Why Women Can Take Years to Come Forward With Sexual Assault Allegations

Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said confusion and self-blame are common: “A lot of people who call the national hotline, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Was I raped?’”

Offenders encourage confusion and shame and exploit people’s reluctance to identify themselves as victims. Ms. Valliere said the offenders she treats list two main tactics used to obscure assaults: They camouflage the act as horseplay or humor, or they act as though nothing happened.

“If they do this enough, the victim can get really confused, like they’re really the bad one for thinking badly about the offender,” she said.

Her story doesn’t add up.

Andrea Constand, whose complaint that Bill Cosby drugged and raped her resulted in a criminal trial more than a decade later, was questioned on many fronts. One was on discrepancies in her statements about when the assaults occurred. Mr. Cosby said the sex was consensual, and the trial ended in a hung jury.

Similarly, Mr. Moore’s Senate campaign has questioned details in the story of Beverly Nelson, who said Mr. Moore forcibly groped her in a car in the late 1970s. It said she was wrong about details like what time the restaurant where they met closed and whether there were Dumpsters in back of the restaurant or on the side.

Not only does memory fade with time, but when the brain’s defense circuitry is activated, the prefrontal cortex, which normally directs attention, can be rapidly impaired, affecting what information is recorded in memory, said James Hopper, a psychologist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School. So the victim may remember a wallpaper pattern or a heightened sensation, but not the order of events. Even when the brain vividly records traumatic events, he said, it can sustain “super-encoding mode” for only a limited time before that function also becomes impaired.

Rebecca Campbell, a psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied the institutional response to sexual assault victims, compares the recall of a survivor to hundreds of tiny notes that are scattered across a desk. The bits of information may be accurate, but disordered and incomplete. Yet the first questions asked of victims are often who, what, when and where.

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