In all likelihood, more than a dozen sexual assaults occurred in Maine last week. Unfortunately, most people heard about only one.

Last Wednesday, a woman reported she had been assaulted, in broad daylight, on the walking trail on Portland’s Back Cove.

Two days later, however, the woman recanted her story, saying that no assault took place, reinforcing what too many people assume about rape allegations — that most are false and not to be taken seriously.

In reality, the opposite is true, and a very public false allegation cannot be allowed to perpetuate the harmful idea that it happens all the time, or to set back the significant, but by no means complete, progress made over the years in support of victims of sexual violence.

The area where last week’s assault was reported is open and popular, and in full view of Interstate 295. As such, the report left people feeling scared and vulnerable.

Police acted swiftly, investigating the area and stepping up patrols in what was a very public response.

Because rape allegations often warrant this sort of action, or involve a celebrity, or otherwise capture the public’s attention, when they turn out to be false, it makes an outsized impression.

But it is not the very few false reports of sexual assault that we should be worried about; it’s the many rapes that happen but are never reported.

Victims of sexual assault face circumstances unlike those related to any other crime, a persistent stigma that keeps them from coming forward.

The victims, most of whom know their attacker, may feel like they’ll be blamed, or their personal life will be scrutinized by the authorities.

They may not recall all the details of their assault, and there may not be physical evidence that an attack occurred, so they fear that they won’t be believed.

They may be ashamed or humiliated, and not want their family members to know what happened.

As a result, only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to police.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it gets worse from there, with only a handful of reports leading to arrests, and only about 2 percent of sexual assaults ending in prison time for the assailant.

There’s evidence of this in Maine, too, with one in five Mainers identifying as victims of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives, but only around 350 sexual assaults are reported statewide each year.

Still, that represents a improvement from a few decades ago, as law enforcement, the courts and the public in general have begun to understand the complexities of sexual assault cases.

We need to build on that effort and show victims compassion, not meet them with skepticism because of the rare false report.

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