Why victims don’t speak

The recent news and media frenzy regarding the predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein and other prominent Hollywood figures leaves many of us with complicated emotions. Anger, disbelief, betrayal, and triggered memories of our own sexual trauma may surface as we read accounts of woman after woman being demeaned, attacked, assaulted, and violated. These things should shock and infuriate us.

And yet often, the question is asked, “Why didn’t the victims come forward sooner? If this event was truly unwanted, wouldn’t they have reported it?” Besides facing judgment from others, those of us who have survived these experiences may even blame ourselves and question our own actions.

But whether we are survivors ourselves or close to one, we need to remember this: speaking about a traumatic event or abusive relationship is difficult beyond description. Putting words to an experience that violated the deepest, most sacred parts of ourselves often means reliving horrendous pain. Speaking out loud may break the denial or disassociation that has been helping us to cope. Even in a safe environment, surrounded by those who love us and support us, talking about abuse is heart-wrenching.

Now imagine speaking about it in an unsafe environment, where the reception of the revelation may be uncertain. When the offender is someone in a position of power, a family member, friend, or intimate partner, speaking out could have explosive effects in the victim’s life. What if no one believes them? In a he said, she said situation, the person in power is often favored and the victim is often dismissed as attention-seeking or manipulative. This could be devastating emotionally and also practically, meaning an end to their job, family, stability, support system, reputation, or their own dreams. Making a public accusation is a very serious step with many ramifications that a victim of abuse might not be willing to risk. There is often too much at stake.

So, instead of judging our sisters (and brothers) for not speaking out sooner, let’s commend them for speaking at all. Let’s be understanding when they choose not to share. Let’s learn to be good listeners, to let our friendship be a haven of safety during a tumultuous time. Let’s offer a steady, unshakable presence of unprecedented warmth and grace, providing a place where secrets are safe to come out into the open.

And if you are a survivor of some kind of sexual assault, harassment, or abusive relationship, I pray that you’re able to find some encouragement in all this. While the news headlines and hashtags can be triggering, it can also be strangely validating and comforting to hear the testimonies of other strong, capable women who can understand your pain and have walked a similar road. I pray that you feel that you are not alone.

Leave a Reply