Utahns explain why they chose not to report their own assaults as Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces sexual misconduct allegations

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congressional candidate Shireen Ghorbani talks about issues central to her campaign during a meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.

When Shireen Ghorbani was 8 years old, someone came up behind her in a swimming pool in California and stuck his or her fingers into her swimming suit bottoms and inside her body.

“I never saw a face,” she wrote on Twitter last week. “I had no idea what to say. #WhyIDidntReport”

The Democratic candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District is one of a number of Utahns taking to social media with a hashtag that aims to explain the confusion, shame and fear that prevent many women from coming forward about their sexual assaults.

“No one ever did that to me after that moment; no one had ever done that to me before that moment,” Ghorbani told The Salt Lake Tribune of her assault. “It was so out of ordinary for my life. I just… I was like in second grade, you know? I didn’t have words.”

The new social-media hashtag comes on the heels of the #MeToo movement, which demonstrated the scope and frequency of people’s experiences with sexual assault, harassment and abuse and resulted in accusations against and the fall from power of at least 71 high-profile men. Some of those accusations surfaced decades after the initial incidents had occurred.

As confirmation hearings continue for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh amid two allegations of sexual misconduct from his youth, the issue of sexual misconduct has taken the national stage yet again. And many people have come forward to explain why they took so long to speak out about their own experiences.

Julie Valentine, a Brigham Young University professor and sexual assault researcher, said research demonstrates that reporting rates for rape and sexual misconduct are low. That’s likely due to a number of factors, she said, including a perceived or real lack of social support or fear of not being believed.

“The first that I saw of #WhyIDidntReport, I thought well, finally people are talking about this,” Valentine said. “One of the biggest rape myths is that if something this horrible happened to somebody, they would report right away. … We need to educate our communities, our institutions, that delayed reporting is what we see in these cases.”

‘Casting a shadow' on reports of sexual misconduct

More than 30 years after the alleged incident occurred, a research psychologist in California came forward with allegations that Kavanaugh pinned her down during a high school party and groped her. Christine Blasey Ford says she escaped before the now-Supreme Court nominee could remove her clothes. She never told anyone about the incident until 2012, when she was in couple’s therapy with her husband.

A second allegation, this one from Kavanaugh’s college days at Yale University, emerged Sunday. Deborah Ramirez, then a fellow student, told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh had “exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without consent as she pushed him away.”

She was reluctant to come forward, she said, because her memories contained gaps from her own drinking at the time of the alleged incident.

Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge whom Trump nominated to fill the seat of retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, vehemently denied the allegations Monday. He called them “smears” and a “grotesque and obvious character assassination” and said he intends to defend himself at a hearing Thursday that will also feature testimony from Ford.

President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Ford must be “mistaken,” and others have insinuated that she told her story to gain personal fame or for political purposes. She has also been criticized for being unable to provide details to corroborate her allegations, such as the date it occurred or the location of the party she attended.

“I think a lot about my patients when I see all this in the news,” Valentine said, noting that there’s been an uptick in reporting over the past two years. “I worry when they see how [in] publicized cases victims can be discredited that we are casting a shadow on that reporting.”

‘Why I didn’t come forward’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Jackie Biskupski speaks at the City County building on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Biskupski took to Twitter on Monday as part of a national movement to detail her experience with sexual assault and explain why she didn't report.

One night during her senior year in college, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski knew she’d had too much to drink, so she decided to stay home while her roommates went to a football game.

“The man that was partying with us went off as though he was going to the game,” she said, “but then came back and raped me.”

Biskupski didn’t report the experience at the time, she said, because she worried no one would believe her or would blame her for what had happened.

But she’s decided to speak out about it since, including in a Twitter post on Monday, because she said she’s realized that speaking out as a woman in power has the potential to help other survivors.

“This is our time as women to rise up together, to come out of our silence and speak our truth and to help other women who are being silenced, because the predators need to be made known,” she said. "They do. And more and more women need to reveal who is out there doing this to other women.”

Isabella, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Utah, said she has been watching closely as politicians and pundits work to discredit Kavanaugh’s accusers. She was raped in high school by someone she considered a close friend at the time, and she hasn’t spoken about it much. Last week, she took to Twitter to explain why.

“I was concerned about mainly my parents and wondering or, like, worried, I guess, that they would be hurt or confused or judge me in some way or just not be able to process it,” she told The Tribune. “Like, see me differently. And that, to me, was too scary. So that’s why I didn’t come forward.”

The Tribune does not generally identify survivors of sexual abuse, but Isabella agreed to the use of her first name. As a number of survivors come forward, she said she hopes people will understand the challenges they face in doing so.

“I understand holding a traumatic event really close to you and then not coming forward until you think that it might hurt other people,” she said. “I completely understand not even knowing the details, like not remembering the details. I remember seconds at a time of an assault that maybe lasted 45 minutes.”

As the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings trudge forward, Ghorbani, who currently serves on the board of the Rape Recovery Center, said she believes “there is real concern for the allegations around sexual assault” and hopes the Senate Judiciary Committee will take the women’s allegations seriously.

And she sees #WhyIDidntReport as an important way to continue the work of the #MeToo movement, which she said pushed her to start seriously considering her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

“I started clicking back through the years and thinking, is there a year that I can remember where I haven’t been groped, where my breasts haven’t been the focus of a work meeting, where I haven’t been touched inappropriately in a bar?” she said. “Trying to think, like, when’s the first year that I can remember someone not touching me or violating my sort of sense of who I am? And that was when … I really remembered being 8 years old.”

Survivors of sexual violence who need help can call the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 1-888-421-1100 or the Domestic Violence Link Line at 1-800-897-LINK (5465).