“Why didn’t you say something?”
That’s a question survivors of sexual assault are often asked, but one that can be complicated to answer.
There are a myriad of difficult emotions associated with experiencing an act of violence, and coming forward can mean reliving them, Paulette Senior, CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, told Global News.
“Part of the decision they have to make is whether or not they are willing to be re-traumatized,” she explained.
She noted that talking about the experience, or even seeing news related to sexual assault, can trigger feelings associated with the assault.
Questions over why victims of assault don’t report have been circulating for months amid the #MeToo movement, and especially in recent days following accusations of misconduct against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which date back several decades.
U.S. President Donald Trump challenged the veracity of his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, saying she surely would have reported the alleged assault to police “immediately” if the attack was “as bad as she says.”
The president’s statement prompted a firestorm online, as survivors began sharing their own reasons for not coming forward promptly after an assault.
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Using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, several people shared their reasons — many which ranged from fear, shame, disgust and denial.
“Because he was a member of our family,” one user wrote.
“Because he threatened to kill me,” wrote another.
“He was supposed to be my friend, but he beat me when I said no,” wrote yet another.
Blasey Ford answered those questions in her opening statement Thursday, as she gave a testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the alleged assault.
She explained talking about the assault forced her to “relive the trauma,” and led to anxiety and panic attacks.
“Apart from the assault itself, these last couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life,” she said of coming forward.
“I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people on television, in the media, and in this body who have never met me or spoken with me.”
Celebrities also came forward. Top Chef TV host Padma Lakshmi penned a piece in The New York Times this week titled, “I Was Raped at 16 and I Kept Silent.”
“I didn’t report it. Not to my mother, not to my friends and certainly not to the police. At first I was in shock,” she wrote.
She explained shock then turned to self-blame.
In the piece, she assailed politicians and others who question women’s motives when waiting years before speaking out.
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“… we all have a lot to lose if we put a time limit on telling the truth about sexual assault and if we hold on to the codes of silence that for generations have allowed men to hurt women with impunity,” she wrote.
Assaults that occur at a young age can be even more difficult to report, Senior explained, noting that many people don’t know how to process or have the words to describe what happened.
“The biggest barrier to why women don’t report is because they are not believed,” Senior noted.
“But for children, for example, it could have been a close friend or family that violated them and sexually harassed them. It adds to an even greater chance they’re not going to be taken seriously or are going to be blamed.”
And every case is unique, with victims facing different barriers to coming forward.
Senior explained some may be financially dependent on their abuser, or may have children they fear will be hurt.
The abuse could also occur at a workplace or school, which creates another realm of complicated questions, she noted.
“The protocols are not reliable, credible and put women at great risks,” she said, explaining many organizations don’t have proper channels of dealing with sexual assault.
Senior said victims then have to ask whether they will risk their career and reputation.
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There’s a lot to consider, and that leads many people to stay silent. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, about seven out of 10 people who experience sexual assault never report it.
But that’s OK, too.
Meaghan Peckham, a Toronto-based therapist, explained that coming forward or staying silent are personal choices.
“Whether or not someone comes forward says nothing about whether or not their experience is valid,” she said.
And it also doesn’t come with a time limit.
“We don’t have the ability to tell someone how long it should take,” Peckham added.
She explained that is the case for politicians and strangers on the internet, but also for friends and family of survivors.
“It’s not anyone else’s business,” she said. “It’s no one’s job or place to tell someone how long it should take to heal. There shouldn’t even be a conversation about that. It should be how can we support people.”
— With files from the Associated Press