Between public exposure, pressure from friends and family, and stress already inflicted by the underlying abuse, some sexual abuse victims stop cooperating with prosecutors.
Teena McBride, director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center, said many of the factors that make victims reluctant to report abuse continue to apply once the case goes public. Those factors become more serious once the criminal case begins moving and gaining news coverage.
McBride said staff at the Domestic Violence Center had discussed whether they would report it if they were sexually assaulted, and said several admitted they would not.
“The public’s not nice to victims of sexual assault,” McBride said.
According to McBride, once a sexual assault is reported, charges are filed and details are reported by news media, there can be a backlash if the victim was not “perfect.”
Many people’s prototypical conception of sexual assault involves someone staying at home, minding their own business when a stranger breaks in to sexually assault them. But most sexual assaults are more complicated, McBride said.
Defendants in sexual abuse cases are often known to the victim. Many cases involve one or both parties being intoxicated. In some cases, including those involving child sexual abuse, the abuser claims the victim was flirtatious or somehow responsible for the rape.
McBride said comments on social media can be particularly harsh, especially if the accused was well-liked and respected. Just as predators groom victims to be accepting of sex abuse, they may also groom entire communities to stand up for them.
Nationally there has been pushback against victim-blaming. The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse and the excuses used to justify it.
McBride said, however, that the response to sex abuse allegations still has room for improvement. She was particularly critical of comments defending abusers or blaming victims, saying they send the message that sexual abuse can be tolerated.
“Public opinion can send a message to others that, if you pick the right victim, we can be a member of your jury, and we’re going to find you not guilty based on a victim’s behavior,” McBride said.
McBride said victim-blaming can also take the form of individuals insisting that they are required to speak up to stop the accused from hurting someone else. She said it effectively lays the blame for the accuser’s future actions on the victim.
“To flip that around and say it’s the victim’s fault for not speaking, that’s unfair,” McBride said.
If the defendant is a relative or spouse, they may have financially supported the victim before their arrest. In some cases, friends and family of the accused and/or the victim may put pressure on them to drop their case.
A study published in 1991 in the academic journal Child Welfare League of America found 22 percent of victims of child sex abuse attempt to recant the allegation, with the likelihood rising the younger the victim.
The Victim’s Commissioner, a government-appointed position in the United Kingdom that advocates for victim’s rights, published a study in 2019 that found 33% of victims withdraw from a case after reporting sexual abuse to law enforcement. The majority of those who withdrew did so because they found the process of a criminal case too distressing.
Pamela Millhouse, victim coordinator for the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office, said victims are often distressed by the idea of testifying in court.
“The concern most expressed to me by victims about having to testify is that they will have to describe in detail what happened to them with the person who caused them harm sitting right across the room,” Millhouse said via email.
Millhouse said fear of the unknown also can scare victims away from testifying. Most victims have no experience with the criminal justice system and are unsure of what is expected of them in court. They may also be overwhelmed by press coverage. Millhouse said friends and family typically figure out who the victim is and may contact them before they are ready to discuss the abuse.
On Monday, Jefferson County District Judge Stevan Thompson sentenced James Gordon Davis to a minimum of three years in prison. Thompson said during the sentencing that he thought the three-year minimum allowed under the plea agreement was low, given the charges against Davis for sexually abusing minors and threatening them with violence if they reported him. He added, however, that not accepting the agreement would have likely resulted in a jury trial that would require the victims to testify.
Intimidation by the accused can also result in victims withdrawing. Davis was recorded over the phone in jail contacting the mother of his victims. He tried to convince her to take the victims out of the county and said he would die in prison if they were allowed to speak.
Thompson noted Davis seemed to have been successful in his attempt to stop the victims from testifying. The victims did not want to enter the courtroom unless the judge guaranteed they could not be forced to testify.
McBride said prosecutors must weigh the mental health of the victim with the safety of the community, and that testifying can add to an already traumatizing experience.
“Our social change isn’t there. You still have a lot of old mindset and victim-blaming that takes place,” McBride said.