Blaming Victims Who Wait to Come Forward About Sexual Abuse is Not OK

Note: Originally published in Teen Vogue.

Yesterday, news broke that Roy Moore, Alabama’s ultra-conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate, allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. The story, which included similar allegations from three other women, sparked an intense debate online and in the national media, with many—including well-known figures like Sean Hannity— seemingly questioning the women’s motives and timing. While such a reluctance to believe victims certainly isn’t new, the consequences of asking why they don’t come forward sooner seems to be at an all-time high.

The allegations against Moore are but the latest in a long string of sexual assault allegations against high-profile men. Since the New Yorker published its Harvey Weinstein bombshell report in early October, multiple celebrities and otherwise notable men have been accused of sexual harassment and/or violence.

The amount of media coverage currently dedicated to sexual assault is unprecedented. And it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is beneficial: the news cycle, while triggering, feels like a tipping point in how we talk about sexual violence. Victims’ voices are being amplified, necessary conversations about harassment and abuse are happening, and allies are stepping up to own and reject their complicity in rape culture.

However, this boom in coverage also has a dark downside: it offers fresh opportunities to perpetuate victim blaming on national platforms and in greater quantities than ever before. Hannity wasn’t the only figure to seemingly excuse Moore’s alleged criminal behavior; several Alabama Republicans likewise jumped to his defense and offered their continued support for him. One man—Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler—went so far as to invoke Jesus Christ to shelter Moore from the allegations: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

And some apologists didn’t stop with mere excuses; they predictably shifted the blame on to the alleged victims, asking why they waited until now—years after the incidents and five weeks before the election—to share their stories. Republican Representative Ed Henry of Hartselle, Alabama went on the record calling for Moore’s alleged victims’ prosecution: “If they believe this man is predatory, they are guilty of allowing him to exist for 40 years. I think someone should prosecute and go after them. You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion.”

But it is very common for victims to delay disclosing their trauma, if they ever do at all. I can attest to this personally; I didn’t speak a word of my own rape for seven years. It is a humiliating experience to recount privately, let alone publicly, and victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. We are asked what we were wearing at the time of the assault, how much we were drinking, how we provoked it, and our sexual histories are leveraged against us as evidence that we “asked for it.”

What’s more, the vast majority of assailants will never spend one day in prison or jail, despite the overwhelming prevalence of sexual assault. And statutes of limitation restrict the window of time victims may file sexual assault charges.

Meanwhile, we witness notorious alleged serial abusers face little-to-no consequences. Case in point: President Trump has been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct and even seemed to brag on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” And he sits in the Oval Office.

It’s no wonder victims wait to come forward. Not only do they experience victim-blaming, but justice—whether criminal or karmic—is elusive. And in high-profile cases, like Moore’s, the risks are manifold; victims’ reputations are publicly picked apart, they are labeled as opportunists, and they are blamed for their trauma. They are effectively punished for coming forward.

This must end. Now. We need to stop asking victims why they wait to report their abuse, and instead focus on how we can support them in their quest for justice and healing. After all, delayed self-disclosure isn’t against the law; sexual harassment and abuse are.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINNEnd Rape on CampusKnow Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.