Expert Commentary

Why many sexual assault survivors may not come forward for years

As the #MeToo movement has grown, one question continues to surface: Why would someone who experienced sexual assault wait years to come forward? Research shows the answer is complicated.

People holding protest signs in support of sexual assault survivors
(Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)

Over the past year, as the #MeToo movement has grown and national figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have faced allegations of sexual misconduct from women they knew years ago, one question has continued to surface:

Why would someone claiming abuse wait so long to come forward?

Research indicates the answer is complicated. There are a wide range of reasons people don’t report their experiences with sexual harassment and assault to authorities and, oftentimes, even hide them from friends and family members.

One reason is self-blame, said Karen G. Weiss, an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University whose research focuses on sexual violence.

“The public may not realize just how many victims of any crime blame themselves for their own victimization,” Weiss told Journalist’s Resource in an e-mail interview. “Self-blame is often reified by ‘well-intentioned’ confidants to whom they disclose. Seemingly innocent questions from family and friends can trigger self-doubt and prevent victims from reporting to police. They may also question what they did wrong and believe it was their fault.”

Another reason: Many people who have been raped don’t recognize it as rape, even when it fits the legal definition, a finding revealed in a review of 28 academic studies.

Below, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of peer-reviewed research — including two academic articles from Weiss — that investigates why many people don’t report sex crimes. This list includes studies that look at factors that discourage or prevent reporting among specific groups, including teenagers, college students, prison inmates and women serving in the military.



“Meta-Analysis of the Prevalence of Unacknowledged Rape”
Wilson, Laura C.; Miller, Katherine E. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, April 2016.

Laura C. Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, led this review of 28 academic studies to estimate how often women who’ve been sexually assaulted do not label their experience as rape.  The 28 studies focused on the experiences of a total of 5,917 women who had been raped at some point in their lives after age 14.

Across the studies, the researchers find that 60.4 percent of women, on average, did not recognize their experience as rape even though it fit the definition — an unwanted sexual experience obtained through force or the threat of force or a sexual experience they did not consent to because they were incapacitated.

“This finding has important implications because it suggests that our awareness of the scope of the problem may underestimate its true occurrence rate, depending on the type of measurement,” the authors write. “This impacts policy reform, allocations of mental health services, survivors’ perceptions of their experiences, and society’s attitudes toward survivors.”

The authors stress that their results may not generalize to men who have experienced sexual assault or to women who experienced it before age 14.


“’You Just Don’t Report That Kind of Stuff’: Investigating Teens’ Ambivalence Toward Peer-Perpetrated, Unwanted Sexual Incidents”
Weiss, Karen G. Violence and Victims, 2013. 

In this study, Weiss investigates why many teenagers who experience unwanted sexual contact from other teens trivialize those experiences as unimportant or normal. She relies on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, administered each year to tens of thousands of individuals aged 12 years and older. Weiss examined information collected on sex-related incidents between 1992 and 2000.

According to survey data, 92 percent of teens who say they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact are girls, 81 percent are white and 13 percent are Hispanic. Just over half of these incidents — 53 percent — involved sexual coercion such as rape and attempted rape while 47 percent involved other contact such as groping. Almost half of teenagers — 44 percent — said the perpetrators were other youth between the ages of 12 and 17.

A key finding: Teens who experience unwanted contact rarely report it. Five percent of incidents were reported to police and 25 percent were reported to other authorities such as school officials or employers.

Weiss finds two common reasons why teenagers don’t report perpetrators who are teenagers: 1) uncertainty that the incidents are real crimes or worth reporting and 2) adaptive indifference, which she describes as “an avoidance response that allows teens to do nothing, thereby remaining loyal to their friends, dating partners, schoolmates and peer groups.”

“Ambiguity reflects the difficulties of recognizing crime due to cultural messages that trivialize certain situations (e.g., sexual coercion by dates and unwanted sexual contact by schoolmates) as normal or as an inevitable part of youth,” Weiss writes. “Indifference reflects the social pressures for teens to ‘do the right thing,’ which often means conforming to group norms that discourage reporting to police. In this manner, ambivalence protects teens, at least temporarily, from social disapproval and interpersonal conflict associated with disclosing peer offenses.”


“Too Ashamed to Report: Deconstructing the Shame of Sexual Victimization”
Weiss, Karen G. Feminist Criminology, July 2010. 

In another study from Weiss, she “deconstructs shame as both a culturally imbued response to sexual victimization and as a much taken-for-granted reason for why victims don’t report incidents to the police.”

Weiss analyzed statements made by men and women as part of the annual National Crime Victimization Survey. She examined their responses to a survey question asking them to describe what happened to them. She also examined structured responses to questions about sex-related incidents. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics allowed her to access photocopies of information collected from survey respondents between 1992 and early 2000. The sample for this study consisted of 116 females and 20 males, most of whom were under age 25.

What Weiss found was that many respondents expressed shame as part of their description of what happened and why they didn’t go to the police. Thirteen percent of incidents made some reference to shame. For example, a 19-year-old women stated that she was ashamed and felt partly to blame for a male acquaintance raping her because she couldn’t stop him.

“Foremost, women’s shame narratives draw upon cultural assumptions about how ‘good girls’ should behave and how ‘bad girls’ will be judged after rape or sexual assault,” Weiss writes. “Women fearing they will be blamed, disgraced, or defamed are often too ashamed to report sexual victimization to the police.”

Shame also was a strong deterrent for men.

“Acknowledging crimes that are not supposed to happen to men, or at least real men, may threaten their masculinity, and challenge their sexual identities,” Weiss writes. “Unwilling to risk emasculation or exposure, men are choosing to remain silent rather than report sexual victimization to the police and others.”


“Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault for Women and Men: Perspectives of College Students”
Sable, Marjorie R.; Danis, Fran; Mauzy, Denise L.; Gallagher, Sarah K. Journal of American College Health, 2006. 

For this study, a research team from the University of Missouri-Columbia surveyed students at a large, Midwestern university to better understand what they perceive as the biggest barriers to reporting rape and sexual assault for men and women. Of the 215 students who participated, 54.7 percent were female and 83.6 percent were white.

Students rated “shame, guilt and embarrassment,” “confidentiality concerns” and “fear of not being believed” as the top three perceived barriers to reporting rape among both men and women. However, students rated shame, guilt and embarrassment as a much larger barrier for men than women. Another major barrier to reporting for men, according to students, is the fear they could be judged as being gay.

“Compared with women, men may fail to report because reporting is perceived to jeopardize their masculine self-identity,” the authors write. “The high score that being judged as gay received by the respondents may acknowledge society’s consideration that male rape occurs in the gay, not the general, community.”

Among the barriers perceived to be much larger for women than for men were “lack of resources to obtain help,” “cultural or language barriers to obtaining help” and “financial dependence on perpetrator/perpetrator interference in seeking help.”


“Reporting Sexual Assault in the Military: Who Reports and Why Most Servicewomen Don’t”
Mengeling, Michelle A.; Booth, Brenda M.; Torner, James C.; Sadler, Anne G. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, July 2014. 

For this study, researchers interviewed women who had served in the U.S. Army or Air Force and acknowledged at least one attempted or completed sexual assault while they were in the military. Of the 1,339 women interviewed, 18 percent said they had experienced sexual assault while serving on full-time active duty. Meanwhile, 12 percent said they had experienced sexual assault while serving in the Reserves or National Guard.

Among the key findings: Three-fourths of servicewomen did not report their assaults. Eighty percent of women who said they’d been assaulted identified the perpetrator as U.S. military personnel. The researchers found that sexual assaults were more likely to be reported if they occurred on base or while on duty or if they resulted in a physical injury. They also found that enlisted women who had never gone to college were most likely to report.

The most common reasons women gave for not officially reporting their assault were embarrassment and not knowing how to report. Other common reasons included worries about how reporting might affect their careers and whether confidentiality would be kept. Some women believed nothing would be done and some blamed themselves for their experiences.  A few women said they did not report because the person they had to report to was the perpetrator or a friend of the perpetrator.

“Study results reinforce earlier work showing that servicewomen continue to significantly underreport SAIM [sexual assault in the military],” the authors write. “For many servicewomen, the disadvantages of reporting outweigh the advantages.”


“The Darkest Figure of Crime: Perceptions of Reasons for Male Inmates to Not Report Sexual Assault”
Miller, Kristine Levan. Justice Quartely, 2010. 

Kristine Levan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Idaho, surveyed a random sample of 890 inmates from eight state-run prisons in Texas to understand why a male prisoner might not report sexual assault. Because many inmates didn’t complete the survey or completed it incorrectly, the final sample is 396 men.

Inmates said the three most common reasons prisoners may not report sexual assault are embarrassment, retaliation from other inmates and a fear of harassment and abuse from other inmates.

“The male prison environment thrives on exerting one’s own masculinity,” Levan writes. “Although the assailant of a sexual assault gains respect and status, the victim is ultimately emasculated … Heralding back to the tenets of the convict code, inmates are expected to not show signs of weakness, especially to other inmates, and admission to sexual victimization may be an indication to other inmates that they are indeed weak.”

Another key finding: The reason for not reporting may differ according to an inmate’s age.

“As the age of an inmate increases, he is more likely to report a fear of harassment, rather than embarrassment, as the primary reason to not report a sexual assault,” the author writes. “The general consensus in the existing literature indicates that younger inmates are more likely to be sexually abused.”


“Would They Officially Report an In-Prison Sexual Assault? An Examination of Inmate Perceptions”
Fowler, Shannon K.; Blackburn, Ashley G.; Marquart, James W.; Mullings, Janet L. The Prison Journal, 2010. 

A research team led by Shannon K. Fowler, an associate professor at the University of Houston, examines whether prisoners would report sexual violence or recommend that other prisoners report violence they had experienced. The team surveyed 935 male and female inmates from a large Southern prison system.

Here’s what they found: Most inmates said they would report their sexual assault. However, those who already had experienced assault while incarcerated were less likely to say they would. “This finding tends to support the bulk of work dedicated to prison culture and sexual assault, where inmate reports to staff could add additional consequences, like retaliation or additional labels of being ‘weak,’ which could lead to increased harassment by other inmates,” the authors write.

Black inmates were 13.7 percent more likely than white inmates to say they would report their sexual assault. On the other hand, prisoners who had served more time were less likely to say they’d report. “For every year served, there is a 2.7 percent decrease in the likelihood that an inmate would self-report her or his own victimization,” the authors write.

Inmates who completed high school were 29.3 percent less likely than inmates who didn’t finish high school to say they would report. Older inmates were more likely to say they’d report their assault.

The researchers also found that male inmates were 81 percent less likely than female inmates to recommend that a fellow prisoner report their assault to prison authorities. Also, those who said they knew someone who had been assaulted within the past year were twice as likely to say they would recommend reporting compared to inmates who knew no one who’d been victimized in the past year.



Other resources that may find helpful to journalists:

  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center is a leading source of data and information about sexual violence. RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, is an anti-sexual violence organization that operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
  • The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 requires states to implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault within correctional facilities. It also requires the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to track and analyze the incidence of prison rape annually. The BJS provides a variety of related reports on its website.
  • A 2017 study published in the academic journal PLOS One finds that 22 percent of all college students have experienced sexual assault but that women and gender non-conforming students are much more likely than men to say they have been assaulted. The study finds that 28 percent of women, 12 percent of men and 38 percent of transgender and other gender non-conforming students said they experienced at least one sexual assault while in college. It also finds that “freshman year, particularly for women, is when the greatest percentage experience an assault.”
  • A 2001 report commissioned by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, “Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America’s Schools,” found that sexual harassment is common in public middle schools and high schools and that only four in 10 teenagers said they would likely complain to an adult if it happened to them.
  • This annual report from the U.S. Department of Defense, released in May 2018, shows the department “received 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or subjects of criminal investigation, a 9.7 percent increase over the 6,172 reports made in fiscal 2016.” All four military services — the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — saw increases in reporting.


This photo, taken by Fibonacci Blue and obtained from the individual’s Flickr account, is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.


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