The intense media coverage of Larry Nassar, former physician for USA Gymnastics recently sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, raises the question: How could Nassar get away with abusing so many victims for so long? Victims reported the abuse to authorities as early as 1997.
Below we address some widespread myths about sexual abuse, which make victims reluctant to come forward and cases difficult to prosecute.
“There’s no evidence. It’s just he said/she said.” The testimony of a victim is the most fundamental form of evidence. In the vast majority of cases, only the victim and the abuser know what really happened. It is obvious abusers choose to abuse their victims in secret. Jurors are instructed “the testimony of any witness whom you believe is sufficient to prove any fact in dispute.” Why do we believe, without any physical evidence or other witness, a victim of a mugging, who says he was held at gunpoint and forced to hand over his cash, and not a victim of sexual assault?
Dr. Peter Palacio, of VIVA!GYN in Bend, stated 85-95 percent of examinations performed on children after a sexual assault have no abnormal physical findings. The American Journal of Obstetric Gynecology reported findings suspicious or diagnostic of abuse occurred in less than 5 percent of abused children and concluded, “The genital examination of the abused child rarely differs from that of the nonabused child.”
Dr. Lauren O’Sullivan, an OB/GYN in Bend, agreed there is no “virgin test” to definitively prove whether a female has had intercourse. According to Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, DNA evidence left by an abuser is unlikely to be found more than 24 hours after an incident of rape, and extremely rare past 72 hours.
“Even a kid would say no to that.” Abusers groom their victims. Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim trusts. Abusers often start with something less serious, like a touch they can pass off as accidental or innocent, to see how the victim will react, and gradually escalate the abuse. Children are predisposed to trust and defer to their parents, church leaders, coaches and other elders. Abusers build an environment where a child may not even realize what is happening is wrong, or think nobody would do anything to help if they told.
“(S)he took it all back or didn’t report it right away.” Studies show recantation — taking accusations back and claiming it was all made up — occurs in well over half of child sex abuse cases. When the full impact on the victim’s life is felt, he or she frequently makes an emotional decision that returning to the way things were, even with continued abuse, might be preferable to the stress of seeing a sexual abuse case through investigation and prosecution. Recantation rates are higher when the abuser is a close family member, or when the victim’s family is unsupportive and takes the abuser’s side. The journal Child Maltreatment found 66 percent of children recanted when at least one family member expressed disbelief of the child’s experiences. The journal Child Abuse Review determined children who are abused by a family member are less likely to disclose at all, and more likely to delay disclosure, than children who are abused by a non-relative.
“(S)he changed the story.” Incomplete reporting is common in sex abuse cases. Victims often disclose part of, or a less serious version of, the actual abuse to gauge the reaction from the person who hears it. An unsupportive reaction will frequently result in recantation. A supportive reaction results in a more complete disclosure when the victim is believed. Material changes in a victim’s story are the result of how the human brain reacts to trauma. The Journal of Traumatic Stress compared children’s memories of traumatic events to those of positive experiences and discovered memories of trauma, especially sexual trauma, often contain less sensory detail and coherence.
“(S)he’s lying to get attention.” Dr. Palacio recently stated the rate of children false reporting is between just 2-8 percent. In a study involving 2,059 reports of sexual assault in eight U.S. communities, only 7 percent were classified as false. The attention an abuse victim receives is negative. Families are torn apart as members decide whose side to take. Victims are publicly ridiculed, judged and called liars. Every unrelated bad decision a victim has ever made is spun to paint the victim as willing, as deserving or as untrustworthy. However unjustly, the victim, not the abuser, is made to bear most of the burden of blame, guilt, fear and humiliation.
Nassar’s victims gained credibility by sheer force of numbers, with more than 150 brave young women eventually speaking out. Most sexual assault is not perpetrated by the hundreds, but by ones and twos — committed by parents, parental figures, relatives, family friends and other trusted individuals. It is time to believe those survivors too, even if their experiences don’t match up with the “myths” of sex abuse.
Jim Carpenter is the Grant County district attorney. Mara Houck is the Grant County chief deputy district attorney.