What I Know Now About the Clients Risks and Rewards of Reporting Sexual Assault By Emma Jackson Smith, LPC on 5/23/23 - 6:48 AM

E. Jean Carroll stood on the courthouse steps to give her statement to the press following the jury's findings that former President Trump was liable for sexual abuse and defamation. She said, “This victory is not just for me, but for every woman who has suffered because she wasn't believed.”

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Within the hour, my phone buzzed notification after notification across my email and social platforms. People sent me screenshots of the headlines, celebratory emojis, and gifs. I've worked professionally in sexual assault victim advocacy in some capacity since 2010, first as an advocate and then as a psychotherapist.

Whenever a case like this happens, I become very popular for a few days. Being the go-to person for all things sexual assault in your social circles is, in a word, odd. It's amazing that anyone invites me to cocktail parties anymore. It's also amazing how many people will share their stories, bravely and candidly, when they have reason to think you'll believe them.

Why Sexual Assault Victims are Coming Forward Now

Amid the collection of celebratory emoticons, however, were a handful of skeptics using words like “convenient,” “opportunistic,” and “sketchy." They asked questions like, “Why now?”

In E. Jean Carroll's case, at least part of the answer to the question "Why now?" is that it was finally possible. In May 2022, the Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, signed the Adult Survivors Act (S.66A/A.648A). The law went into effect in November of 2022, creating a one-year retrospective window for sexual assault survivors who were over the age of 18 at the time of their assaults the opportunity to come forward. A similar law for children was passed in 2019.

There are several ways to answer that question. Still, I am most struck by how surprised people are by the concept of delayed reporting — as if victims of sexual abuse should be clamoring to face the slut-shaming and character defamation.

That aside, why do people delay reporting?

In my clinical experience, I’ve learned that if they report at all, most of my clients delay doing so for some time, ranging from days to weeks to months, even years. Survivors offer several reasons for why they waited or simply refused to report their sexual assaults. The fear of not being believed is probably the most common. Victim blaming for the assault is a close second.

Another reason I've run into is that a victim may not understand that what they experienced was sexual assault. For years, we emphasized the trope of the male stranger in the alleyway, even though most assaults happen with a perpetrator who the victim knows. After all, it doesn't fit with the mythos they were taught. Even with DNA and forensic exams, consent remains essential to distinguishing rape and sexual assault from “just sex.” Personal accounts and statements are often key to a case — the infamous “he said/she said.”

The Impact of #MeToo

Although we've seen several high-profile people held accountable for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse more recently, the rate of successful prosecution (resulting in a felony conviction) remains abysmal at around 2.8%., according to RAINN, (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network)

That's part of what makes E. Jean Carroll's trial so remarkable. To many survivors, she did the impossible.

It's only been since 2017 when the #MeToo Movement — started By Tarana Burke in 2006 — gained national attention after Harvey Weinstein's sexual abuse allegations. Before then, men in positions of heavy influence and exceptional power seemed untouchable. But in 2017, suddenly, they were being held accountable for their actions. E. Jean Carroll's assault occurred in 1996. I'm sure that former President Trump seemed untouchable back then — and let's face it, he probably was. The inconvenient truth is, if you don't believe her now, you probably wouldn't have believed her then, either.

Victim Credibility: Who's On Trial?

Anyone who has sat in the courtroom for a sexual assault case will tell you that it is brutal. Court testimony is public record, so the most horrible and terrifying events of a victim's life are not only on display but are quite literally up for debate. I've watched defense attorneys smirk as they prepare to create a spectacle, attempting to dismantle a victim's credibility piece by piece. Even though rape shield laws are designed to protect victims' sexual histories from being used against them in court, the most effective attorneys know how to leverage society's purity culture beliefs and bias against a person's sexuality to undermine a victim's reputation and credibility.

As one salty detective commented, “Juries like virgin victims, Ms. Smith. And even then, it probably won't be enough.” I've learned over the years that, sadly, he was right. What a victim was wearing, drinking, saying, or doing during their assault was added to determine the degree to which a victim was “asking for it.” Of course, they never are. I've worked with hundreds of survivors, and not one person was asking for it.

Repeatedly Traumatized: The Second Worst Thing is Reporting

The few times I've had the opportunity to work with survivors whose cases were prosecuted, the damage caused by the experience of the trial, in many ways, was more challenging to address than the actual assault itself. A former client remarked, “I never thought anything could be more horrible than that night, but then came the trial. My assault is the second worst thing to ever happen to me.” Sexual assault is dehumanizing, and reporting is often described as being sexually assaulted repeatedly.

And those who chant that nothing will change unless victims come forward, I offer the following: if anyone has to do anything, I believe it is the rapists who need to stop raping, the perpetrators who need to stop perpetrating, and the rest of us who need to start believing. You can't tell people they have to report and not believe them when they do just because they've accused someone whom you esteem or can relate to.

It's easy to get caught up in the court system not working as it is supposed to and a culture that doesn't believe survivors. Even as a therapist and former victim advocate, short of it being a mandatory reporting case, I struggle with encouraging survivors to report their assaults.

I let them know that different reporting options exist and offer to assist in facilitating that process when they ask. However, I am careful not to frame reporting as the gateway to healing but as a potential component of their overall healing journey.

If a survivor wants to report because the action itself aids in restoring their sense of power, autonomy, or closure, it can be wildly helpful. It can also help support or corroborate testimony should other victims make reports about the person in the future. But fostering the hope of holding someone accountable legally feels risky. Healing from sexual assault cannot be contingent on a 2.8% chance. I try to remind them that they deserve to heal regardless of our system's ability to accomplish that task.


Sexual assault is a heavy topic to address in therapy. Early in my career, however, my mentor gave me a phrase that completely shifted my mindset around working with survivors. I believe it is the key to staying enthusiastic 11 years later about this work and avoiding burnout:

“Never desecrate someone's story by offering them pity. If you're feeling pity, you're not focusing on the absolute miracle that they survived to be sitting in front of you.”

Post-Script: As I am sitting here finishing my edits for this blog post, I received a message from a former client I worked with at the beginning of my career. She found me to let me know that she is reporting her assault after more than a decade.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

What was your personal and professional reaction to the verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case?

What have been your experiences working with sexual assault victims?

How have you addressed client resistance to reporting sexual assault in your practice?

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections