Trigger Warning: This post contains a discussion of sexual violence.
We have all heard of the terms “victim blaming” and “rape culture.” Both are pretty self-explanatory. Victim blaming consists of attributing responsibility for an attack to the victim or questioning the victim’s actions that preceded the attack. Rape culture reminds us that the concept of sexual violence is always evolving, and tends to be minimized, as we culturally ignore its socio-cultural causes and implications. But what happens when the victim is doubted that the violence ever occurred? The sibling of victim blaming and child rape culture, victim doubting can be just as detrimental to our loved one’s well-being. In effect, when we doubt a victim’s account, we are telling them that we believe they are lying, or in some way fabricating the event, if not all together making it up.
It takes a great amount of courage and risk to reveal one’s victimization. The greatest risk entails retaliation, which we have witnessed in several cases. Several teen survivors have found their attacks publicized by their abusers on social media and among peers via text. Retaliation is so commonplace in the military that within the past month a bill has been passed in the United States House of Representatives to protect those who report sexual assaults. The idea that rapists would trivialize and continue to attack their victims is heinous, but altogether a reality.
Victim doubting is most likely to occur in instances of childhood sexual abuse. This is probably because our culture sees children as asexual beings, and it is less likely to assume the actions of a child brought on a sexual experience with an adult. In cases of adult-on-adult sexual violence, others are likely to doubt that the experience was an assault rather than doubt that it occurred. Perpetrators who abuse adults seem willing to admit to having a sexual experience with the victim, but claim it was consensual. The reasons why we doubt adult survivors and why we doubt child survivors are thus different.
We tend to doubt adult survivors when they are unable to give a linear account of their experience. Research on how trauma affects the brain tells us that it makes perfect sense that they cannot. When we sense danger, our five senses go into overdrive to promote survival. Our brains are not concerned with recording the attack, just surviving it. This is why it is typical for victims to remember the smell of the assailant’s body spray as opposed to a step-by-step account of the attack. We also may doubt the attack if the victim does not appear to have physically resisted it. New research explains that humans do not only possess a fight or fight response, bus also a tendency to freeze involuntarily during an attack. Regardless of the victim’s response, sexual violence is defined by a lack of consent, regardless of the amount of force used.
We tend to doubt childhood sexual abuse survivors when they refrain from telling of their attack, especially for several years. There are several practical reasons why children do not report their sexual abuse. Children are unlikely to possess the same mental concepts of sexual abuse and that adults do; they simply don’t have the words. In a culture that is equally afraid of and fascinated with sex, we stay away from childhood sexual education much past the time we ought. It is fundamentally important that we educate young kids about all of their body parts, using proper terminology, and give them the proper tools for identifying and responding to sexual abuse. Another reason that a child may not speak of there abuse is because it is possible (and unfortunately likely) that the abuse occurred at the hand of someone who the child trusts. Children may also fear outing their attacker, who may have threatened their safety or that of their family. All are legitimate reasons that may delay a child from telling of their experience with sexual violence.
Whether it is within 24 hours or several decades later, when survivors tell us of their victimization we have a duty to listen with nonjudgmental and open ears. An appropriate response would be to express how sorry you are that this has happened. It may be helpful and comforting to acknowledge the amount of courage and trust it took for your loved one to confide in you. Reassure that you are there to wade with your loved one through the stormy waters as much as you are willing to do so. You may feel helpless, vengeful, and grief-stricken. Know the signs of vicarious trauma, and practice self-care. Most importantly, empower your loved one by following their lead as he or she decides how best to heal. The first and most important step to empowering survivors, however, is to believe them.