As published in The Huffington Post, Wednesday 23rd November 2016.
Like many women, I've been sexually assaulted. And, like the majority of those women, I never reported it. Yet after watching two documentaries on the sexual assault of young women recently -- Audrie & Daisy and The Hunting Ground -- I began to wonder. Why didn't I report my sexual assaults to authorities? After all, sexual assault is illegal as much as it is immoral.
On reflection, there are several reasons why I didn't speak up. Firstly, I didn't know I had been sexual assaulted, especially since my first experience happened when I was nine (but more on that shortly). Later in life I would associate the term with violent images of women being raped in dark alleys. So when a friend of my boyfriend pushed his fingers inside my vagina while we were on a dance floor when I was 25 years old, I didn't know how to respond. I simply shoved his hand away and kept dancing.
Another reason I never spoke up is that while I understood the concept, sexual assault wasn't something I was emotionally connected to. Sexual assault was serious and awful but it was something that happened to other women. So when, as a 24-year-old, I passed out from inebriation only to wake up to find the man I was on a date with having sex with me, I didn't know how to react other than with shock which promptly turned into denial.
I never spoke of these experiences with anyone until at least 10 years later when I met with a therapist. When I shared the memories with her, she explained that I had been sexually assaulted. I told her she was wrong, that these experiences were "no big deal". Most women have had similar experiences. Plus, in relation to the last incident, I had been drunk and put myself in a compromising position. She pointed out the facts that were independent of my careless behaviour: I did not want to have sex with this person. I did not consent to having sex with this person (unconsciousness is not consent). This person had sex with me anyway. This, she told me, according to the literal definition, is rape.
Hearing the therapist use this word jolted me out of the state of denial I'd been living in. She explained my symptoms which I was seeking help for as "textbook" for sexual assault victims. I had suffered bouts of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, isolation, inability to form healthy intimate relationships, had contemplated suicide on multiple occasions and even made one attempt. While I'm sure there were other contributing factors to these symptoms, I had certainly been ignoring the impact of what these men did.
Recognising that I had been sexually assaulted helped my recovery process, however I never considered reporting these men to authorities. To do so would require naming names. I knew what happened to women who stood up against 'powerful' men. My version of events would be denied, my character would be brought into question and my life would be made a living hell. I wasn't about to subject myself to even more abuse than what I had already experienced.
There was a time when I did speak up. I was 19 years old when I finally summoned the courage to report the man who sexually molested me 10 years earlier, when I was nine. He liked to rub and fondle my private parts while whispering sexually suggestive comments in my young ears.
The police took my statement and called a few weeks later to inform me that five other women had come forward. They, too, reported being abused by the same man. Despite this, the officer explained that "due to a lack of evidence" they would not be pursuing the matter any further. A lack of evidence? I was confused and angry. On reflection, I suppose I also lost faith. What was the point of speaking up if nothing was going to be done?
I applaud any person who comes forward and reports a sexual assault. It takes immense courage. Unfortunately, these people are in the minority. I know personally many women who have experienced sexual abuse or assault in some form. Most are my friends and they have never told anyone, other than one or two trusted people. Certainly none have reported their sexual assaults to authorities or formally named their abusers.
I believe their reasons are similar to mine. They don't class what happened to them as sexual assault. They don't see themselves as 'victims'. Or perhaps they do but can't see the point of speaking up when the result is likely to cause them to come under further abuse. Better to keep quiet, let sleeping dogs lie and hope that in time the memories subside and eventually they just forget.
Unfortunately, sexual assault is not something you ever forget. Sure, life goes on, time passes and wounds heal. But not always.
For many sexual assault victims life is a process of repair and recovery. For others, the pain is all too much to bear. In which case, it's not just the victims who suffer but their families as well. While some people do report their assault, many more do not, choosing instead to fight their battles from behind closed doors.
I wish things were different. I wish authorities were equipped for handling the sensitive nature of sexual assault cases. I wish the media treated sexual assault victims with more respect and care. I wish sexual assault cases were less sensationalised. I wish sexual assault victims were presumed innocent rather than being made to feel guilty. I wish the statistics proved that perpetrators of sexual assault crimes were brought to justice more often. I wish documentaries like Audrie & Daisy and The Hunting Ground didn't have to be made. Yes, I wish things were different.
If they were different perhaps I would have reported my assaults. In doing so I might have saved other women from a similar fate at the hands of the men who abused me. It's unlikely I was the only one. Unfortunately the price for reporting a sexual assault is still too high and until things are different, it's a price that most sexual assault victims, including myself, are simply not willing to pay.