Why Don’t More Victims of Sexual Abuse Come Forward?

This article is a reprint from an article that I recently wrote for The Foundation for Surviving Abuse.  I give an understanding as to the many reasons why more victims of sexual abuse don’t report the crime against them until the statute of limitations for reporting run out.

Actor Stephen Collins, who played the pastor/dad on the TV Show 7th Heaven, recently confessed to his estranged wife that he was a child molester. The tape of this confession, obtained by news sources, led the New York Police Department to conduct a criminal investigation into Mr. Collin’s sexual contact with multiple children. But because the statute of limitations for reporting the crime has run out for most of his victims, Mr. Collins will most likely spend no time in jail.

sexual abuse stats imageSadly, this story is not uncommon. The sexual abuse of children in the U.S. and abroad occurs frequently and often goes unreported. An estimated one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18. Fewer than ten percent of those victims will tell anyone what happened to them. At best, the sexual abuse-reporting rate is about six to eight percent. And, when victims of sexual abuse finally do come forward, the statute of limitations for reporting the crime has run out. It is no wonder then that sexual offenders have a good chance of getting away with their crime.

We might wonder why it is that more victims of sexual abuse don’t come forward while there is still time to prosecute their abusers. I had a patient named Andrea, whose case helps to illustrate some of the main reasons why victims of sexual abuse are hesitant to come forward and name their perpetrators.

Andrea first came to see me at the age of 37 complaining of chronic anxiety and unrelenting depression that had negatively impacted her ability to form personal and professional relationships. She had a history of intermittent anorexia and self-abuse that had taken the form of cutting and binge drinking. Her mental health profile was typical for sexually abused persons. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Andrea’s father had sexually molested her throughout her teenage years.

I knew Andrea’s wellbeing was tied in to her being able to face her perpetrator, but first we had to work on building her self-confidence. She had to get over the shame of being labeled a sexual abuse victim. Every fiber in her being resisted this label, and impeded her desire to discover the truth of what had happened to her.

The day finally came that Andrea was to confront her father. She asked if I would hold her hand during the session. When I met her father, I understood why. Even I, who had not been his victim, was taken aback by his 6’ 4 imposing height and demeanor. I imagined Andrea as a small child, unable to defend herself against him. I thought of how instead of teaching, protecting, and responsibly guiding her into the world, he had violated her in the most offensive and damaging way.

I would have given him credit for showing up for the session, if he had not tried to turn the tables on his daughter by blaming her for his sexual impulses and violation of boundaries. To ward off her confrontation, he resorted to ridicule, laughing at Andrea’s need to hold my hand and claiming that she had exaggerated the situation, as if sexual abuse of any kind could be an overstatement. He claimed that she had been seductive towards him. No wonder it had taken her so many years to come forward!

Sadly, Andrea’s case typifies the behavior of sex offenders. The perpetrator’s denial of their crime tends to be the least problematic issue for sexual abuse victims who come forward. Reporting sexual abuse opens up a Pandora’s box of challenges for which abuse victims must ready themselves. For years, victims of sexual abuse defend against distressing memories just so that they are able to function. . Once they drop their defenses and accept the reality of the abuse, they come face to face with all the pain and suffering that has been long buried. It’s understandable why it may be easier for a victim to pretend for years that they are okay rather than bring these painful memories out into the open, where they have to begin to deal with them.

Also, to report the sexual abuse, a victim must be emotionally strong enough to handle the reaction of family and friends. There will be those who may not believe that the abuse took place, or if they do, may not understand why the victim didn’t come forward sooner. Just when a victim is finally ready to face the reality of what happened to them, family and friends may want them to deny it, to make it go away, so that they don’t have to deal with the reality that their relative, friend or community member is a sexual predator.

Inevitably, once the abuse comes out, relationships will forever be changed. The now exposed sex offender may be going to jail or restricted from being around children. This gets really challenging for many victims of sexual abuse, who feel responsible for these changes that reporting the crime will surely bring about. This, as well as the social rejection, isolation and betrayal from family and friends may be more than the victim of sexual abuse can bear.

As illustrated in Andrea’s story, no one likes to be labeled a victim, but some labels are more tolerable than others. Saying that a person is “depressed,” or “anorexic” or “anxious” somehow lacks the stigma that is attached to saying that a person is ”a victim of sexual abuse.” A victim of sexual abuse can’t come forward because of the shame and guilt attached to the crime—a crime that has essentially robbed them of their strength and their self esteem.

For the victim of sexual abuse, it takes great preparation of personality and willpower— the ability to stay grounded in reality rather than fantasy – to say it out loud to themselves that they were wrongly violated. If it is hard for us to imagine the crime against them, imagine how it must be for them! They want to avoid these powerfully disturbing images rather than bring them forth. Their whole psyche is positioned to ward off the emergence of these memories into awareness. People who do manage to come forth need psychotherapy and group therapy for sexually abused victims to help develop their coping resources so that they feel strong enough to embrace the truth and ultimately report it.

And, what happens, when the report is made? At first shock and then relief—the bringing to light of years of pain, guilt and shame. The truth is moved up and out and onto the perpetrator. When we voice sexual abuse, something remarkable happens. We make it real. This is one more reason why many victims of sexual abuse don’t come forward—because saying it out loud to others and to the perpetrator says yes, the abuse is indeed real. It happened!

Which brings us to one of the most important reasons why victims of sexual abuse do not come forward. You see victims often deny the abuse themselves! They push it out of awareness and bury it somewhere deep inside of them. But, it’s always there, surfacing in dreams, anxieties and fears, recapitulating itself in here and now relationships, and in self-defeating behaviors that include alcoholism and drug use, eating disorders, and/or sex addiction. And once it’s out there, there’s no putting it back. Victims must find healthy ways to cope with the reality of the abuse and the reality of living.

Fortunately, it is possible for victims to emerge from their silence and their suffering to become healthier individuals. Like war veteran returning from combat, they relearn what it means to be a civilian. Once victims of sexual abuse free themselves of the toxic secret they’ve been holding onto for years, they learn how to live again.

Please don’t let sexual violence go unreported. If you or anyone you know is a victim of a sexual crime, please get the help you need to support your recovery and healing and for gathering the courage and strength to report the crime against you, before the statute of limitations run out.

I hope you liked today’s post. Please let me know by selecting the Like icon that follows. You can also Tweet and Google+1 today’s article for friends and family to let them know about it. Warm regards to everyone, Deborah.

The following are links to some of the major hotlines, advocacy organizations and informational publications and blogs that support victims of rape, sexual assault and incest. Please don’t let sexual violence go unheard

The Rainn Organization


National Children’s Alliance



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4 Responses to “Why Don’t More Victims of Sexual Abuse Come Forward?”

  1. avatar mathew ngigi says:


    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      True Mathew. Sadly, it is another thing that abuse victims have to deal with – the reactions of others that are not helpful or supportive. Thanks for your input. Warm regards, deborah

  2. We should always report the sexual abuse cases for the culprits to be prosecuted


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