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Why Did She Wait?

To many survivors, the fear and shame associated with talking about sexual assault can seem like an impossible obstacle to overcome. 

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, countless survivors of sexual abuse and assault have come forward with their stories. The movement was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, and was originally a small movement focusing on young women of color, especially those from low wealth communities. Burke found her inspiration and her drive to create this movement when she was a youth worker who mainly worked with black children and other children of color. A young girl named Heaven came up to her one day and told her of the sexually abusive ways her mother’s boyfriend would treat her at home. Burke says that she could not find the courage at the time to tell Heaven that she too had experienced sexual abuse. She created #MeToo to provide a platform for other women and girls of color to speak out about their abuse like Heaven had been so brave to do.

It wasn’t until October of 2017 that the #MeToo movement started spreading, but when it did, it spread like wildfire. The demographic of survivors who spoke out shifted from women and girls of color from low-income communities to wealthy celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Lady Gaga. #MeToo became a phrase heard around the world.

It may have been the rise of the #MeToo movement that inspired Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, to come forward with allegations against the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were at a high school party together in the 80’s. She reported that he pinned her down on a bed, covered her mouth, groped her, and tried to remove her clothes. She claimed she was able to escape from the drunk 17-year-old when his friend jumped on top of both of them. The complete accuracy of Ford’s story is still not certain; however, two other women, Julie Swetnick and Deborah Ramirez, have also reported unwanted sexual encounters either directly with Kavanaugh or associated with Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed by a narrow Senate majority of 50-48, but Dr. Ford’s chilling testimony–and Kavanaugh’s combative response–drew national attention and sparked intense debate about American attitudes towards sexual assault. 

One of the main arguments against Ford’s claims was the fact that she waited nearly forty years to make any public accusations against Kavanaugh. However, there are many reasons why a survivor may wait so long to tell anyone or may never tell anyone. For instance, in her article for Psychology Today, “Why Don’t Victims of Sexual Harassment Come Forward Sooner?”, Beverly Engel writes that survivors may not report sexual harassment for a long time after the harassment took place because they may feel ashamed about the incident. She explains that when someone is sexually harassed or assaulted, he or she experiences a loss of control over his or her own body. This causes shame because the survivor is used to always having control over such things, and he or she is embarrassed to have lost control to a perpetrator.

According to Yolanda Moses, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Riverside, those who experience sexual assault may not speak out because society often blames victims for what has happened to them, and because it may be painful and embarrassing to speak up. Moses says that survivors of sexual assault are often blamed for ruining their perpetrator’s life or asked, “Why were you in that place at that time?” or “Why did you go to that person’s room?” Moses also says that it can be painful or embarrassing for the survivor to press charges or even speak up about what happened to them because he or she may not want to relive the experience, or because he or she is afraid of not being believed.

We can see the consequences of coming forward with a story of sexual assault in Ford’s case—our own president mocked her, and she has been receiving constant harassment and death threats since the
Kavanaugh hearing. Like many other women in the past, Ford spoke up about her sexual assault, and received a strong opposition from people trying to silence her. This is why many sexual assault survivors wait to tell their stories.

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