Gender-based violence (GBV) is physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological harm inflicted on someone because of their gender. This includes intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking, and more. Sadly, GBV is extremely common, with around 1 in 3 women globally experiencing physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.
Despite how widespread it is, GBV remains vastly underreported. For example, over 75% of sexual assaults go unreported in the United States. Survivors have many complex, understandable reasons for not reporting right away or at all. This article will explore those reasons in-depth, emphasizing that a survivor's choice around reporting should always be respected.
Feeling Responsible or Blaming Themselves
One of the most tragic effects of prolonged abuse is when survivors start to feel responsible, or even blame themselves, for the violence inflicted upon them. Abusers are master manipulators, often using tactics like gaslighting to distort the survivor's reality. A lifetime of psychological abuse can warp a person's self-perception.
Survivors may think things like:
- "If only I was better at keeping the house cleaner, then he wouldn't get so angry."
- "It's my fault for provoking her by not having dinner ready on time."
- "I should have known not to talk back and make him mad like that."
When survivors have been conditioned over time to believe the abuse is their own fault, they are very unlikely to report it. In their minds, they "deserved" the abuse and reporting would only lead to victim-blaming reactions.
No one ever deserves to be abused. The blame lies solely with the perpetrator who made the choice to be violent. But unraveling years of psychological damage takes time and support. Until survivors can shift their perspective, self-blame will continue preventing many from reporting.
Downplaying or Not Recognizing Abuse
Similarly, many survivors minimize abusive behaviors or don't even classify them as abuse initially. Again, manipulative abusers often gradually normalize behaviors over time. The progression may start slowly with put downs or controlling behavior before escalating to physical violence. When shifts happen incrementally, the situation can feel "not that bad" compared to how it started.
Survivors may rationalize their partner's actions with thoughts like:
- "He only gets jealous because he really loves me."
- "It was just a slap this time, not a punch."
- "She was just drunk that night when she forced me into sex. It won't happen again."
Downplaying abuse as not serious enough to report can be reinforced by societal attitudes. People still commonly perceive domestic violence as only physical, when emotional abuse can be equally traumatic. Minimizing abuse is a survival tactic, but prevents survivors from recognizing the severity of the situation.
Lack of Support System or Isolation from Abuser
Abusers frequently isolate their victims from family, friends, and other sources of support. They may gradually cut off contact, sow seeds of mistrust, or actively forbid interactions. This isolation damages survivors' support networks and self-esteem, making them more dependent on the abuser.
Without trusted friends or family to turn to, survivors can feel like they have nowhere to go. They may not know about support resources like hotlines, shelters, or counseling. The perceived lack of emotional support makes reporting seem pointless or even dangerous.
Even survivors who aren't totally isolated may feel unable to tell friends or family due to shame or fear of judgment. They may think loved ones will have reactions like:
- "What did you do to make him so angry?"
- "But she's your mom, I'm sure she didn't mean it."
- "Why didn't you just leave the first time he hit you?"
These types of victim-blaming responses from loved ones reinforce survivors' impulse to stay silent.
Financial Dependence on Abuser
Leaving an abusive relationship is extremely difficult for many reasons, including financial ones. Abusers often control the household finances, slowly draining the survivor of economic resources and independence. Survivors may rely entirely on their abusive partner for access to money, transportation, housing, insurance, etc.
Without financial security, the thought of leaving is daunting or even impossible. Reporting abuse could trigger retaliation from the abuser, including cutting off all financial support. Homelessness or poverty seem like the only options. Staying in the relationship begins to feel like the safest economic choice.
Even survivors with independent finances may face economic barriers to reporting. The legal process can be costly, and time off work is often needed to attend court dates, interviews, etc. Hiring a divorce lawyer to protect rights to shared assets also incurs fees. For low-income survivors, the financial burden of reporting may simply feel unmanageable.
Fear for Safety of Children
When children are in the home, the stakes for survivors contemplating reporting become even higher. Protecting their children is a top priority, and any risk to them is terrifying.
Sadly, children are also direct victims of abuse in many violent households. The survivor parent may be concerned that reporting will trigger even worse abuse towards the children. They may think:
- "If I report him and he gets arrested, he'll take it out on the kids."
- "What if she kidnaps the kids while I'm at the police station?"
- "The kids will get put into foster care if I report."
The abuser often directly threatens harm to the children as a way to control the survivor parent from seeking help. They may say things like:
- "If you leave me, I'll kill the kids."
- "I'll call CPS and say you're crazy if you report. They'll take the kids away."
Even if the children are not direct victims themselves, witnessing abuse of a parent can cause lasting trauma and mental health issues. The survivor parent feels obligated to preserve a two-parent household to avoid further harm to the kids.
Reporting abuse ultimately may be necessary to protect the children from long-term damage. But the short-term risks can seem too high, especially if the abuser has legal rights to child custody. Weighing risks to their children's safety is an impossible but critical calculation survivors must make.
Fear of Retaliation from Abuser
Sadly, leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for survivors. The risk of homicide spikes dramatically when survivors report abuse or attempt to leave. Up to 75% of domestic violence murders happen at this pivotal point.
Abusers commonly make explicit threats like:
- "If you ever go to the police, I'll kill you."
- "I'll hunt you down if you try to leave."
These threats are rarely idle. Survivors know their abusers best and have valid reasons to fear brutal retaliation. Restraining orders often fail to deter abusers, especially those with nothing left to lose.
Police themselves may doubt or minimize the threats, telling survivors things like:
- "He's just saying that to scare you - he probably won't do anything."
- "Let us know when he actually does something."
Dismissive attitudes reinforce survivors' fears that reporting will further enrage their volatile abuser, potentially escalating the violence. Reluctance to report is quite rational when death is a real possibility.
Shame and Stigma
Despite society making gradual progress, the stigma around domestic violence persists. Victim-blaming remains common. Survivors are often shamed for not leaving sooner, asked what they did to "provoke" abuse, or have their experiences minimized.
Internalized shame creeps in as survivors are conditioned to think the abuse is their fault. They feel deeply embarrassed to reveal what their intimate partner has done to them. Admitting abuse feels like a personal failure.
Fear of judgment prevents many survivors from confiding in loved ones, much less reporting officially. They dread the shame and humiliation of having to tell strangers the painful, degrading details.
Sadly, marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ and immigrant survivors can face even harsher stigma. Their communities may be less supportive, while also being more isolated from outside resources. Discrimination deters them further from reporting.
Until social attitudes evolve to be more empathetic, judgment will continue silencing countless survivors.
Distrust of Law Enforcement
For marginalized groups, distrust of law enforcement is especially pronounced. LGBTQ+ and minority survivors have unfortunately learned to see police more as sources of harm than help.
Past experiences of discrimination or brutality make survivors hesitant to report abuse to authorities. Immigrants may fear deportation for themselves or their partner if they report.
Indigenous survivors know a long history of police abuses against Native communities. Sex workers and those with criminal records also fear facing arrest instead of aid when reporting violence.
Lack of confidence in authorities to respond appropriately deters reporting. Police frequently fail to take domestic violence seriously, especially when survivors seem "hysterical" or there is no obvious physical evidence.
Even well-meaning officers often lack training to sensitively handle intimate partner abuse. Survivors fear being forced to make statements or press charges before they are ready. Being re-traumatized by the legal system understandably discourages reporting.
Reporting Abuse is a Personal Decision
With all these barriers, it is no wonder many survivors of gender-based violence hesitate to report their abuse. The choice to report is highly complex and personal. Each survivor's situation is unique and constantly evolving.
While reporting abuse is often vital for long-term safety, pressuring survivors to act before they feel ready can actually endanger them further. Even well-meaning friends or family suggesting they "just report it already" can shut down critically-needed support.
The path of breaking silence and seeking help rarely follows a straight line. Survivors often make multiple attempts to report over many years. Small steps like talking to a counselor or calling a hotline remain progress.
Rather than judging, supporters must meet survivors where they are. Creating open, non-judgmental space for survivors to process their options at their own pace is crucial. We all need to check our own tendencies towards victim-blaming and second guessing their choices.
Providing Support to Survivors
For loved ones wanting to support a survivor who is not ready to report, the most important things are:
- Believe them. Do not question or doubt their experiences.
- Do not judge their choices. Avoid saying things like "You should just leave."
- Be patient and let them process at their own pace.
- Help connect them to resources like hotlines or support groups when they are ready.
- If they do decide to report, offer practical help like childcare, rides, housing, etc.
- Work on providing emotional support through listening without judgment.
- Be there for them consistently, not just during crises.
Essential resources for survivors include:
- National domestic violence hotlines to talk through options safely and anonymously.
- Counseling with a therapist trained in trauma and abuse.
- Support groups to reduce isolation and shame.
- Advocacy programs at domestic violence agencies to learn about legal options.
- Emergency shelter if they need to leave the home quickly for safety.
The most vital resource is a non-judgmental support system. While professionals and formal reporting channels have a role, friends and family willing to listen can make the biggest difference. Even when survivors do not report right away, emotional support empowers them on the long path of healing.
The choice to report gender-based violence is highly complex and personal for each survivor. Myriad barriers rooted in psychological trauma, economic constraints, fear, and stigma cause many survivors to hesitate before reporting.
Rather than judging, friends and family must offer consistent emotional support on the survivor's own terms. Pushing survivors to report before they are ready often backfires dangerously. However, connecting survivors to resources can help them gain the strength to eventually report when they are able.
While reporting is an important step in many cases, it is not the only way survivors can find justice and healing. Counseling, support groups, safety planning, and other options also empower survivors. We need to meet survivors where they are, rather than where we think they should be.
Ultimately, believing and supporting survivors, even when they are not ready to report, gives them the greatest chance to escape abuse for good. Their path to safety rarely follows a straight line. But with reliable support networks, survivors can regain the power to direct their own lives once more.