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Gender Identity

Why Do We Struggle To Believe Survivors?

September 20, 2018

There is no doubt that there was a huge reckoning around sexual assault and sexual harassment after the Harvey Weinstein case went viral last year. There is no doubt that more and more people feel empowered to tell their stories thanks to the #metoo movement. These stories have created awareness about the severity of sexual violence and how common it is. So why is it that it’s still so hard to believe survivors?  

Earlier this week professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward to publicly accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the ’80s. Soon after the news came out, people in social media started taking sides: Some believe her story should be heard, and others questioned the credibility of her story. 

We don’t see this kind of divided reaction only in high-profile cases. People question the accuracy of the story and tend to victim-blame whether the victim is a high-school student or an adult reporting harassment at their workplace. 

Victims of sexual violence often report being subjected to victim blaming, disbelief and even retaliation after reporting that they were harassed, assaulted or raped [1]. Instead of blaming the perpetrator in cases of non-stranger rape, the victim is often blamed for the rape [2]. But we don’t need research to tell us that, any survivor can tell you why they fear coming forward or how some folks reacted when they did come forward. It is common for victims to experience blaming from strangers, family, and even therapists [3]. We hear these stories all the time during the almost 2000 presentations Catharsis Productions does every year on rape, sexual assault and harassment. Victim blaming is so prevalent when talking about sexual violence that we even created a program called Beat the Blame Game, just to address this phenomenon. 

So, let’s break down a few points that have been brought up about this case that we often hear when a survivor comes forward: 

“Why did she wait until now to tell her story?”

Some are asking why Ford waited this long to talk about the assault. Sexual assault and harassment victims can experience a range of emotions that make it difficult for them to report abuse. Survivors experience a host of fears to reporting; fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, and fear over confidentiality among the reasons not to report [4]. In addition, going through the medical exam or rape kit, can be retraumatizing for victims. 

“But she doesn’t even remember all the details!”

Some people have pointed out that Ford does not recall some details from the incident, therefore she must be making it up. However, research shows that several victims who decide to ultimately come forward and speak up, will initially delay due to neurobiological and psychological responses to their assault like not remembering all the details clearly [5]. No one can predict how a person will act after experiencing sexual trauma. The memory of a traumatic experience can be encoded in our brain in a different way than a regular experience, so it’s not unusual that the memories of a traumatized person are often fragmented, out of sequence and filled with gaps. They may remember some very specific details of the experience like texture of the rapists’ t-shirt or smell of cologne but completely block or forget other details. The fact that survivors can later on remember something they didn’t earlier is not evidence of fabrication, it is just the result of how our brain encodes information during any kind of trauma. 

“We all make mistakes when we are young, can you judge him for the actions he did back in high-school?…It was just horse play not attempted rape”

By using this argument, people are diminishing a sexual assault experience to be a synonym of a “mistake”. During a CNN interview, Carrie Severino attempted to misguide Ford’s accusations to be “rough horse play” and that she has her own perception of things. In Ford’s statement, she mentions that she was groped, pinned down and her mouth got covered to avoid screaming. She even mentions the fear of being inadvertently killed. We can’t justify toxic behaviors like these to be passed as normal 

The reality is that the probability of any survivor to lie is tiny. Research shows that there is a very small percentage of false reporting [6]. At the end of the day, we need to give Ford the chance to tell her story victim-blaming arguments as we should do with any other survivor who comes forward. We also need to hold whoever takes on the Supreme Court seat to a higher standard. If we are not able to give survivors a platform to speak up, we won’t be able to create real cultural change in our country.


[1] Campbell et al 2001; Idisis, Ben-David, Ben-Nachum 2007; E.Pedersen & Strömwall 2013; EEOC 2016

[2] Cowan, G., (2000). Beliefs about the causes of four types of rape.

Sex-Roles, 42, 807–823.

[3] Idisis, Ben-David, Ben-Nachum (2007). Attribution of blame to rape victims among therapists and non-therapists.

[4] Sable, Marjorie & Danis, Fran & L Mauzy, Denise & K Gallagher, Sarah. (2006). Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault for Women and Men: Perspectives of College Students. Journal of American college health : J of ACH. 55. 157-62. 10.3200/JACH.55.3.157-162.

[5] Dr. Rebecca Campbell 2012 NIJ lecture –

[6] Lonsway, K. A., Archambault, J., & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice, 3(1), 1-11. Retrieved from the National District Attorneys Association:

[6] Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women, 16, 1318-1334. doi:10.1177/1077801210387747

[6] Heenan, M., & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria 2000-2003: Summary research report. Retrieved from the State of Victoria (Australia), Victoria Police:

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