EDITORIAL: Victims of sex assault deserve better from us

You would have to be stone deaf or heartless not to notice what happened in the country last week. No, we’re not talking about the stunning U.S. Senate hearing on a Supreme Court nominee. We’re talking about the unleashing of pain and memory by women everywhere who have been sexually abused yet stifled their voices. No doubt that has happened time after time in Malheur County.

Much of the country was riveted by the public testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and then the forceful – tearful, in parts – denunciation of her accusations by Brett Kavanaugh. The fate of Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court rests in the hands of U.S. senators, who are awaiting a new FBI investigation.

No one has to pick a side to be struck by what the hearing uncapped. Across the U.S., women went public with bitterness from their own experiences – at not being believed, at being shamed, at being victimized once again. A move took hold on Twitter – #WhyIDidntReport. Hour by hour, sexual abuse victims shared their anguish. And that included a few men.

Consider a few entries from women on why they didn’t report to anyone the abuse they suffered:

“Because knowing our society, no matter the story, I’d be told it was my fault.”

“I thought it was normal. I thought I probably brought it on myself. I thought no one would care. I thought it probably didn’t matter anyway. I thought I wasn’t important enough to bother. I thought I was alone.”

“Because I was ashamed, because I was scared, because I was threatened, because I was convinced no one would believe me, because I wanted to pretend it never happened.”

“Because it was my boyfriend’s best friend and I didn’t want him to think it was my fault. Because nobody at the time would’ve believed me. Because there was no proof and I couldn’t have provided evidence.”

Victims rarely go to police. In Malheur County, it’s not clear how many sex abuse cases are unreported. The latest official state data from 2017 showed four rapes and 14 other sex crimes reported to local law enforcement, though officials say the numbers are inaccurate and low.

But the girls and women of Malheur County are no different from those from around Oregon and the country. Victims, according to research, often are too ashamed of what happened to tell anyone. And, as the excerpts show, they are too often afraid they won’t be believed. They suffer in silence.

Those of us in Malheur County aren’t going to have any effect on the Kavanaugh proceedings. We can, though, profoundly affect what happens here at home. We need to find even more ways to reduce the shame, reduce the guilt, reduce the fear that serve as stoppers on reporting abuse. What victims need is empathy – someone they can trust to listen, to absorb and to not judge. Victims need safe harbor – a place they can turn to feel protected and cared for.

Anyone who has a daughter, a sister, or granddaughter in Malheur County would want nothing less for them. Our police and social service agencies have to keep driving to improve care for these victims. If more resources are needed to do so, now’s the time to speak.

But this isn’t a job just for the officials. Every one of us has a duty to reduce assaults and to help those victimized. We must stand against behavior that in any light encourages abuse and assault. We must stand against the idea that women just have to endure. And we must stand with those who reach out to us, offering shelter, comfort, and security.

Let Malheur County be a place where victims of sexual assault no longer fear the justice and social service communities as much as they do their own attackers.

– LZ