Every time a woman comes forward and accuses a man of historical sexual harassment, assault or rape, we hear the cry from many: ‘Why didn’t she say something at the time?’ I find such remarks extremely hurtful to all those who have found the courage to come forward and to all those who are still holding on to the secret of an assault or rape, having possibly never told anyone.
There are many reasons why nothing may have been said at the time, from fear to misplaced loyalty, or family dynamics to a reluctance to relive the event by acknowledging it.
Reporting sexual assault was an intimidating feat. Rape was often dismissed by police as being the girl’s fault. A friend recently had the courage to recount how, when she reported her rape, several male police officers made a sport of her interrogation. They asked intrusive questions about her behaviour, made jokes about her body, and never took her seriously. When it became too much for her, she dropped the matter and the three guys never went to trial.
The experience of this friend discouraged another girl I knew from reporting her violent rape. The hospital tried to involve the police, but the girl had gone into a shell trying not to relive the horror of the night. For many women this is their reaction. It’s terrifying, humiliating and often confusing, and they are suffering a mass of conflicting emotions.
These days I feel the police are more sensitive when interviewing victims of sexual assault and understand the difficulty they face, but such understanding was not the case 20 or more years ago.
For other women, they are aware of the complications their accusations might cause. It might be someone in the family, a family friend, their dad’s boss, and to report the sexual assault would create a cascade of repercussions. Some may not believe the accusation, some will try to get her to withdraw the accusations and others will be ready to take a cricket bat to the guy she accused. Many women consider all of this and probably say nothing at the time, but they never forget the act occurring.
Sexual harassment still occurs in workplaces. A woman can still get a job based purely on her looks and the ‘desirability’ she brings to her role. Though such behaviour is frowned upon, some women feel their employment is determined by their ability to put up with it. In some workplaces, the sexual harassment is undertaken by bosses or managers and the repercussions of reporting it can result in a woman losing her job, not to mention the unpleasant public battle to win it back.
I am sure there will be women reading this who have chosen to keep their own sexual assault as a secret, and there are probably men who may have been victims or have been aware of sexual harassment or assault. Getting back to the crux of it, women who do choose to speak out, might do so years after their assault, harassment or rape do so for a number of reasons.
The next time someone asks ‘Why didn’t she…’ in response to a news item or discussion about sexual harassment and assault, ask the women in your life about their experiences, listen non-judgementally and with empathy, and you will have your answer.