The mistrial of the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby has reignited old stereotypes about rape and abuse. Some new acquaintances of mine, who were unaware of my vocation, commented on their satisfaction with the outcome siting several reasons. Rather than argue my position, I chose to listen to a barrage of ignorance and blame casing.
Their comments of “why did they wait so long,” “so what if he is a public figure, they should have told someone,” and “they are just out for the money” were filled with shame for the victims. The judgmental attitude is exactly what keeps many victims from coming forward. What is needed is a better understanding of the process, more safety for the victims, and consistent prosecution of the abusers.
The following describes that process from the rape to the silence and offers suggestions for how to be more supportive and less convicting.
The shock. An experienced rapist has the pattern down. They begin by targeting a naïve and unsuspecting victim. The rapist has planned out everything well in advance. Like leading cattle to the slaughter they take their time by minimizing any fear and attack when least expected. Most victims say the whole experienced happened so fast they hardly had time to mentally catch up. This is true as their thoughts race and fear consumes.
Empathy. The rapist has the upper hand in that they know what they want and have the determination to move forward. The victim is unaware of the surprise attack. Empathy should be expressed for the victim any time they communicate their story.
The exit. Those victims lucky enough to escape their abuser are so disoriented from the experience that they have a hard time even knowing what the next step is. Feeling disgusted, violated, and frightened, they do the first simple thing that comes to mind: get clean. This erases any evidence and can make things more difficult later. But the executive function part of the brain is not operational during periods of heightened stress so logic escapes as desperation settles in.
Awareness. The mind-body connection is real. When the body is under attack, the mind goes into fight or flight mode. Frequently victims report seeing only two possibilities of how to survive and are unable to see any more. This is why they have a difficult time assessing the situation.
The abuse pattern. All too often, the initial abuse experience is only the beginning. Afterward, there are countless narratives of the event to people who are rarely helpful and frequently judgmental. Monday night quarterbacking picks apart every tiny decision usually resulting in blaming the victim. Then others, both knowingly and unknowingly, make insensitive and ignorant remarks which re-traumatize the victim yet again.
Kindness. “I would have done it differently” is not helpful, it is cruel. The fact a person is alive after an assault is a victory. Open compassionate arms allowing the victim to feel safe after a trauma is the kindest of acts. This does more for the healing process than any other therapeutic technique.
The outcome. The previous point is precisely why many victims chose silence over the additional condescending glances and unfair sentences. Of course, this means the abuser is free to do the same act to others since they didn’t receive any consequences for their actions. This reality adds to the guilt and burden, not of the rapist, but the victim. It is not until one person breaks the silence that others follow along with relief and horror that they were not the only ones.
Closure. There is no forgetting. This is why victims can recount the event with such great detail many years later for it is etched in the foundation of their being. Some are able to forgive their attackers, others are not. But the scar that is left after healing remains for life. While others can move onto another story, this one incident is fixed.
It is my hope and prayer that this article silences the judgmental others and not the victims. For their voice is precious as it has been shaped by the trauma they have experienced.