Understanding Why Many Survivors of Sexual Trauma Don’t Come Forward
There has been a lot in the news recently about sexual trauma with the Kavanaugh case, as well as Bill Cosby's sentencing. I will be honest with you, it has been difficult to see all of the social media posts being made. I have seen posts that are coming from a place of emotion and in some cases seem very destructive. Many are not aware of the complexities that go into what a Survivor experiences and why they don't come forward. I hope that if you are a Survivor or a Loved One of a Survivor, that you have taken care of yourself. All of this can be very triggering. I even found myself taking a step back. It was very overwhelming with the amount of news coverage and social media on these cases. I feel it is important to offer a perspective from the lens of Trauma. As many of you know, this is my area of specialty and I often work with Survivors who have not come forward.
I want to start off with a concept that I think plays an important part in this - Grooming. The goal of Grooming is to convince the Survivor to trust the perpetrator implicitly. It is a process that often occurs prior to and in conjunction with the abuse. Common things told to a Survivor when they are being groomed are: 'This is how relationships are supposed to be', 'If you tell anyone, you will get me in a lot of trouble and you wouldn't want to do that', or even 'I love you'. In the end, grooming convinces a Survivor to trust a perpetrator, but it can also lead to the Survivor feeling isolated from the people who might be able to help them.
Fear of Judgment
Because of what the Survivor was told by the perpetrator, they often believe that the abuse was their fault. They fear that if they come forward, other people will think it is their fault too. There is also shame associated with that Survivor's belief leading them to question themselves - "Why wasn't I able to stop it?"
This is where victim shaming comes into play. Victim shaming is when people accuse the Survivor of: being a liar, coming forward for the purpose of money or defamation, or not coming forward soon enough. This can also include any other strongly held beliefs that people have that invalidate the Survivor's story. It is important that we provide a safe and accepting environment for Survivors to come forward.
Fear of Not Being Believed
The fear of not being believed is very common among Survivors, especially if the perpetrator is someone in a position of trust (politics, church, teacher, medicine, law, etc.). The position of trust affords the perpetrator the luxury of being believed almost implicitly. Therefore, the Survivor's legitimacy is often questioned by society and the innocence of the perpetrator is fiercely defended.
Fear of Consequences
Coming forward as a Survivor is not without consequences. Those consequences can include: Close relationships can be lost when they side with the perpetrator. Very personal information is now public, leaving the Survivor vulnerable to everyone's judgements. Fear of retaliation from the perpetrator or their family/friends. The breaking up of your family (if this occurred within the family).
Facing their Perpetrator/Trial/Interviews
Coming forward often initiates a legal process that is extremely intimidating. The thought of facing their perpetrator in court can bring back all of the PTSD symptoms in a flash. This process consists of continually reiterating all of the personal details to complete strangers, writing letters to the judge about how you were affected, and sitting in a court room with the perpetrator and others who support them. This often causes the body to re-live the trauma that occurred, as our body is unable to differentiate that it is not in danger.
Broca's Area Shuts Down
Aside from the emotional and social roadblocks, there is actually a biological reason as to why Survivors have a difficult time coming forward. There is an area in the front part of your brain called Broca's Area. This part of the brain controls language processing. When trauma occurs, this area of the brain actually shuts down, making it difficult to communicate the impact of the trauma. This trauma becomes so emotionally overwhelming that in order to cope, our brain switches into survival mode. In survival mode the main focus is on fight or flight responses to perceived danger.
As you can see, the struggles that a Survivor faces when deciding whether or not to come forward are significant. While there is nothing that we can do as a society to change how the trauma affects the survivor personally, we can focus our initial reaction towards the Survivor to be as sensitive to their experience as possible. We can be better at this by changing our language in saying things like "I am sorry you have had to face that", instead of "Why didn't you come forward sooner?" We as a society can also be better at not being quick to judge the Survivor when they are coming against a well known and respected person in our society.
I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult subject and can be triggering. However, I felt it was important to bring awareness and give a voice to the Survivors that might not have felt like they had one throughout this past few weeks.
If you are interested in learning more or you want to discuss this further with me, I would be happy to have a session/conversation with you. Please do not hesitate to reach out.
P.S. I am always in your corner.