As an advocate for survivors of sexual assault in Louisiana, the past few weeks have felt like a watershed moment for our movement. Women and men have come forward in droves to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault and to demand that perpetrators of sexual violence be held accountable. This is not just a problem in Hollywood; whether you know it or not, someone you know has been sexually assaulted, though 2 out of 3 survivors never make a formal report, and many may never tell anyone. These stories of abuse, both grotesque and subtle, are nothing new. Sexual violence in all forms is an epidemic in our culture. This outpouring of stories, however, will amount to nothing if we do not believe the survivors telling them.
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A common response to the women who have come forward is “why did you not come forward sooner?” This question, though not always ill-intentioned, is a form of victim-blaming. Oftentimes survivors do not come forward right away, due to trauma, stigma, fear or many other valid reasons. Advocates call this “delayed disclosure,” and it is very common. One needs only look at our cultural response to recent delayed disclosures to understand why a person would not want to tell the story of their assault.
Not every alleged perpetrator is a Senate candidate, a Hollywood producer or a famous stand-up comic. Some are trusted faith leaders, beloved family members, admired professors or a cute guy you met on Tinder. They know that our society will doubt the victim, asking, “Why did you drink so much?" "Why didn’t you fight back?" Or “Why did you not come forward sooner?” What these questions really mean: “I wouldn’t have had that much to drink,” “I would have fought back” or “I would have reported right away,” therefore, this is your fault. These questions implicitly put the responsibility on the victim, allowing perpetrators to run free, continuing their predatory behaviors.
Whether reporting to law enforcement, their college administration, their office’s HR department or to a reporter, survivors are forced to relive their most traumatic memories. Instead of finding support and seeing their perpetrators held accountable, they are lambasted by doubters. The only way for us to change this culture is to begin believing and supporting survivors. I, too, want to live in a world where sexual assault survivors feel safe reporting immediately, but that will not happen until we create a culture that is ready to listen to women and believe their experiences.
There are resources for sexual assault survivors in Louisiana. For more information on services, contact the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault or your local sexual assault center. If you are in crisis, the Louisiana Sexual Violence Hotline at (888) 995-7273 is available 24 hours a day, confidential and free.
Rafael de Castro
executive director, Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault