April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the US, so it’s an important time to share stories from sexual abuse survivors and learn more about how to prevent sexual assault. Sexual abuse is often unreported, so in this post, I will be sharing some reasons why sexual assault survivors don’t report abuse.
Table of Contents
Sexual assault is far more common than most people recognize. Recent statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show that 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime.
Children are particularly at risk for sexual assault or harassment, and there are many reasons for this. In the US, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. 3 out of 4 adolescents who experienced sexual assault were abused by someone they knew well (2003 Institute of Justice report).
Sharing my experience
As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I’ve been sharing parts of my story in video format in the hope that it will encourage survivors to get the help and support they need. I also hope that by sharing my story, others will be motivated to take action to prevent childhood sexual abuse.
Disclaimer: the information in this post is not meant as medical, professional, or legal advice. I am not a therapist, doctor, or professional. I am simply sharing my experiences and opinions.
Full Video Transcript
NOTE: I have made minor edits to this transcript to clarify some points and make it more readable. Any additional information appears between [square brackets in italics].
Why didn’t you report the abuse when it was happening? Survivors get this question a lot when they start to tell their story. I’d love to answer a few of those questions with some information from my own story.
@dinkumtribe Sometimes abuse is easily seen, but most often it is hidden, and not obvious. #childhoodabusesurvivors #childhoodabusesurvivors💜 #survivorsoftiktok #childabuseisneverok #copingwithmytrauma #cptsdwarriors #cptsdawareness💕 #childhoodtraumasurvivor #survivorofchildabuse #survivorofchildhoodtrauma ♬ I'm Still Standing – Remastered – Elton John
I experienced sexual abuse from the age of about 12 or 13 well into about 16 or 17. And I never told anyone about it while it was happening. So I want to talk about some of the reasons that I had for not doing that.
Someone I knew well
The first and biggest reason is that the person who was abusing me was someone who I cared about and someone that my family trusted. He was not a family member but it was someone who was treated as a family member.
I was very concerned that this person would be thrown out of the house, would be punished, would get in trouble.
Reasons why sexual assault survivors don’t report abuse: impact on my siblings
The second reason was because of my siblings. My siblings also loved the person who was abusing me. Cared about this person, respected this person, looked up to this person.
I knew that if I reported their abuse—if I reported the abuse this person was doing, that it would be a great source of grief and pain to my brothers and my sister.
I know that sounds unreasonable, given what I was suffering, but that’s not unusual for survivors to be thinking of everyone except themselves. And some of this the abuser caters to and the abuser encourages them to think of everyone except themselves.
Impact on my parents
The third reason is that I did not have any safe way to do that. There were a lot of extenuating circumstances. And even though as a teen, I probably wasn’t consciously aware of all the ways that reporting the sexual abuse would impact my life and life my family, I think at a deep instinctive level I recognized that there was no way I could do that and still be safe.
My parents were on the mission field, and they were responsible for taking care of a ministry there. So if I reported the abuse it was going to impact the ministry. It would impact my parents’ ministry, which was also their employment.
So it wasn’t a simple thing to go report it.
Ignorant of manipulation tactics
The fourth reason I did not report the abuse as it was happening to me: my abuser said he was sorry and seemed remorseful. And being ignorant of how abusive situations work and how abusers are, I believed him. I took him at face value.
And I really truly believed that he couldn’t help himself, and that he really was sorry for what he was doing.
As an adult now, I look back and recognize that’s ridiculous! There was an eight-year difference between us. He was an adult (20-plus), I was a teen of 12 or 13. Not a good excuse!
However as a teen I did not know better.
Reasons why sexual assault survivors don’t report abuse: blaming myself
Another reason I did not report the sexual abuse that was happening to me while it was happening was because I blamed myself for bringing it on myself.
As a young teen I had just started to develop physically into a young woman. I thought that somehow, either the way I dressed, or the way I acted—somehow it was my fault that this older man was paying attention to me in that way and was taking advantage of me in that way.
[NOTE: many children and teens are explicitly taught that the way they dress or something that they did is the reason they experience sexual assault. It is common teaching especially in high control religious groups (example linked below).
It is also CATEGORICALLY untrue – abusive people CHOOSE to be abusive, regardless of the victim’s choices.]
And I blamed myself for that. I blamed myself for the fact that my body responded. That I didn’t kick, and scream, and fight him off.
And now as an adult, looking back, and understanding trauma, and how it works in the brain, I recognized that that was because I froze. My brain went into a freeze response to protect myself.
But I didn’t know all of that then, and so I blamed myself for a lot of years.
Will someone believe me?
Another reason I did not report the abuse as it was happening, related to some of the other reasons, is that I wasn’t sure I would be believed. And if I was believed I wasn’t sure I would be protected.
I wasn’t certain that I would not be blamed for what had happened, because in my brain I hadn’t kicked, screamed, fought him off. And I didn’t do that because I cared about him, and I was so confused about what was happening.
But now as an adult looking back I also recognize that that was a natural adrenaline response. You know, we’re familiar with the “fight or flight”, but we don’t always remember that there’s another response. Just to freeze or fold. Where your brain goes into shutdown mode.
And now it’s an adult I’m aware of that, and I realize that’s what was happening.
But I didn’t report what was going on because I did not have assurance that I would not be blamed by the adults in my life.
Previous experience and cultural differences
I had already experienced being blamed by the adults around me for things that were innocent in my mind. But because they looked sexualized to someone looking out… looking at me from the outside I was in trouble for them.
An example of that: in the culture I was living in (the Caribbean), in the area that I was in, a guy and a girl didn’t walk on the same side of the road in the same direction together like that unless they were sleeping together. If you walked down the road with somebody as a companion—just as a walking companion—you were suspected to be sleeping together.
I did not know this. I was a young teen—11, 12, 13. Didn’t grow up in this culture before that we moved there when I was 10. So I did not know this.
However I got in trouble for it because that was how it would be viewed and I was told never to do that again.
Reasons why sexual assault survivors don’t report abuse: victim blaming
So I had already experienced several situations like this where something I did could be misinterpreted by someone outside, and I was blamed for it. Even though I wasn’t doing anything that I knew was inappropriate.
So that was another reason I didn’t report it.
What happened when I reported the abuse as an adult?
Years later, when my family and I had returned permanently to the United States, I disclosed the childhood abuse I suffered to several people. Here’s my account of what happened, and the eventual results on my relationship with my family of origin.
©️ Copyright Jenn Warren, 2023.