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Why sex-assault victims may wait decades to come out

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As a fifth woman accused Roy Moore, of sexual misconduct with teenagers, some of us are still wonder what took these women so long to come forward and why some Republicans and conservative evangelicals in Congress are still supporting him?

As a trauma psychologist, I understand why women don’t come forward right away to report sexual harassment or assault. Violations of this type are so jarring to the psyche, causing us to initially deny, minimize or doubt their occurrence. After such an experience, we ask ourselves, “Did that just happen?” Some stay in shock trying their best to not absorb any more insult or pain.

{mosads}Others are scared or angry, but keep their mouths shut, in fear of negative consequences such as not being believed. For most of us, sexual abuse, assault and harassment are so incongruous with how we were raised to believe the world should be — kind, virtuous, loving. Afterwards we wear thick coats of self-blame and shame, wondering if there was anything we did to contribute to its occurrence.


For many years and decades, survivors live in silence and disgrace, thinking they were the only ones. That there was something terribly unique about them that caused this to occur, that they somehow brought it on themselves; they stew in a spiral of self-loathing. Keeping quiet doesn’t make the degradation go away.

When some of us finally convince ourselves to speak up, we often receive disappointing responses. When survivors come forward, some are disparaged, discredited, discounted, isolated, shunned.

For most survivors, then, the lesson we learn is to never report it. The energy it takes to fight it, as well as the feeling that we must have been to blame, is depressing and exhausting.

People in positions of power say things like, “lighten up,” “It was over 40 years ago,” or, “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.” In such cases, these individuals support a conspiracy of silence, and the abuse remains hidden and likely continues.


This is what happened after the initial reports of Moore’s alleged pedophilia. Some Republicans, who are usually pretty conservative, were giving Roy Moore a pass and using the innocent-until-proven-guilty logic for him. Some sat silently in the wings, or even rallied around Moore. This sadly makes sense.

On one hand, we are deeply engaged in partisan tribalism. So anything the “other” side said or is dismissed, ignored, marginalized or spun. It makes sense that Republicans and their counterparts in Alabama would be invested in minimizing or keeping things quiet.

They don’t want to lose a Senate seat and, thus, their already slim 52-48 U.S. Senate majority. They don’t want their brand tarnished, their conservative reputation ruined. And they certainly don’t want donors closing their purses.

It may seem a good business plan to protect your conservative brand from potential hemorrhaging. The stink from non-transparency or cover-up of childhood sexual abuse, well that’s not just bad for your reputation and bottom line, that’s bad for the world.

This could be called institutional inertia or active resistance. Republican senators are afraid of losing power in Congress and not getting re-elected. To be fair, they may not know what to do. Nonetheless, they are bystanders, and bystanders are not just incidental — they can contribute to trauma survivor’s outcomes. 

However, many in the U.S. are wondering why predators continue to be protected and what will it take to protect the victims instead?

If you’ve ever been a child, had a child, loved a child, you know how tender and wondrous ages of 14 and 16 can be: To look around the world and see endless possibilities and excitement. Knowing this and for some of us actually experiencing it, why would we not want to protect that time for every human being?

When we don’t believe women coming forward, we make it easier for this kind of behavior to continue. When we obstruct reporting of child sexual abuse at the time of the event or years late, or rally around the perpetrator, we enable abuse, plain and simple.

Acts of abuse, particularly those against children, are preventable and inexcusable. Where’s our moral courage? When these tragic legacies are not dealt with transparently, they leave a stink on our hands, and a stain on our souls.

Maybe key leaders are realizing that. Just yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on Moore to “step aside” and the Republican National Committee withdrew its support.

Our children, our society cannot afford for us to be passive bystanders. You know about it, you must act. There are many ways that perpetrators get away with their criminal behavior for so long. They may cover up their actions or devalue their target. They may reinterpret their events, use official channels to give an appearance of justice, and intimidate or bribe or bystanders.

When we look for someone to blame for occurrences of sexual abuse, we sometimes point to individual bad men (or bad women), but the truth is more complicated than that.

We hold some piece of the responsibility pie for such negative experiences. And patterns of negative social interactions are often implicitly sanctioned by society and our organizations.

Wishful thinking doesn’t make the predator’s bad behavior go away. Neither does ignoring the behavior avoiding the person or emoting.

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roy Moore’s alleged predatory behavior should be a call to arms for every human to show support and advocacy for one another. In order to provide healthy environments where these behaviors become unacceptable, women and men need to have open discussions on acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. We need to be alert for these crimes and other indignities, recognize and speak about them with courage and protection. 

As women come forward to share their #MeToo pain, as these secrets and shadows emerge, it’s not just a few bad male apples problem, it’s our collective one. In the wake of all these reports of abuse, assault and harassment, we should all be taking stock and searching. As we reset our moral compass and recover our footing, Let us remember that the problem of adults abusing positions of trust and authority by preying on young people or vulnerable populations is not confined to judges, the U.S. Congress, the Catholic Church, Hollywood or elite private schools.

Let’s continue to turn up the heat and the consequences on the adult perpetrators who cross the moral and criminal boundary. Let’s shine the spotlight on other dark corners and notice, report, and fully and fairly investigate. Maybe we should encourage others to speak up and have understanding for those who are not yet ready.

I hope that from all the #MeToo, we create a culture of concern about — a recognition that these kinds of behavior exist. We must show a desire to prevent these events before they happen, and protect and support those who experienced them. 

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Tags Abuse Catholic Church sexual abuse cases Harvey Weinstein Kevin Spacey Me too Mitch McConnell Roy Moore Sexual abuse Sexual assault

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