There has been a big stir in the media regarding sexual trauma. From college students and sports players who have little to no jail time to accusations against Hollywood stars to the #MeToo campaign. People keep coming back to the same question: Why didn’t she/he say anything sooner?
My goal sitting down, writing these words, was to explain how false reporting for sexual trauma is consistent with false reporting of other felonies, like murder. Tired of hearing the question why didn’t she/he say anything sooner? and already knowing the answer, I wanted to scream to the world that it doesn’t matter when someone discloses sexual trauma, but that they were disclosing it at all.
The more I thought about, the more I realized: The truth is, it does matter. The question and the answer both matter. A lot.
If sexual trauma were a physiological experience, it would be described as a having the fabric of one’s heart being stabbed and ripped.
If this were to happen to you, this is what would be expected: We would rush to get you help from doctors who would have to perform surgery. The staff would be empathetic as they place urgency on the long process it would take to recover from such wounds. You would be given care, encouraged to take it easy, and receive comments like I’m sorry this happened to you.
But instead of your expectations, this is what would be your reality: You would show up at a hospital with critical wounds, after a long struggle since no one would help you, only to be blamed, shamed, lectured or turned away by the doctor and hospital staff. They would ask, why did you let this happen? and say at least you aren’t dead, you should forgive and move on.
It sounds ridiculous, but the latter is exactly how survivors of sexual trauma are treated in society. I once heard how ironic it is that survivors of sexual trauma have survived their abuse only to be forced to survive culture.
The question matters because there are 80 million Americans who have been given band-aids for their shredded hearts. It is heart-wrenching to see so many people being blamed for not speaking up, only to be shamed and questioned for not speaking up sooner. The question matters because it is not a question at all. It is an accusation.
The “question” validates what victims were told their whole lives by society and then later by their rapist/abuser/perpetrator:
· we reject you for this
· no one believes you
· in fact, you are a vindictive liar
· you are not worth more than the good deeds of this amazing person (no need to use the “r” word, ma’am)
· if it did happen, it was your fault somehow
· you should feel ashamed and guilty
The answer matters because people matter. The thought that no one believed me was terrifying. It is perhaps one of the most well-researched response for why victims of sexual trauma do not disclose. What outsiders don’t think about is the other fear. I was paralyzed by the unknown for what happens when someone does believe me. It was unpredictable and uncontrollable, mimicking the trauma itself.
This is a common sentiment that I have shared with other victims and that I’ve come across in research. I waited years before telling anyone about one person who sexually abused me as a child. Because I did not want it to be true; because why would someone do something like this; because I did not want to cause anyone any more pain than I had been feeling; because I was protective of everyone else but me; because I could lose out on opportunities and, as I got older, work; because I could lose my family and friends who rejected me or my story, who were too uncomfortable to support me, and who supported my abuser; because there was no longer any evidence but the PTSD that plagued me; because I didn’t like thinking about it, so why would I talk about it; because he used it to create a special bond that was our special thing (before you victim-blame, I was 3 years old – that’s called coercion); because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt when they were used as a threatened bargaining chip; because he could do much worse, he told me; because somehow, at the age of 3, it was still my fault; because I could have done more; because I could be humiliated when the horrible act committed against me becomes about my character and credibility.
Moving on from the trauma without speaking up felt as though it would be easier. It felt like the only thing I could do to gain back the some of the control I had lost. I felt like if I could shove it down, it would go away. There wouldn’t be any consequences if I just stayed silent. And I also did not have a voice at that time or during those years I struggled with my posttraumatic stress. Society had stacked the odds against me and speaking up would perpetuate this. I wasn’t ready for things to be different or to be the sexual trauma survivor. At the time, keeping quiet turned out to be a brilliant and painful coping strategy in a harsh world.
When my pain begged to be spoken, when it needed expression – speaking up turned out to be a brilliant and painful coping strategy in a harsh world.
Now it is freedom.