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Why some victims of sexual mistreatment stay silent.

Summary: While much has changed since Hill's time, the sad reality is that much more has not.

Angela Dionisi

In 1991, Anita Hill brought sexual harassment to the forefront - and divided the American people - when she testified about her mistreatment during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Today, the sexual assault accusation against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford strikes a familiar chord.

While much has changed since Hill's time, the sad reality is that much more has not. The prevalence of sexual mistreatment has not waned; its victims continue to suffer in psychological, physical, and professional ways, while perpetrators routinely survive such ordeals unscathed, and those who choose to come forward often suffer because of it. Just as Hill's disclosure of mistreatment prompted a smear campaign against her, so too do today's survivors of sex-based mistreatment have their integrity questioned. In fact, defending his pick for the US Supreme Court, President Donald Trump contested the credibility of Dr Ford's allegations, citing her failure to report her abuse when it first occurred, as evidence that her claim is fabricated. President Trump tweeted: "I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents."

The president's words have incited tweets from across the country punctuated by the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport; women are sharing their own stories of why they, too, did not come forward.

At the same time, many others simply cannot imagine that someone would put up with sexual harassment or violence, and not say or do anything. Many are plagued by the question, "Why didn't she report him?"

So, let's explore that. First off, it's important to state that most targets of harassment and sexual violence do not report their mistreatment. In the US and in Canada, anywhere from 74 to 95 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Christine Blasey Ford is not alone. She is, unfortunately, in good company.

So why wouldn't a woman who is assaulted or sexually harassed come forward? The nuanced reasons are as varied as the people to whom this question refers, and yet, there is no doubt a common theme that pervades the stories of many victims of sex-based mistreatment. It's the fear of being victimised again. Fear of being blamed. Fear that no one will believe them. Research suggests the feeling is well-founded.

First, let's examine the fear of being targeted with additional mistreatment. Evidence documents that those who report their harassment or abuse are routinely re-victimised with various forms of retaliation. Within the work context specifically, employees who take action against those who mistreat them may be demoted, involuntarily transferred, given poor performance appraisals, or even discharged. Otherwise known as work retaliation, these secondary forms of victimisation have the purpose (or effect) of negatively altering aspects of the target's job.

Second, fear of being blamed - a fear that research suggests is also a reasonable reaction. For decades, women have been held accountable for their own mistreatment. Women who come forward with their victimisation routinely have the tables turned on them. They are put on trial themselves. Fuelled by pervasive myths about sexual violence, society's reaction to this type of victimisation is one that often points the finger at those harmed. Many victims who report their mistreatment are met with a critical response - accusations that they brought their sexualised mistreatment on themselves (e.g., "Your provocative attire led him on"), or that they enjoyed or wanted the behaviour (e.g., "You were flattered by and craved the attention").

Not only is victim-blaming something that understandably scares many women into silence (and leads to intense feelings of shame that further serve to mute victims and compound their emotional wounding), but equally disturbing is the cultural significance of these myths.

Third, fear that no one will believe them. Along with false ideas that women are to blame for their own mistreatment, research shows that the myth women often make up or exaggerate their claims of sexual mistreatment is strong in the minds of many people. When a woman comes forward with sexual victimisation, she may be cast as an opportunist - as someone who is falsely accusing a man out of spite, to gain attention, to cover up her own misdeeds, or, as seen in the case of Dr Ford, to serve a political agenda. One only need to consider any high profile sexual harassment case from the past year to see that the burden of proof undoubtedly rests on the prosecuting party, and that victims' accounts are routinely scrutinised to the point of exhaustion.

Unfortunately, there is much social motivation to declare a victim's claim as fabricated. To admit that an accusation of sexual violence is true-to admit that sexual mistreatment is as prevalent as the research tells us-is ultimately to admit that widespread change is necessary. It is to admit we all need to take a look at our own lives and own treatment of one another at work and beyond. It is to admit that patriarchal ideals and resulting social structures, institutions, and processes still dominate within society, and govern the actions of many within it. Yes, to believe women who have experienced sexual violence is to admit that we all have a part to play in the harm that our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, and our colleagues are experiencing - an admission that many are hell-bent on suppressing.

As the world waits to see how the case between Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr Christine Blasey Ford will conclude, perhaps those who've asked why Dr Ford did not originally come forward with her victimisation are plagued by the wrong question. Perhaps what society should be asking, is whether it's any surprise that she didn't.

-Psychology Today

Angela Dionisi is an assistant professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business in Ottawa

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Oct 3, 2018
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