As a psychologist, for more than 20 years I have worked with individuals who have been sexually abused. And I believe Leigh Corfman, the woman who has accused Roy Moore of sexual assault. I believe adult Leigh Corfman and I believe 14-year-old Leigh Corfman as a matter of judgment based on my professional experience. When I say I believe her, it’s not a legal statement. I’m not a judge or a jury. But everything Corfman has said rings true to a pattern I’ve seen again and again, from women of different names and different ages, who have told me their stories throughout the years.
According to the Washington Post, Roy Moore was 32 and a prominent and powerful man in the community. Leigh Corfman was 14. He befriended her mother outside the courthouse and he offered to sit with her while her mother was in court for a custody hearing. She was vulnerable. He was well known in the community and respected. She would have been flattered by his attention and she would not have had the coping mechanisms and judgment an adult woman would possess.
She did not report it. The research suggests that as many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men have been sexually abused before the age of 18, though the Justice Department estimates that only 30 percent of cases get reported. In my clinical experience, very few are ever reported. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with someone who was telling her story for the first time, often after years or decades. Even then, only in their therapist’s office after weeks or months of therapy, do they finally feel safe enough to share it.
Many women never tell their story for obvious reasons. It is clear what happens to women who do report. Leigh Corfman was a young girl from a broken home who had little to no power. She did what most victims do:
- She hinted about what happened to friends who responded quite negatively to the idea of her dating someone that much older. She told one close friend more of the story and the identity of her abuser.
- She reports that she “began to feel that she had done something wrong and kept it a secret for years.” Finally, she told her mother 10 years later.
- She describes an adolescent life that was troubled and included a suicide attempt at age 16.
- She describes an adult life with three divorces and financial problems.
Based on my experience, all of that makes her story even more believable. It is also an almost predictable outcome of untreated sexual abuse. This is an all too familiar story of an individual with little power and few coping mechanisms doing everything she can to survive a horrifying experience.
Yes, I’ve heard the false stories where a likely innocent person was accused often in the midst of a bitter custody battle. Research suggests that only 4-8 percent of reports are false and those are usually made by a parent in a custody case. In my experience, false reports are rare, while the incidence of actual sexual abuse/sexual assault is quite common. Tragically, the victims of sexual abuse are four times more likely to develop addiction, four times more likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder and three times more likely to develop depressive disorders. There are clear and significant differences between the false stories and the true. The argument that we should not believe any woman unless there is absolute proof is absurd. That argument is simply a manipulative tool used to protect abusers.
We live in a culture that loves to blame the victim. Women who report sexual abuse, sexual assault, and/or sexual harassment are perfect targets for those who would blame the victim. Even beyond all of the comments we could make about society working to protect the status quo of a male dominated culture there are psychological payoffs to blaming the victim. Blaming the victim helps us avoid that reality where horrible things can happen to any of us at almost any time. If we can blame the victim we can believe we have the power to avoid being a victim because we are smarter, wiser, more moral, and more careful. Victim blaming seems to take one of two main forms with infinite variations. The first form is denial. “She is lying.” “It did not happen.” “It did not happen like that.” This provides instant comfort because the bad thing simply did not happen. The second form can be far more subtle and involves the victim being responsible for their own victimization. This blaming involves all of the wonderful suggestions such as “why was she there,” “why didn’t she just leave,” “why didn’t she just say no.” Often these also go with the high moral judgment of “I would have never.” Blaming the victim can be very seductive. However, doing so simply perpetuates and even fuels the problem.
The problem is that we live in a male-dominated culture where way too many women and girls are the victims of sexual predators. Historically predators have largely gone unreported, faced few consequences when they were reported, and seem to roam freely with impunity throughout all levels of society. We cannot change the problem until we own the problem. We can begin by refusing to indulge in blaming the victim. We can begin by believing women when they tell us their stories.
I believe all of the Leigh Corfmans. That is a choice. That is an intentional decision. It is a matter of judgment, and most importantly, it is a matter of decency. As more women feel safe enough to tell their stories, it is deeply important that we support and encourage them. How one is treated following a traumatic event has a significant impact upon the likelihood of developing PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction. Telling one’s story can be a powerful beginning to the healing process. We need to do everything we can to protect these girls and women. Even if we have not been Leigh Corfman, someone we love has been. We need to create a world where it is safe to report sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment. We need to create a world where it is not safe to be an abuser and where the abused are celebrated for their courage. Would that more people in the world had the courage of Leigh Corfman.