Growing up in second wound families, I think many of us learned to take what we could get. We were taught not to ask for much. We didn’t dare complain due to the risk of being shamed and blamed. We were not allowed to have strong voices within our families.
Perhaps these experiences lessen the shock when our family members tell us they “can’t take sides” between ourselves and our sexual abusers. But really, we should be shocked. It’s a response I hear about again and again from fellow survivors. Loved ones don’t care to get involved. They want to keep peace in the family. They ask us to forgive and make up with the abuser. They urge us to pipe down so they can brush sexual abuse back under the rug where it has lived all this time. Hidden from scrutiny, accountability, and their chosen reality.
“Neutrality” is an outrageous reaction to a crime committed against a member of the family. Sexual abuse is a soul-crushing, insidious, heinous violation of our bodies that has lifelong, damaging effects. It is an abuse of power that one chooses to inflict upon another. There is no excuse for family members to treat abuse as though it’s equivalent to a difference of opinion between victim and perpetrator.
Survivors are doubly, deeply, hurt when our loved ones fail to stand up for our needs and protect us in the aftermath of abuse. We feel re-victimized when our own parents and siblings claim they need to stay neutral. “I love you both”, they tell us, as if that explains their tolerance of our traumatic experiences. The pain this causes is far worse than most of our family members ever realize. And yet, it happens all the time. I have lived it myself.
Standing in support of the victim is the only acceptable choice. Family members have an obligation to hold abusers accountable, to tend to the needs of victims, and to confront sexual abuse in the light of day. Survivors need and deserve their loved ones’ ongoing support and compassion as they work to heal from their trauma. Our family members need to understand that addressing abuse directly is the only way to prevent the cycle from continuing.
The reasons family members fail to stand with survivors are varied and numerous. I write about them in Reasons Family Members Side with Sexual Abusers. The title fits because, let’s face it, declaring neutrality lets abusers off the hook. It is essentially the same as taking the perpetrator’s side, for it treats abusing someone as equivalent to calling out abuse. But these two actions are nowhere near equal. The first is a morally indefensible crime. The second is an act that exposes wrongdoing and danger. It is a step toward healing from trauma. It may be messy and unpleasant and that is understandable.
Family members often excuse perpetrators in the family by pointing to their personal struggles or conversely, holding them up as the revered figure or golden child in the family who can do no wrong. Some do both. Meanwhile, they might criticize survivors for expressing hurt and anger about the abuse and get exasperated when they ask to attend family functions without their abuser. Many loved ones outright fail to believe survivors at all.
As a personal coach for second wound survivors, I can report that most of the families I observe who claim neutrality end up actually standing with abusers and against survivors. Especially when survivors refuse to retreat back into silence, allowing their family to avoid the ugly truth. This has certainly been my story.
I understand the origin of some family members’ failure to side with survivors. As a social worker and a compassionate person, I can extend empathy to them. That being said, I feel strongly that taking a neutral stance in the face of sexual abuse is the morally wrong choice. It turns a blind eye to injustice and harm. Crucially, it enables abuse by putting others at risk of victimization by the perpetrator. After all, we know that when there is one victim, there are almost always more. This is a hard truth for family members to accept but one that must not be ignored.
It takes courage to do the right thing. Survivors who disclose abuse know this firsthand. We made a choice to speak up–often despite being raised to keep quiet–so that we could face our truths and stop the cycle of generational trauma. We only ask that our family members exercise enough courage and moral strength to stand by us now. To take a side against sexual abuse and for survivors. That is the right and loving thing to do.