Letter to the Editor: Professor Douglas Harms

Opinions, Mental Health
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Dear Editor,

I am sick and tired of people immediately challenging the validity of sexual assault survivors when they come forward with their story.  Mustering the strength and courage to come forward and reveal very personal and intimate details about a horrific event cannot be easy, and brushing off survivors as unreliable liars does them a great disservice.

Studies show that the vast majority of persons who come forward as survivors are telling the truth.  In fact, in the US, only 2 to 6 percent of reports of sexual assault turn out to be false, which is consistent with the rate of false reporting of crime in general.  A person is no more likely to falsely report sexual assault than someone is to falsely report home burglary. Assuming from the get-go that a survivor is lying or just trying to get attention or having regrets is absolutely unwarranted.

And the long term physical and psychological effects of sexual assault on the survivor are significant.  For example, a 2002 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the occurrence of diagnosable PTSD in survivors of sexual assault was higher than the occurrence of PTSD resulting from military combat; in other words, being sexually assaulted could be psychologically more traumatic than being shot at in combat.  Let that sink in: being sexually assaulted can be more traumatic than having someone try to kill you in combat.

And just like any trauma, every survivor’s response is unique; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond.  Thus, we must not judge the validity of a survivor’s story by how they react to their sexual assault. If a survivor takes several years to share their story, we must start by believing them.  If a survivor doesn’t act how we think a survivor should act, we must start by believing them. If a survivor stayed friends with their assailant, we must start by believing them. If a survivor didn’t fight back, we must start by believing them.  If a survivor’s story contains some inconsistencies, we must start by believing them. Under all circumstances, when a survivor shares their story, we must start by believing them. Period.

From listening to survivors share their stories, and from reading news reports, I know it is common for survivors to be threatened, publicly humiliated, bullied, and intimidated when they share their stories.  These challenges to their story become yet another traumatic event in their lives, and this harrassment really torques my drawers.

Instead of immediately challenging survivors when they share their stories, we must listen to them, support them, make sure they’re safe and have access to resources, and above all start by believing them.  I admire their strength to restore their own sense of agency, and their courage to move forward and speak up; to me they’re heroes, and I believe this is how we should treat them.

Douglas Harms

Professor of Computer Science