A cop who’s spent 30 years fighting sexual assault explains why victims often wait to come forward
Tom Tremblay has spent decades advocating for the prevention of sexual assault and domestic violence, first as a police officer in Vermont and now as a consultant. Much of his work focuses on how to improve law enforcement practices to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to come forward and report crimes.
“Victims may wait days, weeks, months, years, decades,” he says. “When one victim comes forward, it’s not at all uncommon to see other victims come forward, who are thinking, ‘Well, they came forward; now it’s not just my word.’ And then we see the next victim says the same thing.”
Victims wait to report assault, Tremblay says, because of the power dynamics often at play in these crimes.
“Oftentimes [power and control are] purposefully leveraged during the assault and afterward, with things like, ‘Nobody is going to believe you, I’m an important person in the community,’” he says.
Tremblay and I spoke Thursday afternoon about why women often wait long periods before reporting sexual assault, what law enforcement could do to better assist victims, and how the language the media uses can often disadvantaged victims. What follows is a transcribed version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What do we know about how victims of sexual assault do and don’t decide to speak publicly about the sexual violence they’ve experienced?
We know from research and our own experience that sexual assault and rape are the most underreported crimes. And part of the reason they’re underreported is that victims are concerned about whether they’re going to be believed or not. That prevents a lot of folks from coming forward, as well as the trauma of the experience.
So we see this delayed reporting in many instances, because victims are so traumatized. For one, it’s hard for them to believe that this happened to them. Two, they don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve in fact been a victim. It’s often someone the victim knows and trusts.
The most common thing you hear, and the most common thing you see in the research, is that victims don’t think they’re going to be believed or supported.
Can you speak a bit more about the point you made there, about why trauma would lead women to delay reporting of a sexual assault?
One issue is the science of trauma and what happens to the brain and body during something traumatic. Nobody wants to wear the label of victim of rape or sexual assault, so they often struggle to understand what happened, what really occurred. There are so many myths and misconceptions around sexual assault. There are all these messages that it was somehow your fault. We blame victims more than we do [with] any other crime for what they were wearing, how much they drink, why did the victim do this, why did the victim do that.
Many of these messages, which victims have heard over and over again, are some of the first thoughts to go through their mind. They’re wondering, Am I going to be blamed for this, and trying to figure this out in a brain that has just been traumatized.
So when someone experiences trauma, their memories can become fragmented, and rational thoughts can be impaired. It’s really a complicated issue.
What have you learned in your work about those who perpetrate sexual assault?
I do a lot of training on these issues, and I do a segment on offender behavior. One of the things you see in offenders who have been studied is a sense of entitlement. That they are entitled to exercise whatever power and control they have, and that they can do what they want. Often the sense of entitlement is based on patriarchal views that have been part of our society a long time. That sense of entitlement is a big piece of sexual offenders who have been studied.
Rape doesn’t happen, sexual offenses don’t happen, unless they think they can get away with it. Sexual assault and rape are choices.
A lot of times, these crimes are committed by individuals who are using power and control over someone. You shouldn’t confuse power and control with physical violence. It’s not always that. Instead, it’s the suspect or offender who is leveraging some sort of power or control over someone. Maybe it’s their position, maybe it’s their stardom, maybe it’s their wealth. It’s not just physical power. It could be something like an age difference or experience difference that is used.
That power dynamic is obviously leveraged during the assault, but what about afterward? How does it play out that the offender might be in a position of power related to the victim?
Oftentimes, it’s purposely leveraged during the assault and afterward, with things like, “Nobody is going to believe you, I’m an important person in the community.”
That sense of entitlement — that I’m such a good guy that nobody would believe I would do anything like this — they promote that kind of image and use it as leverage over their victims. That stays with victims.
Is it surprising to you that some women are just now coming forward to report sexual misconduct by Donald Trump, when those incidents happened years ago? Some on the Trump campaign have questioned why these allegations are coming out so close to the election.
No, this is not uncommon at all. The more power and control someone has, the more devastating it is for a single victim to feel like they could come forward and report this. It’s like, who the hell is going to believe me when it’s this big, powerful person?
So when one victim comes forward, it’s not at all uncommon to see others think, “Well, they came forward; now it’s not just my word,” and then the next person says the same thing. We often see that offenders are serial offenders. They are entitled for a long period of time. So it’s not uncommon to see someone say, I’m going to come forward because this person did.