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Stoya with James Deen

Why does it take rape victims so long to speak out?

2015 has seen a change in attitude towards victims of sexual assault – but the stigma is still alive and well

2015 has been an explosive year for sexual scandal. With 35 of Bill Cosby’s alleged victims stepping out of the shadows to front New York Magazine back in July, and ‘feminist porn star’ James Deen having his career shattered by a sudden onslaught of accusations last month, it seems like people are finally feeling strong enough to speak out about abuse. All these reported crimes, which were once dismissed as hushed taboos or shameful secrets, have become public knowledge. The world is now listening. 

It’s been a long time coming, though – and in the case of Bill Cosby, some of his accusers waited more than half a century before they felt comfortable enough to talk. In fact, it was only at the end of last year that each woman – seemingly one by one – felt able to share their story. “It was sort of like we were yodelling in a canyon and set off an avalanche,” explains Joan Tarshis, one of Cosby’s 50 alleged victims. “I knew I wasn’t ever gonna receive any money. I certainly didn’t want to be remembered as the woman that Bill Cosby raped. But I just felt so vindicated that I wasn’t alone.” Within a matter of weeks, what was once dismissed as unbelievable became a legitimate, high-profile scandal.

“In situations where the perpetrator has a lot of power, victims may fear that they won't be believed,” explains the University of Sussex’s Dr Kristine Hickle, when asked about the sudden flood of accusations. “The possibility of being doubted or judged is very real, and we've seen so many times victims who had the courage to come forward being re-victimised by those who doubt and blame them. Seeing someone else come forward helps provide some courage, gives them hope that they will be believed, and helps them to know that they are not alone.”

“The process of being on trial for rape and defending yourself is disgusting. Rape is the only crime where you're required to prove that you didn't do something to deserve it” – Lola Phoenix

With Stoya, the effects were almost instant. Despite waiting a couple of years before publicly making her claims against Deen, it was only a matter of hours before eight other reported victims stepped out in solidarity. “Nobody was saying anything,” she told The Guardian shortly after. “It took me months and months and months, over a year of months to be able to call it what it was – which was rape.” And, considering the ‘misogynistic’ reputation of the porn industry, it was actually the most progressive response to an assault scandal in recent memory, spawning a series of supportive hashtags and losing Deen a number of professional contracts. 

While all of this acceptance may seem positive, it’s really only a drop in the ocean. Rape is still not treated with the urgency it deserves, which is why the handling of these high-profile cases is so important. Male victims tend to be mocked or ridiculed, while women tend to be seen as liars – despite the fact that rates of false reporting are no higher than any other crime. 

“I can't speak to everyone's experience of sexual assault, but I know that for me, the first thing I did when I went through it was to deny it to myself,” recalls writer Lola Phoenix, who was assaulted while growing up. “I tried to tell myself that it wasn't that big of a deal. That I was over-dramatising it. Nobody was in a bush. I didn't say no. I didn't fight back. So it didn't count. And that's honestly sometimes your first inclination, because you just don't want to believe that something like that happened to you.”

It’s the pervasive sense of shame that actually seems to unite many rape victims. According to statistics from Rainn, 68 per cent of sexual assaults will remain unreported because of this – a figure that rockets up to 95 per cent on some college campuses. “The process of being on trial for rape and defending yourself is disgusting,” says Phoenix. “Rape is the only crime where you're required to prove that you didn't do something to deserve it. People compare you to a car with an unlocked door, as if you're an object. They investigate what you did to cause it, which in and of itself hinders the process of recovery. And the entire process of recalling what happened to you in detail could be difficult, triggering, and not worth the very tiny chance your accuser could end up in jail.”

That said, something is slowly shifting – and the well-publicised cases of this year are only proof of that. “We need to believe sexual abuse victims, and convey very clearly that we believe them,” adds Dr Hickle. “We need to understand that disclosures of sexual abuse and violence often happen in pieces – that telling the whole truth of what has happened doesn't necessarily all happen at once.”

We also need more men and women to step forward and speak honestly about their experiences in order to make this change happen. The more open our conversations about sexuality become, the more people will finally start to accept that rape is a crime – and one that no one deserves, or should ever have to experience. 

Lola Phoenix is currently undergoing gender identity surgery. Help fund their treatment here