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Reporting sexual abuse can take time

In relation to the recent Robert Hughes and Rolf Harris trials, the following question has been often asked: Why do some alleged victims of sexual abuse take so long to report it/come forward?

Sexual abuse is one of the most under-reported crimes, but when victims do come forward their reasons for “waiting so long” are often as follows.

1. If they told someone of the assault at the time, they may have been rebuked, blamed or even not believed.

2. They may not have told anyone at the time because they feared being rebuked, blamed or not believed. They may not have told anyone at the time because they didn’t know who they could tell, or who to trust.

3. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may have been threatened by the perpetrator with physical violence, that their revelation would destroy lives/marriages/relationships/health, or told they would not be believed.

4. Because the human body responds to stimulus, some victim/survivor’s bodies “respond” to the touch of their attacker making them feel dirty, ashamed and somehow responsible for the unwanted sexual attention. (Some victim/survivors are unaware, until they are older, that the behaviour by the perpetrator was wrong/criminal.)

5. Sexual abuse/assault goes unreported often because the nature of abuse is one of secrecy. Abuse survives and thrives through secrecy. The perpetrator can be confident that the shame/embarrassment/fear the victim feels will keep them silent.

6. Traditionally, the patriarchal police and justice system has not been set up to appropriately process complaints of sexual assault, making it very daunting and upsetting for victims, only adding to their trauma. If the complaint goes to trial, the victim/survivor will have to face their attacker, relive their trauma, and be subjected to extensive questioning and scrutiny by the defence counsel, often having their sexual history (unrelated to the complaint) brought up and dissected.

7. The mainstream media often portray alleged victims of sexual abuse/assault as opportunistic, prudish, over reactive, money-grubbing and even vengeful. Perpetrators, particularly those who are in positions of trust and/or rank – priests, teachers, entertainers/celebrities, family members – are however seen as persecuted, misunderstood and victimised.

8. For male victims of sexual abuse/assault, there is often an issue of their sense of masculinity and sexuality being in question, particularly if their body responded to stimulation. (This happens whether the victim identifies as gay or heterosexual.)

Given just some of these reasons (which are in no way exhaustive) perhaps it is not surprising that it can take many years, even 30-40 years, for a victim to be able to report a sexual assault. The vast majority will not.

The fall out from sexual abuse can be debilitating emotionally, psychologically, physically and sexually. It changes a person irrevocably. And while many brave victim/survivors go on to lead “normal lives” it is not too finer point to say, that the damage done lasts a life time.

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