On the heels of the #MeToo Movement and various scandals in the media that have shed light on the impact of sexual trauma worldwide, more and more survivors of sexual abuse and assault have been empowered to speak up and share their stories. As we can see from the media, though, there remains a lot of confusion and lack of understanding from many as to why sexual trauma is so underreported and not talked about by the survivors of these horrific crimes. In addition, many people continue to ask why so many individuals stay silent about what happened to them despite the thousands of men and women who have spoken up about their own stories of sexual abuse and assault.
Why do survivors of sexual trauma remain silent?
1. It was TRAUMATIC
I think that it is important to firstly give a brief definition of what I mean by sexual trauma. Sexual trauma (which will also be referred to as sexual violence and crime) takes place in various forms. It can be one event or a series of events over a prolonged period of time. Child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, molestation, rape, incest, and verbal intimidation and manipulation are all forms of sexual trauma.
In the hours, days, and sometimes weeks following these types of traumas, it isn’t uncommon or abnormal to feel on edge, confused, exhausted, in pain, anxious, out of control, and depressed. Depending on an individual’s age, history, coping skills, and level of support, it can take a survivor anywhere from a few weeks to many years to recover and heal from what happened to them. The fact is, during a traumatic event our brain hijacks our mind and body faster than a blink of an eye, forcing us into survival mode. Sometimes this means we attempt to fight the perpetrator, sometimes this means we try and find a way to flee, and sometimes this means we don’t do a thing out of fear of serious injury and the perception that escape is not possible.
No matter which survival reflex our brain initiates for us, there is a good chance, especially with the latter, that our memories of the event may feel hazy or disjointed. This is understandable given what we know about our brain’s trauma response and memory due to advances in neuroscience. When our brain goes into survival mode, the part of our brain that thinks logically shuts down and memories of that time become stored in a different way, making them more difficult to access. Therefore, when a survivor shares that they felt paralyzed during the event or that they don’t remember what happened, this doesn’t mean that they were weak or lack credibility, it simply means their brain did what it was supposed to do to keep them safe.
With all of that said, it is no wonder that talking about a sexual trauma is difficult and anxiety producing. The survivors can feel like their defenses are down and that they are too vulnerable, as if they are living the trauma all over again. Without even adding on the layers of stigma, fear, and the other reasons listed below that cause survivors to keep silent, it is clear that verbalizing a trauma is challenging based on the brain science alone. It is important for us all to grow in our knowledge about the impact of trauma on our minds, emotions, and bodies. With that knowledge we can better identify when those around us are struggling with post-traumatic stress and be able to provide them with the safe and understanding space they need to share what happened to them once they are ready.
2. Self-Blame, Guilt, and Embarrassment
I led him on… I shouldn’t have drank so much… I didn’t say no… I was too weak to fight back… It was my fault…
Victim blaming is far too common. It is one of the biggest barriers to survivors’ access to safety and support, placing them in greater danger of experiencing more traumas and chronic mental health issues. Victim blaming isolates the survivor and underrates the criminal act. This makes it far less likely for individuals to come forward and report what has happened to them out of fear that they will be the one viewed in a negative light.
Where does victim blaming come from? It is actually a normal psychological response to crime. Blaming of the survivor can indeed be due to ignorance or malicious intent by some. However, most of the time it is an individual’s attempt to see the world as a safe place and feel a sense of control over what happens to them. It is much easier to think “I would’ve done things differently in her situation” and therefore prevented the crime, rather than to realize sexual crimes can happen to anyone and it is NEVER the survivor’s fault!
Survivors may internalize blame and guilty beliefs for the same purpose. By taking partial blame for what happened to them they can experience a greater sense of control over their circumstances and increase their hope for change. Otherwise it may feel as if the world around them and the people in it are unsafe. It is also possible that the individual already carried internalized negative and false beliefs before the trauma, and the trauma unfortunately served as reinforcement that they are “bad, worthless, or deserving of unhappiness and suffering.”
In order to improve upon these beliefs and heal from trauma, survivors need to learn to reevaluate their maladaptive beliefs about themselves and the world and replace them with more realistic and positive ones. The only way to accomplish this is with the support of people they can trust. By challenging victim blaming statements, holding abusers accountable for their actions, and giving survivors safe space to speak freely about their trauma without fear of shame or blame, survivors may feel more comfortable with coming forward to get the support they need.
3. “No One Will Believe You” – Social Stigma and Shame
Too many of my therapy clients have unfortunately reported to me that when they decided to share with their friend, teacher, parent, a policeman, etc. what happened to them, they were met with skepticism, doubt, or even blame. These are the responses that every survivor of sexual trauma fears the most, and unfortunately these responses are not rare. Sometimes this secondary trauma of not being heard, understood, or validated by the people expected to help is a more challenging wound to heal than the sexual trauma itself. Instead of taking this risk, many individuals understandably choose to hide what happened to them.
Unfortunately this can lead to further isolation and shame, which can make the road to recovery and healing much longer and difficult.
Even with the #MeToo movement’s attempt to challenge societal stigma and change organizational protocols surrounding sexual violence, ignorance and negative beliefs are still being perpetuated around the world. Many people still assume that it is common for men and women to falsely report sexual violence although most data suggests that this is rare. With the persistence of myths like this as well as the intrusive nature of investigation and litigation surrounding these crimes, it is understandable that there is hesitancy amongst survivors to report.
4. Fear or Protection of the Perpetrator
Sometimes a perpetrator of sexual violence is a family member, significant other, friend, or a person of influence. Knowing the perpetrator personally can add yet another layer of fear and confusion to the equation because the perpetrator isn’t just a stranger that can be sent to jail without a second thought. Instead, they are someone that you maybe love and depend on or that others around you like and trust. There is also the possibility that the perpetrator is simply terrifying and has influence over others, which produces a multitude of fears as to what might happen if you report them. It might be easy for some to say that seeking justice is most important, but sometimes that justice comes at too great a sacrifice.
It takes a lot of courage, and possibly personal sacrifice, for a survivor to come forward and share what happened to them. It is important for everyone to recognize that reporting sexual trauma to anyone is challenging due to all of the reasons listed above and more. It is my hope that our society can continue to grow in our knowledge and understanding about the impact of sexual trauma so that survivors can feel empowered and safe to discuss their story knowing that they will be met with understanding and compassion from anyone they choose to tell.
In today’s challenging political climate many sexual assault and abuse survivors are finding themselves triggered on a weekly if not daily basis. If you are a survivor, our team at Dr. Kate Truitt and Associates want you to know that you don’t have to experience this discomfort alone. Dr. Truitt is a neuroscientist, Clinical Psychologist, and Certified Havening Techniques Trainer. It is her team’s desire to make resilient and sustainable healing available to our clients and the community. We offer individual therapy as well as RISE, a 10-week therapeutic support group for women-identified survivors of sexual trauma.