Reporting Sexual Assault: Why Some Women Stay Silent

The #MeToo movement has encouraged victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak up. Despite that support, most victims still don’t officially report such incidents to the police. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) has found that only 230 assaults will be reported for every 1,000 that take place. 

Disclosing an attack — even to trusted allies rather than the authorities — has been found to ameliorate PTSD, which many experience after such a trauma. For example, one study found that those who wrote about a trauma event later had healthier immune systems and lower stress levels, among other positive outcomes. 

While much has been studied about victim disclosure, less is understood about those who stay silent. In a new study published in the journal Violence Against Women, a group of scholars from Queens College, The Graduate Center, CUNY, and St. John’s University sought to understand the reasons why victims choose not to disclose, and how it impacts their physical and psychological health.  

The researchers asked roughly 600 undergraduate women from institutions in New York and Miami to participate in a survey about sexual assault. More than a third (221) of the participants reported having been assaulted, and another 25% chose not to disclose the incident to anyone — even close friends or family. Their reasons fell into four themes, “shame or embarrassment, minimization of the experience, fear of consequences, and privacy,” all of which mirrored the reasons why victims choose not to officially report an incident to authorities. 

Interestingly, non-disclosers who reported feeling less shame or who minimized the attack reported experiencing fewer symptoms of PTSD than those who chose to disclose. But if victims felt shame or fear about sharing, the positive effects typically associated with disclosure didn’t matter.

The researchers concluded, “These findings indicate that disclosure may not always be associated with benefit for sexual trauma survivors.”  

The scholars involved included Kaitlin Walsh CarsonSarah Babad (Queens College, The Graduate Center, CUNY), Professor Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh and research assistant Betzabe K. Castillo (Queens College), Professor Valentina Nikulina (The Graduate Center, CUNY), and Professor Elissa Brown (St. John’s University).

Beyond SUM

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Kaitlin Walsh Carson (Adjunct Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1
Sara Babad (Adjunct Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1
Claudia Brumbaugh (Associate Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Valentina Nikulina (Assistant Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1