[A version of this article was published in PsychCentral in 2017. It has been edited, expanded, and reposted to the Second Wound Blog.]
Twenty-five years ago when I first disclosed that I had been sexually abused as a child, I could not have known it would mark the beginning of a long, confusing struggle that would leave me feeling dismissed, rejected, and punished for choosing to face my abuse and the ways it has impacted me.
The responses didn’t start this way. Initially, loved ones acknowledged my experiences and expressed sorrow for my pain. But as I continued to heal and explore the abuse further, some in my inner circle began to push back in ways that felt profoundly wounding. And it only got worse as time went on.
Disclosure of sexual abuse can be the beginning of a whole second set of problems for survivors when important people in our lives respond in ways that add new pain to old wounds. Healing from past abuse is made more difficult when one is emotionally injured again in the present, repeatedly, and with no guarantee that things will improve. Adding to this pain, invalidating responses often mirror aspects of the abuse itself, leading survivors to feel overpowered, silenced, blamed, and shamed. And they may carry this pain alone, unaware that their experience is tragically common.
Here are seven ways that friends, family members, and others revictimize survivors:
1. Denying or minimizing the abuse
Many survivors never receive an acknowledgment that they were abused. The very people they turn to for support may accuse them of lying, exaggerating, looking for attention, and having false memories. This negation of a survivor’s reality only adds insult to emotional injury as it reaffirms past experiences of being unheard, unprotected, and overpowered.
One might assume, therefore that recognition of the abuse would go a long way toward helping survivors move forward with important people in their lives. That is one potential outcome. However, acknowledgment does not necessarily mean that people in the survivor’s life understand, or are willing to recognize the impact of sexual abuse. Even when survivors are believed, they are often pressured not to bring up the abuse and criticized when they do. All too often, they are actively discouraged from holding perpetrators and enablers accountable for the pain they caused.
2. Blaming and shaming the victim
Placing blame on the survivor, whether overt or subtle, is a disturbingly common response. People ask victims ignorant questions such as why they did not speak up sooner or why they didn’t fight back. Some outright accuse survivors of participating in their abuse. (This is a black-and-white issue in the case of minors who cannot legally consent to sexual activities.)
Victim-blaming shifts the focus onto the survivor’s behavior instead of where it belongs, on the perpetrators and their crimes. Embedded in societal attitudes, victim-blaming can be used as a way to keep survivors quiet. Because sexual abuse victims tend to carry deeply embedded shame and self-blame, they are more easily wounded by these responses.
Instead of blame and shame, survivors need assurance that no one deserves to be abused. It takes courage to disclose abuse to friends and family. Survivors should be reminded that they are courageous for facing their traumatic experiences and choosing to actively heal from abuse.
3. Telling survivors to “move on” and “stop focusing on the past”
These messages are destructive and backward. Survivors need to be supported as they explore their trauma, examine its effects, and work through the emotional impact. Only by dealing with the abuse does the past begin to lose some of its power, allowing survivors to move forward. Pressuring them to “let it go” and “think positive” is another way that people in their lives try to avoid the harsh realities of abuse at the cost of a survivor’s emotional needs.
4. Shutting down their voices
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had a recurring dream in which I tried to make a phone call but couldn’t get a dial tone, connect the call, or croak out audible words. These dreams diminished once I began to consistently speak up for myself and felt heard by people in my life who supported my healing.
Sadly, those closest to survivors frequently reject or ignore their reports of abuse and dismiss their needs. Survivors are accused of treating the family or group badly when they continue to address abuse, express their hurt and anger, or assert boundaries in ways they never could as children. They are treated like troublemakers for disclosing sexual abuse while perpetrators are left alone and even embraced. These attitudes are unhealthy and wrong-headed. They leave survivors feeling understandably confused, hurt, angry, and alone.
5. Ostracizing & smearing survivors
Survivors may find themselves with a diminished role in their family or support system as a consequence of speaking up. They are disrespected and treated like lesser members of the group. They get left out of special events and social gatherings, even while abusers are included.
Smear campaigns are a common way to discredit survivors by spreading false information about them. People in their lives may claim they are mentally ill, lying, exaggerating their experiences, or all of the above. Assertions like these protect the image of the group and the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. They serve to punish survivors for speaking the uncomfortable truth and effectively reduce their chances of being believed and supported.
These tactics are extremely hurtful and only add to a survivor’s lasting pain and trauma.
6. Refusing to “take sides”
Some people claim they don’t want to take sides between survivor and perpetrator. But staying neutral when one person has inflicted damage on another is choosing to be passive in the face of wrongdoing. Survivors need and deserve to be supported as they work to heal from abuse, hold abusers accountable, and try to protect themselves and others from further harm. People in their lives should be reminded that abusers committed wrongful acts against survivors, and therefore ‘neutrality’ is not an appropriate stance.
In the words of Nobel Peace Price winner Elie Wiesel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
7. Pressuring survivors to make up with the perpetrator
Far too often, survivors are expected to be friendly to the person who abused them. They are encouraged to act as if abuse is merely water under the bridge or a ‘mistake’ that needs to be forgiven.
No one should ask a survivor to even be in the presence of a perpetrator, especially for the sake of brushing child sexual abuse under the rug. Pressuring survivors this way is a repeat of the abuse of power exerted upon them when they were violated. It is destructive and inexcusable and it ignores the dangers that abusers may pose to others.
There are many reasons why individuals, families, and other institutions respond to sexual abuse survivors in harmful ways. Behind all of them lies a desire (conscious or not) to maintain denial about sexual abuse. Common reasons include concern about the family or organization looking bad, awe or fear of the perpetrator, unwillingness to give up rewards and/or status they get from the perpetrator, and the threat of being ostracized from the group if they stand with the survivor. Guilt for not recognizing the abuse at the time, or for failing to stop it, also contributes to denial. Some individuals have a history of being victimized themselves and they are not able, or willing to address it. Finally, some individuals who lash out at survivors are perpetrators themselves.
The desire to maintain power structures within families, groups, and society as a whole is another significant motivator that cannot be understated.
Most people choose to look the other way in the face of child sexual abuse rather than listen to survivors and hold abusers accountable. As Dr. Judith Herman states in her groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
We have a collective moral obligation to address the social justice problem that is sexual violence. We do this by listening to survivors without bias, recognizing their very real trauma, and taking steps to hold offenders accountable and prevent them from causing further harm. If more people and organizations took this approach, we would see a significant reduction in the rates of sexual crimes. Just as important, this type of support by the community could serve as a corrective emotional experience for individual survivors who have been isolated and shamed by the experience of sexual abuse and assault.
Faced with a backlash for speaking up about sexual crimes, survivors may be tempted to give in to pressure so they can put an end to these repercussions and avoid the risk of being rejected completely. And yet, they will continue to be affected by these unhealthy dynamics whether they fight against them or not. The way I see it, the pain of backlash from family and friends is rarely as high a cost as the sacrifice of a survivor’s truth.
I know firsthand how painful this “second wound” can be. Had I been better prepared for what lay ahead after my disclosure I might have been spared years of sadness, frustration, and struggle against unchanging group dynamics. Fortunately, I have learned never to compromise what I know to be true or what I deserve. And that is to be heard, believed, and respected, not only for what I’ve been through but also for the person I have worked so hard to become.