National News

Not All Women Have a Clear Answer for How Sexual Assault Affected Them. That Doesn’t Mean It Had No Effect.

Posted September 27, 2018 7:05 p.m. EDT

“Can you tell us what impact the events had on you?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Christine Blasey Ford during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

It was the first of several questions aimed at getting Blasey to outline the toll on her life of a sexual assault that she testified involved Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Many people who work in the area of trauma found her answers, which included “anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms,” familiar and credible. But they said it’s important to remember something Blasey, a research psychologist, drew attention to during her testimony.

“I think the sequelae of sexual assault varies per person,” Blasey told the committee, using a scientific term for aftereffects.

Sometimes those effects are difficult to discern or articulate, one of many reasons that women often fail to report sexual assaults to authorities — or even discuss the incident with loved ones, researchers say.

“There is lots of research showing the survivors cope in many different ways, but there does seem to be a societal image of how they need to act — and if not they are not believed,” Antonia Abbey, editor of the journal, Psychology of Violence, said in an email.

Kevin Michael Swartout, psychology professor at Georgia State University who studies sexual violence, agreed.

“Research indicates that people are less likely to believe a victim’s account and believe an assault was less severe when the assault and victim’s response doesn’t follow people’s scripts," he said.

During Thursday’s hearing, Blasey was asked by Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor hired by the committee to question her and Kavanaugh, how she could be certain that the PTSD and anxiety she experienced was caused by the assault she described.

Though she appeared certain the answer was yes, for many victims, the effects are more murky, researchers said. Reinforcing the idea that one must be able to clearly outline the concrete effects of trauma in the form of poor grades, broken relationships or days spent weeping in order to be believed, they said, can do more harm than good.

“This is one of the reasons survivors do not report their assaults to police immediately after,” Swartout said.

This phenomenon may also push a woman to minimize the incident for herself. She may feel like her own experience was not worthy of documentation or discussion because she did not observe the same effects other victims talk about.

“I think we intuitively understand that if a gun was forced into your mouth or put to your head, you would be traumatized,” said Neil Malamuth, a social scientist at UCLA who studies sexual violence.

But in the realm of sexual assault, many people’s view of the crime continues to be shaped more by the response of the victim than by the actions of the perpetrator, he said.

“If you are too upset, you are crazy,” Mary Koss, a professor at the University of Arizona who has published numerous studies on sexual assault, said in an email. “If you are not upset enough, people don’t believe you were raped. So you have to be just the right degree of upset, whatever that is.”