Skip Navigation
Analysis

Sexual Assault Remains Dramatically Underreported

If Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was sexually assaulted and didn’t report it, it would be all too common.

October 4, 2018

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual assault alleg­a­tions against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, one of the first ques­tions to emerge from the judge’s defend­ers was: If she was sexu­ally assaul­ted 36 years ago, why not report it then? 

Prob­ably for the same reas­ons that nearly 80 percent of rapes and sexual assaults go unre­por­ted, accord­ing to a Justice Depart­ment analysis of viol­ent crime in 2016. The real­ity is, it’s very common for sexual assault surviv­ors — most frequently, women — to decline to report the offense to police. At the same time, false accus­a­tions of rape or sexual assault are rare. And that should inform how we weigh Dr. Ford’s alleg­a­tions, as well as those of other surviv­ors. 

It may sound incred­ible that only around 23 percent of surviv­ors report such crimes to police, but it’s true. And that number is in line with past reports: Surveys of 2014 and 2015 both put report­ing rates for rape and sexual assault in the low 30s. (A history of low report­ing rates is one reason the Bren­nan Center declines to analyze trends in sexual assault in our crime reports. And low report­ing rates don’t detract from the broader conclu­sions to those reports, that crime and viol­ent crime remain histor­ic­ally low.)

Rape and sexual assault are seri­ous offenses. So why aren’t they repor­ted? Surviv­ors cite several reas­ons. Twenty percent, accord­ing to the DOJ report, worry about retali­ation — not just from the perpet­rator, but from soci­ety at large. Thir­teen percent said they think the police would not do anything to help. Tragic­ally, 8 percent said they didn’t think the rape or sexual assault was import­ant enough to report. 

Sexual assault surviv­ors struggle with a wide range of emotions that make coming forward diffi­cult: fear of revic­tim­iz­a­tion, distor­tion of alleg­a­tions, and gener­ally not being believed. As psycho­ther­ap­ist Beverly Engel puts it, “victims are often too ashamed to come forward. Sexual assault is a very humi­li­at­ing and dehu­man­iz­ing act against someone.” Why do victims often blame them­selves? Engel contin­ues: “[A]ttached to that shame is a lot of self-blame [. . .] because in our culture, we tend to blame victims in general.” 

For all these reas­ons, unre­por­ted assaults are all too common. Far less common, however, are false accus­a­tions of sexual assault or rape, hover­ing between 2 and 10 percent in the United States. You would­n’t know that from Kavanaugh’s defend­ers, includ­ing the pres­id­ent, who have insinu­ated that the judge’s accusers may be lying. But stat­ist­ic­ally speak­ing, it is far more common for a survivor of sexual assault to decline to report it than for someone to make false accus­a­tions of assault. 

Given these stat­ist­ics, we should be doing everything in our power to remove soci­etal and struc­tural barri­ers that can prevent surviv­ors from coming forward. Ques­tion­ing Dr. Ford’s motives, and asking why she didn’t come forward earlier — as many have done — both run directly counter to that goal. And they may further discour­age surviv­ors from coming forward with their stor­ies, espe­cially if the alleg­a­tions are against those in posi­tions of power. 

The set of stat­ist­ics surround­ing sexual assault tell a clear story. Sexual assault is much more common than we think, while false accus­a­tions are much rarer than some of Judge Kavanaugh’s more partisan defend­ers have sugges­ted. When we confront alleg­a­tions of assault, in polit­ics and in culture, we should under­stand the real­it­ies that sexual assault surviv­ors face when speak­ing out about their exper­i­ences. 

(Image: Melina Mara/Getty)