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(Jose Reyes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Jose Reyes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Why women who are sexually assaulted remain silent Add to ...

In one corner, there is a man with a famous voice; in the other, a group of women who have been, until now, silent. Everyone in the country, it seems, has an opinion about the allegations of violence that have been directed against former CBC radio star Jian Ghomeshi.According to reports in the Toronto Star and on the CBC, nine women have now come forward and alleged that Mr. Ghomeshi was abusive toward them, with behaviour that included punching, slapping, choking, and sexual harassment. As of this writing, only two – actress Lucy DeCoutere and author Reva Seth – have put names to their claims. (Mr. Ghomeshi has said in a Facebook post that his activities were consensual, and no charges have been laid.)

Around the country, people huffed in judgment. Why were the other women anonymous? Why hadn’t they spoken earlier? Why had no one called the police? The judgmental brigade didn’t consider that the 10 seconds it takes to type a condemnation on Twitter or Facebook is hardly comparable to the epic slog that “speaking up” actually entails – the courage it requires, and the commitment.

Because speaking up is just the beginning of a process, one that can last years, drag through a courtroom, entangle parents and loved ones, cast a cloud over work, and require the continual retelling of a uniquely horrific event. A Band-Aid ripped hundreds of times off a wound that doesn’t heal. For a few days, a YWCA chart of rape statistics was posted repeatedly: Of every 1,000 sex assaults in Canada, there are three convictions. And still people asked, “Why don’t women come forward?”

This is not a story about what happened in Canada this week. But it is a story about why women are often silent about the crimes of sexual violence committed against them. And why these reasons – which are internal and external, personal and cultural – are so similar wherever women are assaulted around the world. Which is to say, everywhere.

In countries where rape is used as an instrument of war and in countries where women march under skyscrapers to “take back the night,” the reasons women stay silent are the same – shame, and stigma, and fear of not being believed, and fear of being hounded, and a desire to just get some place beyond the pain. They worry about what their families will think. They worry about “ruining” the life of a man who is, in many cases, known to the victim. They worry about entering the dark tunnel of the justice system, with no actual promise of justice at the end.

As one of Mr. Ghomeshi’s accusers said this week, “A lot of us are really afraid right now. Afraid of backlash, afraid of what he might do or say to discredit us, afraid of what the public might think, afraid of having our privacy invaded, afraid of having our jobs affected.”

Another of the women, who had remained silent for 10 years and spoke anonymously to CBC Radio’s As it Happens, said, “When this came to light a few days ago, it gave me permission to speak, and I thought, ‘Maybe someone will listen to me now.’ Because I don’t think, if I’d said anything back then, that anyone would care.”

Women all over the world are still blamed for the violence committed against them. Think about that. They are blamed if they speak out, and if they don’t. It’s a wonder anyone comes forward at all.

This is not to say that women shouldn’t be encouraged to report their abuse, only that the reasons they don’t are complex and intractable, and so deeply ingrained that they span generations and cultures.

Denial as armour

“The feeling of shame is so intense for rape victims that many never tell anyone what happened to them,” writes Nancy Venable Raine in her powerful memoir, After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. “I found it difficult not to feel ashamed when others reacted to me with embarrassment or discomfort. And this feeling of shame silenced me.”

Ms. Raine, a professional writer, was tied up and raped in her apartment shortly after moving to Boston. The man, a stranger, took not just her peace of mind but something else that was precious to her – her words. She couldn’t write about her experience, and found it difficult to discuss, not that anyone asked her. “If I kept the nightmare to myself, it would begin and end with me. If no one knew, no one else could hurt me.”

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