Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.
A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.
If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”
And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your bag just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”
I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.
What were you wearing?
How much alcohol did you have?
Why did you go to his house?
Why didn’t you fight back?
And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?
On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.
Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.
Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.
An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.
The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.
So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.