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Opinion: Believe her — the reasons behind our underreported sexual assault cases

Victim blaming and the trauma of reporting a sexual assault leads many women to stay silent. An estimated 95% of college students never report their assault

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Author and rape survivor Emily Bernath, center, speaks to attendees of Denim Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Denim Day started in 1999 and is the world’s largest and longest running sexual assault awareness and education campaign. Denim Day began after a ruling by the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction due to the presumption that the victim’s jeans were too tight for her perpetrator to remove alone. Thus, the justices asserted that she must have actively participated in removing her jeans, thereby implying her consent. Victim blaming is one of the main reasons sexual assault is so underreported.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Some of the most heartbreaking research and collaborative work I do in Utah relates to domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s heartbreaking not only because gender-based violence is all too prevalent in our state, but because of how often the victims of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence are simply not believed. 

In this era of “he said/she said,” let’s look at the data.

One famous study attempted to figure out the rate of false allegations by looking at all the cases of sexual assault reported at a Northeastern university over a 10-year time period. Of the 136 reported, eight were coded as false allegations. That’s 5.9%. Other studies indicate that the range is between 2% and 10%. But consider this: an estimated 95% of college students do not report their assaults to police. In the general population, only 8%-10% of women are thought to report their assaults.

Thus, most violence against women goes unreported

Given this data, only assaults that are reported in the first place can be deemed either true or false, meaning the 5% figure only applies to 10% of assaults, as the other 90% are never reported. With this larger picture, the rate of false allegation is 5 out of 10,000, not 5 out of 100.

Why do so many women stay silent?

For many people, victim blaming is a way to distance themselves from imagining themselves or their loved ones in a traumatic experience. Responses like, “She must have led him on,” “What was she wearing?” “Well, if you’re drinking you can expect bad things,” and “She probably said yes then changed her mind” — are all ways of saying, “I’m safe and smart.”

Women grow up hearing this rhetoric and absorb the idea that any sexual violence they experience is somehow their own fault. When someone’s car is stolen, do we say to the car owner, “What do you expect when you drive a nice car like that? You were asking for it.” Of course not. Is it any wonder that victim blaming is a huge reason why sexual assault survivors choose not to come forward? They fear they will be shamed, blamed and disbelieved. 

Let’s also look at what makes an allegation “false.”

If a woman makes an accusation and then recants it, it is considered false. Why would someone do that? If someone decides they don’t want to go through a police investigation or possibly end up testifying in court, they may recant to spare themselves further trauma, regardless of the truth. And the police can deem an accusation “false” if they believe the accused.

A friend of mine is a therapist who is working with a survivor of domestic abuse. The victim reported it numerous times to the police who took her husband’s word over hers again and again. Only when she was able to secretly record one of her beatings did the authorities believe her. This woman not only has trauma from the abuse, but she lives her life feeling gaslit, like she will never be believed, because for years she wasn’t.

Why are we willing to discount the experiences of so many women when the numbers tell us the truth is on their side?

Bottom line, it is rare indeed that women make false accusations of sexual assault. If she is bold enough to risk being shamed and blamed, we must support the victim and not continue to protect so many abusers. In addition to the physical and emotional damage of abuse, there is additional violence perpetrated when we choose not to believe women, and we, as a society, are complicit if we choose to look away. Believe her. 

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.