This originally was published in LNP on Sunday, November 23, 2014
As allegations against Bill Cosby resurface and new alleged victims come forward, it is important to remember why victims of sexual assault, especially when victimized by celebrities, wait to report, if they choose to report at all.
Sexual assault can cause intense feelings of humiliation. Denial, shame and self-doubt are all typical psychological byproducts of being abused by someone you trusted.
Victims often struggle with fears that other people will judge, blame and disbelieve them, and fear how gossip about what has been done to them can further inflict feelings of isolation, shame and humiliation.
When the perpetrator is part of the victim’s social circle, or someone of upstanding reputation such as a celebrity, they also fear having others side with the abuser.
Those fears can keep victims silent for years after the assault or assaults occurred, particularly if the first person they tell reacts as they had feared. The women who have said that Bill Cosby raped them have said they harbored these fears for years.
Victims sometimes need decades to even admit to themselves that what happened to them was abuse, let alone to muster the courage to file a report about what is perhaps the most traumatic physical and psychological betrayal that one can experience.
Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence. When victims break that silence, they know they’ll face a new set of challenges, but it’s never too late to speak out.
When victims break their silence, there is help available at rape crisis centers including counseling, support groups and assistance in navigating legal, medical and other systems.
Power, wealth and influence don’t make a person more likely to commit sexual assault, but they do make it harder for victims to come forward.
People often attribute tremendous character and credibility to celebrities, whether or not they deserve it.
Last month, a man who police believe to be Stephen Collins — who played the father and pastor on “7th Heaven” — confessed on tape to sexually abusing children.
Many were shocked that such a beloved character could commit such an atrocity. But people who commit sex offenses often appear to be nice, responsible, upstanding, loving and law-abiding members of the community.
Labels such as “monster,” “predator” or “animal” distract us from the fact that these people often use labels such as “teacher,” “pastor” or “friend.”
Because Cosby is a beloved comedian, a well-known educator and a wealthy man who has not been charged with any crime, many people will dismiss the numerous reports of rape that have emerged and believe him without reservation.
Whatever happens with Cosby, there is hope — hope for a future free from sexual violence. Hope that people who see or know of abusive behaviors will step in to protect potential victims instead of the perpetrators. Hope for survivors to heal from the abuse inflicted upon them and that together we can change the culture we live in, which readily excuses reports of sexual abuse by those with power, wealth and celebrity status.
There is healing for survivors of abuse, and breaking the silence is the first step. Your local rape crisis center (1-888-772-7227 in PA) can help.
Kristen Houser is the vice president of public relations for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.