Why Victims of Sexual Assault Wait to Tell

There has been a lot of media attention recently involving high-profile men accused of sexual harassment, rape, and sexual abuse. From cases involving Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken and others, the inappropriate behavior is being reported years, sometimes decades, after it is said to have occurred. And predictably, the motives and timing of the victim’s disclosure are being questioned.

Beyond the celebrity spotlight, thousands of women and men are also stepping forward about their experience with sexual misconduct. You may have seen your own friends recently use the hashtag #metoo that went viral on social media to denounce sexual assault and harassment and virtually unite survivors. But you may find yourself asking why it’s taking so long for victims to speak up about their abuse.

I have spent the last 11 years of my life working at or with Child Advocacy Centers (CAC), which are programs that provide a safe place for children to disclose abuse in the event that it has happened to them.

At a CAC, a child talks to a trained interviewer about the allegations of reported abuse. I used to be one of those interviewers. After watching or conducting hundreds of interviews, I can tell you that it is rare a child tells about their abuse experience immediately in its aftermath. In fact, most children that came to the center were talking about abuse that had occurred days, months, or even years prior.

Why do kids, and especially adults, wait to tell? Delayed disclosures are real, for many reasons, and are very common. After all, anyone — man, woman, or child — who has been sexually abused or assaulted faces hurdles unimaginable to many who haven’t been through it. Every victim faces reliving their trauma, and the possibility of having their story questioned. Abusers thrive on secrecy, many times using threats or intimidation to ensure the secrecy continues. And the consequences of disclosing abuse are real — it can tear apart families, churches, and communities.

My question, instead of why wait, is how does any child or adult find the courage to tell? And yet they do find the courage to tell in inspiring and healing ways. They may find the courage because they worry others are at risk for experiencing the same thing they did. They may find the courage because they find enough safety in their current circumstances. They may find the courage because others are finding courage around them. There is power and healing in turning secrecy into openness.

I do not and will not have the resources necessary to investigate the serious allegations being brought forth in the political spotlight, nor do I think it is my role. However, I do know that when I talk with adult survivors of childhood trauma, one of the most important things in their healing is the response of the person they first told. Do they feel heard? Supported? Or was their courage met with skepticism, denial, and ostracization?

As a community, we all have a personal and powerful role. We are not investigators. We need to stop asking victims why they wait to report their abuse, and instead focus on how we can support them in their journey of hope and healing.

When they do come forward to disclose abuse, no matter when that is, we need to listen.

Emily Chittenden-Laird is executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. The organization’s website is at www.wvcan.org.