Inappropriate relationships between certain coaches and their underage students have long been an open secret in horse sport. But few report it. Negative consequences, self-doubt and denial are common for survivors and bystanders alike. It can take years to even recognize abuse.
A large part of the problem is that our collective understanding of sexual assault is rife with misconceptions. The risk of false reporting is widely overestimated, while the risk of sexual assault by someone known and trusted is often underestimated. In fact, sexual harassment and assault are so uncomfortably common, statistics suggests that the average abuser will have an astounding 100 or more victims before they get caught. That’s a difficult truth to accept.
Further complicating the issue is that common responses to trauma—delays in reporting, staying friendly with an abuser, not “acting” like a victim, inconsistencies in the story, not fighting back—tend to cast doubt on survivors. (Recommended reading: “Why Women Can Take Years to Come Forward With Sexual Assault Allegations.”)
Those same factors create self-doubt within the survivor, too. It can take years for a victim to identify that what happened to them was a violation, particularly when the perpetrator is someone they knew or trusted.
If few perpetrators are identified, fewer still are prosecuted. “If we go by national patterns, only about 25% of abuse is disclosed to authorities, about half of those result in charging the alleged abuser, and only about 3% are convicted,” says child protection advocate Les Nichols.
Bystanders to abuse are equally reluctant to come forward. Bystander hesitancy is a well-documented phenomenon wherein the more someone thinks another party could step in, the less likely he or she is to act. In fact, even if someone is certain they are the only one who can intervene, only about 30% will actually do it.
It’s not indifference that gets in the way. It’s human nature, says Nichols. Bystanders often worry that they’re going to make things worse by stepping in. Am I going to ruin a perfectly innocent person's reputation? Will I be ostracized if I say something?
“There are enormous internal barriers to overcome,” he says.
We can help start that process by recognizing that sex abuse is an enormous and under reported problem. And that talking about it is the most effective way to stop it.