Why Victims Don’t Always Say Something

[The below was originally posted on my Facebook wall.]

Recently, people, mostly women, have been sharing stories in the media (including social media) concerning sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and inappropriate conduct.

One common theme in the responses to these stories has been something like this:

“Why didn’t you tell anyone? Why didn’t you report it at the time?”

I’m sharing my story in hopes of helping people to understand why some people did not, and do not, report these incidents. I am not seeking sympathy. I write so that others may better understand the thought process of a child who has to carefully weigh the possible outcomes of reporting an adult’s inappropriate behavior.

When I was 11, my father took my brother and me to a large bar/restaurant where he was talking with friends and we would meet my uncle before heading out for dinner and final tux fittings (my dad was getting remarried in a couple of days).  As was our custom, my father bought us each a Coke and gave my brother and I some money to pay the pinball machines and video games at the back.

(Note to helicopter parents: This sort of thing was not terribly unusual in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Parents today probably wouldn’t leave their kids unsupervised in an adult establishment, but back then nobody thought much about it.)

Next to the game I was playing were some businessmen taking turns at their own machine. They were probably in their thirties. One of the men turned to me, introduced himself, and shook my hand. He turned back to his machine and I went back to mine.

A few minutes later, his turn was up and he again came over and said hello, extended his hand. I shook it, but this time he wouldn’t let it go. I pulled my hand away and the man said: “Come on, hold my hand.”

I was 11.

Even at that age, though, I realized that this situation was rapidly getting out of control, so I began to walk away. He looked concerned for a second and asked: “Are you here with your dad?” I nodded and he asked me if I wanted a Coke. I refused and walked back to where my father was.

I was 11, but I wasn’t stupid. Awareness of sexual abuse issues had been on the increase and I knew that what this man was doing was not normal. I thought I should tell my father what had occurred, but as I approached the table, I realized that a fight might well have broken out and that perhaps it was unwise to risk triggering this.

I was 11.

At 11 I understood a lot. I understood that grown men shouldn’t be approaching young girls. I understood also that the reaction of other men against this man may be something that could create chaos and hardship for everyone.

At 11 I took it upon myself to weigh the behaviors of two men (one actual, one potential), assessing risk, considering whether any of this was worth it. In the end, I decided to play it safe: Stick by my dad and far away from the creep at the back. But not telling. Because I wasn’t sure that my father would be able to keep his cool (he wasn’t a violent person but this situation was beyond the pale) and I didn’t want to be the cause of a fight.

I was 11.

It wasn’t until I was much, much older that I began to see this story for what it was. At 11 I was not only the target of an adult man but also the self-appointed guardian of my father’s feelings and behavior. Somehow, just as I instinctively knew that the situation with the strange man “wasn’t right,” I also knew that reporting this action could cause the situation (between two men) to spill further out of control.

I remained silent.

I was 11.

There are other reasons why people don’t tell, of course. Some are physically threatened, some know that they will be disbelieved. Some are in shock. I suspect, however, that many were and are people who had to fear the possible consequences of the reactions of others.

Even as I type this, I fear the consequences of pressing the “Publish” button, knowing that some who are reading this may become defensive. They may tell me that I was wrong to not report what happened. They may try to explain that the man in the bar probably thought I was older. They may try to tell me that I was overreacting, that I didn’t understand the risks.

However, I am no longer 11. I am 48.

I am choosing to make other people responsible for their reactions to this post. If you disagree with it, if it makes you angry, you do have the power to keep your opinion to yourself. If you can’t manage yourself, I’m not going to do it for you.