and often the court of public opinion — requires evidence backed by clear, consistent memories. "On top of it, you're put in another traumatic situation where the burden of proof is on the victim," McGuire said.
By speaking out, survivors risk alienation from their loved ones
When a survivor of sexual assault speaks out against a public figure, they have no choice but to enter the public sphere themselves, Keeli Sorensen, the vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told Insider.
While the support of loved ones can help a survivor through the ordeal of going public, family and friends often can contribute to feelings of alienation.
"I think there is kind of a perception that if somebody comes forward with something so serious, people would rally behind them," McGuire said. "But usually the opposite is true."
The whole topic is uncomfortable. Perhaps more uncomfortable than believing that someone you know was assaulted is believing that someone you know committed an assault.
"People know the person who's being accused as someone who they love having lunch with, who makes them laugh, who brought them flowers on their birthday," McGuire said. "Like, how could they possibly be both things?"
For Kimberly, who was friends with the man she accused of rape for 10 years, speaking out meant losing some mutual friends — mostly women, she said — who sided with him. She said she thinks the reasons range from his high status in the military to his good looks to a belief that she was taking things "too far."
"I said no, and I told him to stop, like, five times," Kimberly said. "How is that taking things too far?"
Accusing someone in power risks money, reputation, and community
The scales are stacked even more against the victim when the assault is perpetrated by a community leader. By speaking out against someone who has been entrusted with power, the survivor is asking their community to consider some tough questions that they might rather ignore or reject.
Blasey Ford and her family received threats — including death threats — that eventually forced them to move. Meanwhile, Kavanaugh's nomination sailed through.
If the perpetrator is a political figure, the survivor may face backlash that stems from deference for the office rather than the person who holds it.
"Their very office demands of them a certain level of fairness and concern for justice," Sorensen said. "It feels very risky for survivors to call that into question and to invite a lot of potential critique and attention."
Finances are stacked in powerful people's favor too, McGuire said. Criminal-defense lawyers can cost up to $700 an hour, according to LegalMatch, and retainer fees can push the overall price even higher.
"When people are in positions of power, then they have more money. And so they can say, 'Bring it on. I can fight you,'" McGuire said. "And so somebody who doesn't have those resources is going to have to potentially give up or come to some kind of compromise, which really means that justice is never served."
Kiki, who asked to use only her first name to protect her identity, was 19 years old when she went to Jeffrey Epstein's house under the pretense of giving him a massage. The encounter ended in assault, which she described in the Lifetime documentary "Surviving Jeffrey Epstein."
"I didn't know what his net worth was, but you could tell by where he lived and where the assault occurred that this man had incredible resources," Kiki told Insider. "The photos that were in his home were of him with all these dignitaries and presidents and super powerful people that I recognized even at the age of 19."
Kiki said that after hearing another woman come out with allegations about Epstein 15 years later, she felt a responsibility to help other victims that outweighed her shame and fear of retaliation. She decided to share her story with an attorney, joining the dozens of women who took legal action against Epstein.
Girls are taught at an early age that they should aim to please and that provoking men is their fault
The problem starts as early as childhood, Stevenson said. She pointed to the message that "boys will boys" as giving boys and men permission to do as they please without considering how their actions affect girls and women.
Research has found that believing in and adhering to conventional gender stereotypes, like the stereotype of men as strong and unemotional and women as gentle and caring, is linked to a higher likelihood of becoming a perpetrator of sexual assault.
Women, on the other hand, are socialized to feel inferior and objectified, Kiki said. As a child model, she got used to taking directions from adults and aiming to please, all while walking through the world feeling lesser than men, she said.
"Subconsciously, you start to have these ideas of value," she said. "Obviously, in the modeling industry, it's primarily your looks. In a way, I think your mind starts to trick you into thinking that you're sort of an object to please."
Nina Endrst, who said she's survived multiple sexual assaults throughout her life, told Insider she learned early on that victims are blamed, not believed. She has since founded The SoulUnity, a membership organization geared toward helping people heal through meditation and other holistic techniques.
Endrst said that when she was 9, she told her mom that her babysitter's son, a teenager, had touched her inappropriately, and her mom confronted the family. They called Endrst a liar, Endrst said. "That's the narrative," Endrst said. "The first thing is 'she's lying,' not 'oh my God.'"
When she was older, Endrst said, a man chased her down the street, in broad daylight, threatening to rape and kill her.
Endrst said that when she told a male authority figure, he asked, "Did you provoke him?"
"Women are put in a position, which we've seen time and time again, where it's like, 'What were you wearing? Were you drinking?'" Endrst said. "Yeah, I existed."
Some victims choose not to speak up
In addition to all the structural and societal pressures keeping sexual-assault victims quiet, many have personal reasons that they don't speak up. Those should be honored as well, McGuire said.
Speaking up "is incredibly hard, and this is incredibly traumatic, and they will probably be revictimized," they said, adding that no one should feel pressured to add their voice to the #MeToo chorus and that people should seek support from a therapist to help them think through their options.
"You can't exactly fix it, but you can make it more manageable," McGuire said, adding that it's not right or wrong to report or not report. "It's a very personal decision."
It took 20 years for Rowena Chiu, one of the many women who came forward during the Harvey Weinstein scandal, to speak about her assault — first anonymously, then publicly. Other victims should keep in mind that doing so means there will always be "a section of the community that doesn't believe you," Chiu told Sara Nasserzadeh, a social psychologist who hosts the "Little Black Fish" podcast.
"It may be a large section of the community, like in the case of Christine Blasey Ford. It may be just the occasional person, as in the case of the Weinstein victims," Chiu said. "But you will find that disbelief, because that's unfortunately where our society is today."
But Kimberly, for one, is swallowing that reality. She doesn't need everyone to believe her, but she needs to be heard. That's why, she said, after the police department and military offices didn't, she turned to the media.
Now, her case is being moved to Washington, DC, since the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was aware she had talked to reporters. "They know I'm not giving up," she said.
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