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‘Indelible in the Hippocampus:’ Why Women Remember But Don’t Report Women: Seen But Not Heard, Or Believed

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By Grace Kelley

On Thursday, September 27, as we were all glued to our TVs watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify what now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh did to her at a party in 1984, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s (RAINN) phones were ringing off the hook. RAINN reported in a tweet the next day that calls to their sexual assault hotline jumped 201% as a result of the hearing. The question on everyone’s mind was: why report now? Why did Ford sit on this information for over 30 years? Why do numerous victims hesitate coming forward? There are three factors to consider:

  • They’re still unpacking the trauma

One thing many of Ford’s detractors zeroed in on was the fact that she could not remember certain details of her assault. Ford, a psychology professor, had an explanation at the ready for why her memory seemed spotty. “Just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain, that sort of, as you know, encodes,” Ford told Senator Dianne Feinstein. “That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus. So, the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”

Many survivors and witnesses of all types of abuse are doubted due to the length of time that has passed between the abuse they describe and the time they reported it. In BuzzFeed News’ heart-wrenching story detailing child abuse occurring at St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage near Burlington, Vermont, now-adult survivors and witnesses reported being told they were children with “overactive imaginations” when they reported abuse, so they doubted the veracity of their own memories for years, until it was too late.

“If it was so traumatizing, how come you didn’t report when it happened?” many say, but as our culture learns more about what consent does and doesn’t look like, many women are coming to the realization that what happened to them years ago counts as assault. Plus, reporting an assault right away is not a guarantee of justice, which is proven within the Brock Turner case where Jane Doe reported right away, with witnesses, and Turner still only received a six-month sentence (of which Turner only served three months).

  • They belong to a marginalized community that has historically not been believed

 

When privileged white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual women don’t receive justice for their sexual assaults, the numbers become grimmer for men, women and non-binary individuals in marginalized communities. One in 10 men are survivors of sexual assault, mostly at the hands of other men. 21 percent of transgender people have been assaulted. Native Americans are twice as likely to experience rape than people of other races. 63 percent of homeless women in Washington, D.C. reported being sexually assaulted. And these statistics, of course, are for people who reported- the number, in actuality, is likely much higher.

 

There is a lot of pressure in these marginalized communities to prop up bad men because of what men have done for communities as a whole. When African American women reported sexual assault by Bill Cosby, many admonished them for trying to take down a “good role model” in the African American community. Women had been filing lawsuits against Cosby for years, but comedian Hannibal Buress is credited with raising awareness about Cosby in 2014, in a self-deprecating set where he said that Googling “Bill Cosby rape” has more results than “Hannibal Buress.” Barbara Bowman, a Cosby accuser, approached The Washington Post after Buress’s comedy sketch went viral and said, “Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged with victim-blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”

 

  • They did report, several times, but no one took action

As the number of survivors coming forward rose for sexual assault committed by former Olympic gymnastics coach Larry Nassar (251 survivors) and Cosby (60 survivors), many wondered how these men could be free to assault so many for so long. Two recent cases against them shed light on how this could happen. On September 13, 2018, a former field hockey player for Michigan State University said that Nassar raped her in 1992. She reported it to her coach and her coach reported it to George Perles, who was the athletic director at Michigan State at the time. Perles and the athletic department fired the coach and made her sign a nondisclosure agreement. The field hockey player went to the police, who told her this was the jurisdiction of MSU’s athletic department. Nassar would go on to sexually assault dozens of other young female athletes, including Olympic gymnasts McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles.

On September 26, 2018, Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in 2004. She reported the assault to authorities in 2005, but prosecutors declined to press charges and Constand settled in a civil case in 2006. The settling in a civil case made Constand seem like she was just after Cosby’s money. But her case was within the statute of limitations, whereas many of his other accusers were not, so prosecutors focused on her case for Cosby’s conviction.

The statute of limitations is what holds back a lot of survivors from reporting. They think “too much” time has passed. Their memory of the assault is faulty anyway, and the authorities will say their hands are tied. But as criminal courts learn new things about DNA evidence and how human memory works, many states are loosening their formerly rigid statutes of limitation, especially with regards to assaults that happened when the survivors were minors.

It may seem bleak and that change will never come, but there is hope. This society made it so that someone suspected of sexual assault now holds the highest court of the land, not to mention the Presidency, but just two years prior, it rallied behind Lady Gaga at the Oscars in 2016 as she belted out “Till It Happens to You” with survivors standing steadfast on stage, “Not Your Fault” painted on their bodies. We can get to that place again, and it begins with believing women. It begins with pressuring police departments to end the national disgrace that is the rape kit backlog. It begins with believing male sexual assault survivors and putting an end to the toxic masculinity that keeps them quiet and ashamed. But most importantly, it begins with letting sexual assault enabling-politicians know that no matter their party, they cannot count on your votes.

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