The numerous sexual assault cases that stemmed from the MeToo movement has reignited old stereotypes about rape and abuse. Some new acquaintances of mine, who were unaware of my vocation, commented on their dissatisfaction with the outing of several public figures. Rather than argue my position, I chose to listen to a barrage of ignorance and blame casing. After all, my primary job is to listen and begin from a place of understanding. However, even I found this difficult to achieve with comments that reeked of judgment and prejudice.
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 and blame for the victims. This 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, patience, and consistent prosecution of the abusers.
The following describes the process many victims experience from the rape to the unfortunate decision to be silent. Some suggestions are then offered for each step so a person can be more supportive and less convicting.
The shock. An experienced rapist has the pattern down. They begin by targeting a naïve and unsuspecting victim, grooming them unknowingly for a future attack. The rapist has planned out everything well in advance and tests the victim’s vulnerability in advance. Like leading cattle to the slaughter the abuser takes their time by minimizing any fear and attacking when least expected. Most victims say the whole experience happens so fast they hardly have 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. Most victims have a trusting nature and are not anticipating the potential harm. Empathy should be expressed for the victim any time they communicate their story. Each time they share, it is a reminder of their naivety.
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. It is natural to feel dirty as a result of this crime. Unfortunately, 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 survival mode with an automatic reaction of fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Frequently victims report seeing limited possibilities of how to survive and are unable to see any more and fully process what is happening. This is why they have a difficult time assessing the situation and making a wise choice.
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 and usually results in blaming the victim. Then others, both knowingly and unknowingly, make insensitive and ignorant remarks which re-traumatizes the victim yet again. This causes them to completely shut down.
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. There should be no judgment for those who are unable to forgive. 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 judgmental opinions and not the victims. For their voice is precious as it has been shaped by the trauma they have experienced.