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There has been a lot of publicity about historical cases of abuse in the news over recent years and this movement is gathering momentum. That is great to see. Those who commit acts of abuse should absolutely be made to face the consequences of their actions. One thing I can't help but notice is that in every case there seems to be a lot of people in the online space who question the truthfulness of those who come forward to make abuse public on the grounds that those victims didn't speak out immediately after the incident, or during the process of it, if the abuse was long term.
This view seems to be predicated on the idea that a) victims of abuse have the power to speak out immediately on being abused and b) that we live in a society where justice is delivered directly and on demand and that victims are always taken seriously and supported by those around them. That is, at best, an extremely simplistic perspective. At worst, it is a total illusion.
There are a whole host of reasons why large numbers of abuse survivors don't speak out. On behalf of all of us, I want to tell you what some of them are.
1) The victim didn't know they'd been abused.
For those of us who were children when the abuse happened, it may take years to understand that what happened was abuse in the first place. Especially where the abuse was mostly psychological or where it was chronic and long term. For those of us who grew up in those conditions, abuse is simply normal. We may know we're traumatised but not fully realise why or that other people don't live that way. Consequently, it can be decades before we fully understand what exactly happened.
Another reason someone may not know is dissociation. The human brain is designed to protect itself. In very severe cases that can mean completely shutting down the memory—a kind of amnesia—so that the person doesn't even remember the abuse. It can be years before the memory re-appears. If it ever does. When it comes to abuse against children in particular, the onus should never be on the child to adult survivor to report it, but on adults in authority to spot the signs early and step in.
In cases of sexual abuse against adults, the victim may believe that what happened was normal. Like it or not, we live in a society where certain modes of sexual behaviour, particularly from men towards women, are accepted as the norm - regardless of their impact. Victims of such abuse may suffer the effects of the trauma for years before realising where the source of those symptoms come from and that what happened was abuse.
2) The Impact of Trauma
Abuse of any kind causes trauma. Depending on the type of abuse and the length of it (anything from a few minutes to a few decades) the impact of it can be severe and lifelong and can include any or all of the following after-effects:
- Physical injury
- Anxiety and depression
- Problems in relationships
- Isolation and alienation
- Self harming
- Financial hardship
- Rejection by family or children
- Chronic fatigue
- Self hate
- Loss of confidence and self esteem
That's just a few of the possibly outcomes—both immediate and long term. Do you think that someone who is struggling with any or several of these things in their daily life is going to find it easy to speak out about what happened to them? I can tell you from personal experience that it can be a fight to even get up in the morning, much less to try and think about speaking out.
3) The victim did speak out in the past and wasn't listened to.
This is very common. Especially in cases where the abuse was long term or recurring. Many of us have had experiences in which we tried to speak out in order to get help but weren't believed or listened to. Or else where the abuser found out that their victim 'told' and then re-doubled the torture or otherwise denied everything. There are many, many cases where a child tries to tell a family member or person of authority about what's happening and isn't believed. This pretty much ensures that they won't speak out again. Or if they do, it will be many years and a lot of therapy later.
In any case where the victim is living with the abuser—whether they are an adult or a child—if no one believes them or if the abuser finds out that they told someone, but no support is given and they are not helped to find alternative accommodation immediately, then the abuse is going to get even worse as a 'punishment' for daring to speak out. Again, this pretty much silences the person for life. Or at least for a very long time.
4) Shame and Fear
Shame and fear are two very normal reactions in the immediate aftermath of any abusive event. This is usually compounded by the abuser who will do everything they can to intimidate the victim and also to blame them. In almost every case of abuse you'll ever hear about, the abuser will have tried to blame the victim in some way. Where the victim is a child or vulnerable adult, they have no means of defending themselves against this. It simply enters their psyche and becomes extremely frightening, stubborn and very, very difficult to overcome. Anyone who speaks out, besides dealing with PTSD and other mental and physical results of the trauma, must also walk through the guilt, fear and shame of publicly admitting that they were abused.
5) The Backlash
There have been a lot of high-profile cases in the news lately and we have all seen what happens when someone, especially a woman, publicly stands up and says 'this person abused me.' She is immediately deluged by messages which vary from the sceptical to the outright threatening.
What you don't see in the high-profile news stories is the humiliation and extra trauma caused by going to the police or other authority and reporting sexual or domestic abuse. You don't see the harrowing physical examinations; the terror of facing an abuser down in court or of being questioned intimately in public by a lawyer.
What is even more invisible is the backlash from a person's family which can result from speaking out. This can vary from judgement ('it was your fault, you brought it on yourself') to embarrassment ('I can't go out without people staring at me now') to indifference ('so what?') lack of belief or even to further abuse, threats or total and complete rejection.
Now; imagine you're already dealing with mental health problems because of the abuse. You then risk further abuse or trauma from speaking out. Not to mention a whole lot of controversy if your case is a high profile one. And after all that—as we have seen—justice may not be done anyway, because our legal systems are very heavily weighted against the victims.
Can you begin to understand why a lot of victims never speak out? Or, if they do, it can take decades to work up the courage? No one should ever be judged or condemned for not speaking up about what happened to them. The fact that the veracity of a victim's claims are questioned on the grounds that they took years to surface shows a complete ignorance of how trauma works. It also ignores the fact that the victim may have tried to speak out in the past and been ignored.
It is a failure of society that abuse even happens in the first place. For us as survivors, simply making it through every day life requires immense courage. Anyone who manages to push through that and speak publicly about what happened to them should be given an award—not shouted down by the faceless masses both online and in the media.