Published March 18, 2019
During an era when sexual misconduct allegations are turning up in every corner of society, Dori R. Marshall, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, says it’s extremely common for people who have experienced sexual assault — especially young women — to stay silent for a long time.
Unlike many other types of assault, sexual assault creates a profound sense of self-blame in the victim, says Marshall, who is associate dean and director of medical admissions and specializes in treating adolescents at UBMD Psychiatry.
“We see it all the time in kids who end up in the hospital or who are depressed or anxious or have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “They bury it for years.”
“There is a sense of shame that comes with sexual assault,” emphasizes Marshall. “People who have been sexually assaulted feel that they are dirty, that this is somehow a reflection of them since it happened to them.”
Victims fear they will be blamed by others.
“What do we often say to children when they get hurt?” Marshall asks. “We say, ‘You got hurt, well you shouldn’t have been running in the house.’ They’re used to being told they got hurt because of their own action, or inaction, so when something as intimate and deeply personal and painful as sexual assault happens, they’re afraid of what other people’s reactions will be.”
Often, victims of sexual assault have heard that assault survivors are blamed for the abuse.
“They’ve heard others say, ‘well, they were asking for it, they went to a party, they used a substance,’ as if it’s their fault for getting hurt if they imbibed those things,” says Marshall.
“If you see others in the news or in social circles being blamed for being sexually assaulted, that makes other people more reluctant to come forward and say, ‘This happened to me.’”
The national controversies about sexual assault that have embroiled the nation’s political institutions have only reinforced these concepts.
For instance, when people who allegedly committed sexual assault are being held up as role models, that makes people all the more fearful about coming forward, says Marshall.