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While commenting on the controversy swirling around the alleged rape of a New York City woman by Fox TV newsman Greg Kelly, Dr. Nancy Snyderman surprised TODAY show viewers with a very private disclosure: She herself had been assaulted years ago when she was a college student.
Snyderman was addressing issues surrounding the delayed reporting of the alleged rape by Kelly’s accuser, a woman whose identity remains protected by New York’s rape shield law.
“I think it’s time for some strong women to pierce those rape shield laws, because we have an issue here where there’s a public figure who’s been accused and he’s now becoming almost a societal victim,” Snyderman said. “And I say this with great respect for the women who need to be protected.
“I was attacked in 1970 as a college girl and I did everything wrong. I didn’t come forward. I waited too long. And by the time I would have come forward a [defense attorney] could have skewered me with questions. So I have great sensitivity for young women who have been raped.”
Snyderman said she believed that more good will be done if women face their accusers in public.
“If you are an adult and you want to take the shame off of rape, one of the bravest things you can do as a woman is to come forward and say I accuse you - and I’m going to do it publicly,” Snyderman explained.
Following the show, Dr. Nancy recalled the mistakes she made after the attack and the damaging emotional effects that lasted for years. "I took a shower, never told anyone, never called the police." She treated the depression she suffered by overeating and gaining 50 pounds. "I wanted to disappear," she said.
A drop in grades almost cost cost her entrance to medical school. "To this day the assault affects how I walk down the street and where I sit in a restaurant," she said. "Forty years later I hope I would handle it differently. I hope."
Snyderman continued. "Every woman will deal with this trauma in her own way," she said. "In no way am I telling women what to do. I just wish I had had the courage to come forward. I could have prevented several other women from being raped after me."
While agreeing that attitudes towards rape might change if more women publicly confronted their attackers, experts said that even four decades after Snyderman’s attack it’s still very difficult for women to press charges.
“Part of that is because rape is unique in its interpersonal nature and in its likelihood of producing ongoing traumatic symptoms, especially in the first months following an assault” said David Yusko, clinical director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s extremely likely the woman will suffer from anxiety and fear and stress. That emotional upheaval makes it hard to think clearly in the month after the rape.”
Even though police and others are more understanding these days, Yusko said, “In a general sense I don’t believe that it’s much easier for a woman to report it than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”
Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, agreed.
“Rape is still the most underreported crime, though it is slowly getting better” she said. “Most victims will go home and shower and try to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Then two weeks or a month later they will realize they’re not coping.”
Part the problem is that women know that there will be plenty of people who suggest that the victim of the rape did something that brought on the attack.
“People will say that it wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t put herself in that position,” Hall said. “In a lot of ways people want to rationalize it away so they don’t have to identify with the victim. It won’t happen to me because I don’t walk alone at 2 a.m.”
The victims themselves often subscribe to the same way of thinking.
“Guilt and shame are among the most common emotional reactions to rape,” Yusko said, adding that women often feel that the attack is somehow partly their responsibility.
“They think, ‘I should have done this differently,’ or ‘I should have fought back harder,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have worn this.’”
And ultimately, the whole process often doesn’t turn out well for the accuser because it’s such an uphill battle to show that the normal looking defendant actually did something horrible, Hall said
“Look at even the Sandusky case,” Hall said. “We all think that these people should look like monsters, but they look just like everyone else. And there’s a tendency not to believe the victim because the perpetrator is someone she knew. People would rather believe that rapists are strangers who come jumping out of the bushes, but more often they are someone the victim knew pretty well.”