“Silence is so freaking loud.” — Sarah Dessen
In a recent interview with The Guardian, former model Amy Dorris alleged that President Donald Trump sexually assaulted her more than two decades ago at the 1997 US Open tennis tournament in New York. Dorris claimed she and her then boyfriend Jason Binn, a supposed friend of President Trump, accompanied him to the tournament after first meeting at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. The alleged assault occurred when she left President Trump’s private box to use the bathroom. When Dorris exited, she said he was waiting outside and forced himself on her, both kissing and fondling Dorris while holding her in a grip she could not escape from.
Several people have corroborated Dorris’s story, including a therapist, her mother, and friends she’s talked to in the years since. Binn, however, has yet to provide a response. Additionally, President Trump’s lawyers are skeptical of the former model’s account, asserting there would have been numerous witnesses if she was accosted outside of the bathroom and that Dorris still chose to be in the same vicinity as President Trump days after the alleged assault.
For some, Dorris’s experience with President Trump may seem all too familiar, considering sexual predators have no specific look, race, gender, or class. Additionally, his popularity and social status may have intimidated her, thus preventing legal action. However, others might question the allegation’s accuracy due to it being released less than two months before the presidential election as well as Dorris’s decision to remain in close contact with her perpetrator following the incident. These differing viewpoints are common when speaking about sexual assault, including rape. Given this, a deeper look into the mentality and behaviors of both victims and perpetrators is needed.
Facts and figures
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. Moreover, one in six women and one in 33 men have been either raped or the victim of an attempted rape in their lifetime. Despite this, however, results from a 2017 study by the National Women’s Law Center found just one percent of girls between 14 and 18 told police they were sexually harassed or assaulted while two percent spoke with parents or a school administrator. Additionally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that only 23 percent of rape or sexual assault victims sought police help during 2016, compared to 58 percent of aggravated assault victims and 54 percent of robbery victims.
There are several reasons why sexual assault often goes underreported. First, it may be difficult for victims to out or confront their abusers. Most individuals who sexually assault others appear to be normal, functional members of society. This façade might, in turn, affect the perception of a victim’s credibility. Reporting of this crime becomes even more complicated if the perpetrator is a person of power. Oftentimes, there is a fear of retaliation from abusers in high-ranking or influential positions. This could possibly explain Dorris’s actions after the alleged sexual assault by President Trump. One could also point to the treatment of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky when mentioning fear of retaliation. After news of her and former president Bill Clinton’s sexual affair went public, Lewinsky was largely scrutinized by the media despite President Clinton being in a position of power.
Most abusers have developed a relationship with their victims before any sexual assault has occurred. The perpetrator might be a relative or trusted figure. In some cases, it may take years for victims to identify any interactions as inappropriate. Offenders are often skilled at gaining trust and appearing friendly prior to and even after an abusive episode. They might camouflage sexual assault as horseplay or humor, or act as though nothing has happened. According to some experts, women are conditioned to smooth things over in these instances. At times victims might risk alienating themselves if their abuser is well liked or respected. Such may be the case for perpetrators who share friend circles. Accusations made against them could result in friends taking sides or turning against a victim.
Frozen in time
Another reason why sexual assault may go unreported is because of guilt. Victims often question themselves, wondering if abuse really happened or if they provoked it. One might wonder if their attire, decision making, or actions (e.g., overdrinking) led to sexual assault. These thoughts can result in feelings of shame, thus causing the abused to remain silent. Victim blaming may also come from those who were not present during an assault.
Those skeptical of victims might criticize how they tried, or failed, to fight off an abuser. Regarding this point, it can be difficult for some to resist sexual assault due to the strength or size of an offender. Such may be the case for an average woman who is inappropriately touched or approached by a man. In fact, some believe many women are conditioned to remain nonviolent during these encounters. Additionally, male victims of assault may also be unable to overpower their abusers. This puts many in a rough space when considering societal views about manhood and masculinity. Moreover, if an abuser is a woman, male victims may struggle with people questioning their sexual orientation.
Adding to a person’s decision making during an assault is how their body may respond to this threatening event. Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of over 20 self-help books, stated that during sexual assault the body may experience “tonic immobility,” a self-defense mechanism causing temporary paralysis in some people during such an occurrence. Neurobiological research has furthermore shown that the “fight-or-flight” response to danger should instead be referred to as “fight, flight, or freeze.” Certain individuals may become paralyzed or limp due to both the brain and body’s protective response to danger.
For many victims of sexual assault, how they process or deal with the incident can determine believability or empathy from others. Nevertheless, there is no one response to such an occurrence. Those abused may use drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviors, withdraw from others, or even become a future perpetrator. In certain situations, child victims of sexual assault may initiate contact with their offenders just to know when unwanted contact is coming. If an abuser is someone close such as a relative, employer, or teacher, individuals may have no choice but to interact and be cordial. However, some victims can manage interacting with perpetrators in a way that is safe. For example, Dorris may have felt taking pictures with President Trump around others was safer than being alone with him in a private setting.
One last area worth mentioning is reporting errors. Depending on how long a victim waits to share their story, details of a sexual assault may be inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate. Memory often fades with time. Moreover, when the brain’s defense circuitry is triggered, the prefrontal cortex, which usually directs attention, can be impaired, thereby impacting what information is recorded in memory. For this very reason, victims might think of an object such as a weapon being larger than it was. Ultimately, one must not apply similar demands of logic to victims of sexual assault that is done to victims of other crimes, such as robbery or credit card fraud.
Bringing an end to sexual assault entirely is unrealistic. However, there are several strategies that can help victims and prevent perpetrators from committing future crimes. First, it is imperative that all sexual assault allegations be carefully evaluated. There is no one right way to report or recover from an assault. Every individual decides what best works for them when they are being abused. However, work must be done to create an environment where victims are not afraid to report an assault. Lastly, perpetrators, no matter their status, should not be protected. Accountability is vital, especially when considering those who may be hesitant about coming forward with their stories.