Why Don’t Sexual Assault Victims Tell?

Posted on October 3, 2018 by Laura E. Laughlin

With the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements, sexual assault is being discussed daily.  It’s amazing to see people gaining strength from each other and stepping out to tell their story.  People are listening and believing…well, some people anyway.  Some are questioning the truth of the stories victims are telling years after the assault has happened.  One of the most frequent reactions by the non-believers is, “If it was true, why did they wait so long to tell?”

Disclosing sexual abuse and assault is difficult.  There are many reasons why someone would not tell anyone for years after an assault has happened.  When the perpetrator is a stranger, the victim will usually tell soon after.  However, when the perpetrator is someone the victim knows, maybe a family member, someone they trusted, someone who’s well liked in their circle or community, telling someone else becomes a lot more complicated.  To give you an idea of the breakdown of perpetrators who are known to the victim versus being assaulted by a stranger, the statistics are that 93% of juvenile victims know their abuser: 59% are acquaintances, 34% are family members, and 7% are strangers to the victim.[1]

I wanted to answer a couple common questions that are asked when someone discloses that they have been abused.  It’s important to educate so people understand why telling someone may not be so simple.


Why Don’t Victims Tell?

Children typically do not disclose sexual abuse during or immediately after the time they are abused.[2]  In one study, 75 percent of children did not disclose within the first year of the abuse and 18 percent had not disclosed after five years.[3]  In another study, 58 percent of child sexual abuse victims did not disclose until adulthood.  The pressures to remain silent are wide-ranging and often overwhelming, including pressure or threats from the perpetrator, a relationship with the perpetrator, fear of the anticipated consequences of telling, fear of negative reactions from parents or family, fear of not being believed, feelings of embarrassment, shame and self-blame. [4]

If you look at the reaction from many people, whether it’s politicians, media, celebrities or your own social media feed, you can see the negative reaction to victims who come forward years later.  The response is oftentimes mean, accusatory, and the opposite of supportive.  It’s not a surprise why victims are afraid to come forward and tell the truth about what happened to them.  Granted, there is a movement of people, who do support survivors and have begun using the hashtag #believesurvivors, but the personal attacks on the victims, which sometimes go as far as death threats, definitely encourage a survivor to stay silent.


Why Did the Victim’s Story Change?

Others may ask, why did the victim’s story change?  Perhaps at one point, the survivor may only reveal a little bit about what happened and then later, reveal more details that are oftentimes more serious.

It’s important to understand that disclosure is a process, not a single event.[5]  The disclosure process may involve the victim revealing bits of information, not always in chronological order, and not always to the same individual.  The child may test adult responses by seeking support for something they perceive as less risky or vulnerable or may disclose only a part of their victimization to determine if the listener may be trusted to handle disclosures that are more serious.  Attempts to disclose are often made in behavioral or indirect verbal ways.[6]  It can be through writing songs or poetry, drawing, hypothetical stories, acting out scenarios with dolls or other indirect ways.  There’s no one way or right way to disclose.  It can come in all forms and at different times.  This isn’t a reason to not believe the survivor, as this type of disclosure is common.


It happened so long ago, shouldn’t he or she be over it by now?

Definitely not true.  Childhood sexual assaults continue to impact children long into adulthood both psychologically, physically and functionally.[7]  Studies have shown that childhood abuse, including childhood sexual abuse, has been causally linked to depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic pain syndromes, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel.

Also, compared to adults who have not suffered childhood abuse, those who have suffered childhood abuse are more likely to engage in high-risk health behaviors including smoking, alcohol and drug use and unsafe sex practices.  The combination of these factors leads to increased health issues and decreased life expectancy.

Childhood sexual abuse has a profound impact medically (physically and psychologically), but also interpersonally.[8]  Childhood sexual abuse represents a risk factor for a range of interpersonal dysfunction among female survivors, including problems with intimate partner relations, disturbed sexual functioning, and difficulties in the parental role.  Understandably, child sexual abuse victims have difficulty trusting others.  Childhood sexual abuse also impacts self-esteem, which then negatively impacts future job prospects and success in the workplace.

On the surface, a survivor can sometimes appear happy and be a functioning, productive member of society.  There are some that have difficulty holding it together.  Not all victims look the same.  Some victims have good days when other days are a struggle.  There can be things that come up during a day that can cause the survivor to have a flash back or a difficult time not thinking about the assault.  There can be times where he or she feels strong, and then other days where it’s just too much to handle.

I’ve seen comments and internet memes of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the recent Senate hearing that echo the sentiment that “she doesn’t look like a victim because she’s smiling.”  Strength from a survivor can look like many different things.  If you think back to the “army of survivors” who spoke at Olympic gymnastics coach and serial child abuser Larry Nassar’s sentencing, some were powerful and strong; others wept as they recounted what the assaults had done to their lives.  Please keep in mind, there is no “one size fits all” for survivors.

In the weeks and months to come, I anticipate more people will gather the strength to come forward and tell their truth.  When they do, I hope you have a better understanding of what’s going on inside the brave man or woman who has chosen to finally speak up.


[1] Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).

[2] J.E.B. Meyers, 1 Evidence in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases §1.27

[3] Elliot & Briere, Forensic Sexual Abuse Evaluations of Older Children: Disclosures and Symptomology, Behavioral Sciences and the Law (1994).

[4] R. Alaggia, Many Ways of Telling: Expanding Conceptualizations of Child Sexual Abuse Disclosure, 28 Child Abuse & Neglect 1213 (2004).

[5] Mitru Ciarlante, Disclosing Sexual Victimization, The Prevention Researcher (2007)

[6] Townsend, Child Sexual Abuse Disclosure: What Practitioners Need to Know, Darkness to Light (2016).

[7] Springer, et al., The Long-term Health Outcomes of Childhood Abuse, J. Gen. Intern. Med. (2003).

[8] Mullen, et al., The Effect of Child Sexual Abuse on Social, Interpersonal and Sexual Function in Adult Life, British Journal of Psychiatry (1994).