This is the way the legal system in the U.S. is supposed to operate. I have to admit, on the day that the trial begins for a high-profile sexual abuse case, I’m not thinking ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In fact, from the first time I heard about the case, I immediately believed the men who had made the sexual abuse allegations and concluded guilt. (I guess I don’t need to worry about being called to jury duty!)
There are a number of reasons I jump to the conclusion that the (alleged) perpetrator is guilty. One of the biggest reasons is that I know how incredibly difficult it had to be for the victims to come forward and publicly share details of the (alleged) abuse, especially when the suspect is so well-known and in many circles, respected. This is not something to be taken lightly. Not only is it painful to recount sexually explicit details, the mere accusation is followed by questions, interrogation, often disbelief and ostracization.
Many victims of sexual abuse never come forward. A trending topic on Twitter illustrates just how pervasive the angst regarding reporting can be, the social media offering an emotional outlet for victims. The trauma associated with the abuse itself and the act of ‘going public’ afterwards is clear. The Twitter account set up to allow people to anonymously report, “IDidNotReport1” has seen a steady stream of victims coming forward, some of them decades after the abuse occurred. Others dared to reveal their identities, using the hashtag #IDidNotReport”. (I would note, there has not been a similar trending topic for persons admitting to perpetration.)
And there is the issue of language. Even the language used to talk about sexual abuse discourages reporting of abuse. I’ve mentioned before how strongly I feel that language matters. In sexual abuse cases, it is often made clear to victims just how they are perceived. For instance, how often do you hear the expression, ‘(s)he admitted to having been sexually abused’? A Google search of the definition of ‘admit’ yields the following:
1. Confess to be true or to be the case, typically with reluctance.
2. Confess to (a crime or fault, or one’s responsibility for it).
This type of language does not encourage reporting. Others use the term, disclose. Although the definition is innocent sounding enough, the connotation is that something should be hidden. How often do you hear people say, ‘they admitted that their car was stolen’? or ‘they disclosed their house was buglarized’? The bottom line is, sexual abuse victims are often treated as suspects themselves.
Are there times when sexual abuse is falsely alleged? Yes, this does occur. But even in the rare occasion that this is found, there often has been a history of trauma prior to the accusation. And it is not uncommon for a victim to recant abuse allegations once they realize that they are being treated like a criminal in the course of an investigation. Often this is not an indication of a false statement, but rather a response to the overwhelming emotional toll of being treated like the enemy for reporting abuse.
We also know that victimization of men is particularly challenging. Stereotypes being what they are, people tend to think of males as being capable of defending themselves against an unwanted attack. A report of sexual abuse can seriously undermine the victims’ sense of masculinity and competence. In fact, retrospective research suggests that 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse, most of whom do not report.
All of this aside, our legal system dictates that an alleges perpetrator be considered innocent until proven guilty. However, the fact remains that victims of sexual abuse have significant reasons to not report and often face serious repercussions, both emotionally and socially, when they do report. Hence, there is great motivation to remain silent and bear the burden of abuse alone.
Given my chosen profession, I think alleged perpetrators need not worry about my perspective on this topic, as I suspect I would never be called to serve as a juror on a sexual abuse case. As an advocate for abused children, I’m OK with that. I’m also OK with the knowledge that I am biased on this topic.