The response a survivor receives when they speak about their experience of sexual violence can seriously affect one’s quality of life and ability to cope. Whether we want to believe it or not, society tends to minimalize a survivor’s experience. In fact, sometimes it appears as if every detail of a survivor’s honesty is questioned both relentlessly and insensitively before there is any hope of getting justice. Often times, survivors have reported feeling like they are being put on trial as a perpetrator, before being treated as a victim. We have seen this many times before, including during the #MeToo movement, when numerous survivors were patronized for attempting to expose prominent and powerful male personalities.
We have seen what society does to those who try to speak out against sexual violence in the past, many times, so it is no wonder why survivors may fear sharing their story. It seems as though if an individual holds a respected position, it is automatically assumed that a survivor is lying or wants money before the lens is turned to the potential perpetrator. Why is such a sensitive topic overlooked or normalized so frequently; when sexual violence crimes have been linked to depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, PTSD, substance abuse, sleep disorders, disrupted relationships, etc.
As each survivor has had a singular experience, it is so important that we do not treat each experience the same, when that person is already forced to relive trauma by sharing their story. Yet we see this happen still to this day, and how it can further harm the survivor. At the end of the day, sexual violence has more to do with control than gender, but different genders receive different responses to their experiences- and none of them are acceptable. Let's look at some of the common reactions to survivors of sexual assault, and how harmful this can be on the individual who has experienced the crime. Before we go over these, I would just like to clarify that we do not believe or identify with any of these myths, but have found them through doing research.
"If She Was Wearing That Than She Was Asking For it"
Oh dear...It’s a shame we have to go over this one but we saw it come into play during an Irish 2018 rape trial when a lawyer held up a teenager’s thong in the court room, suggesting her “skimpy” underwear implied consent. This teenager later took her own life, and thousands of women shared images on social media following this case. Firstly, a woman is not responsible for the reaction she may elicit by what she is wearing nor can she control the fact the female body has been hyper-sexualized by society. In order to prepare for a personal court appearance, I was also respectfully advised to dress modestly and to cover up; or this would affect how the case would result. Rape culture in the courtroom is still alive and well, and lawyers are able to ask these victims really any questions that they want to -often being insensitive to the pain and suffering they have endured. Quite frankly, it’s none of your business why a woman wears what she wears and it should never be assumed as a sexual invitation unless she specifies that. This is an easy excuse for not being able to take responsibility or respect the autonomy of another individual, and it can cause the victim to feel guilt, shame, and responsible for what happened to them. You are not responsible for what has happened to you.
"Why Didn’t They Stop It, or Scream For Help?"
Firstly, our prefrontal cortex is responsible for our rational reasoning and decision making, and helps us organize information depending on what we need to pay attention to in order for survival. On the contrary, the limbic system of the prefrontal cortex controls one’s emotions such as love, fear, hate, anger, love, etc. When an individual is experiencing a traumatic event, the limbic system of the brain takes over completely so the brain “chooses how she will respond before she can logically consider the outcomes of her actions”. Some survivors even describe completely disassociating with their body and viewing the event from the top corner of the room. This is why we can in no way predict how one will react to sexual violence. When someone experiences fear they go into fight or flight, so they either freeze or they flee. When they freeze, it is referred to as rape-induced paralysis. If you find this difficult to grasp as a whole, you can also research "Flipping Your Lid", as it simplifies how the brain works different during certain situations.
“When a woman senses danger or is attacked, her body sends automatic signals to her brain to alert her nervous system that there is a threat to her safety and a cascade of neurobiological defense responses is set off, which is often over simplified as “fight or flight”. A woman does not choose which response is initiated during an attack but may feel guilt, shame, confusion, and anger for not responding a certain way during a violent attack. Often survivors are questioned about their actions and physical responses during an attack. Even decades after a traumatic incident (such as childhood sexual abuse) a smell, sight, sound, touch, or taste may trigger memory fragments and initiate a defense cascade response for an older woman. This trauma response effectively impairs the rational, logical, thinking part of the brain, which is further confused by the attachment circuitry activated at the same time as fear circuitry, when a woman experiences violence from someone she knows and trusts. Attachment circuitry also suppresses a woman’s defense circuitry."
"Why Can't You Remember Then?"
Often times, when a sexual violence survivor is attempting to retrieve memories of the event, there can be many ambiguities. In order to understand this, let’s examine the brain through a trauma lens and learn how the brain and memories are affected by fear and trauma. During an event where one feels their life is in imminent danger, it is common for the mind to disassociate and many of these images or memories can end up in our subconscious mind. There are also numerous studies that show a connection between trauma and it’s affect on the body. The brain makes these memories less accessible either because it can’t make sense of them or they are overwhelming to the person’s psyche and could inhibit how they live their daily life. This results in scattered, incomplete or fragmented memories of an event and unfortunately many survivors are patronized due to discrepancies in their stories. Simultaneously, survivors can also deal with this misconception: “Traumatic experiences scramble your memories: maybe you’ve misremembered what happened.”
“There is this tragic discrepancy between what is expected within the criminal justice system and the nature of trauma memories and how people are likely to be reporting them” – Amy Hardy
"Why Do They Still Talk to Their Perpetrator?"
Often times the severity of a crime of sexual violence has been measured by the survivor’s willingness to communicate with their perpetrator. Many think, if that person really did that to them, then why are they still talking to them? But it’s a little more complex than that...This is because sexual violence occurs in relationships as well, or between colleagues, family members, etc. The perpetrator could also be in a powerful position that intimidates the survivor and makes them feel as they are untouchable. Moreover, many survivors have also been threatened and are incredibly fearful. Personally, I have even normalized many experiences due to how people have reacted to them in the past. Others also tend to normalize their experiences and convince themselves that either it was their fault or that it was not sexual assault. I knew someone who was sexually assaulted on vacation and when she told her partner, he blamed her and told her she shouldn’t have been around that crowd intoxicated. She never reported that crime or viewed it as sexual violence even though it was non-consensual and she repeatedly communicated this. Instead she insisted she was responsible for it and felt incredibly shameful. But then this also implies that survivors put themselves in situations of danger, especially women. Experiences affect everyone differently and who are we to judge what would be an appropriate emotional or rational reaction for a survivor.
“When the perpetrator is someone they trusted, it can take years for victims even to identify what happened to them as a violation.”
"Why Are they Only Reporting it Now?"
As previously mentioned, majority of sexual violence related crimes are not reported at all. It is fair to say that individuals may not wish to deal with the anguish associated with having to relive an experience when the crime only has a 1/10 chance of resulting in conviction. For others, it can take a while to come to terms with what may have happened to them, especially in children or young adults. Maybe they just are not ready to, or are worried that it may affect their reputation. Some survivors describe not being as affected by the experience until they decided to have a family, and having children made them examine their experiences differently. Moreover, certain scents, places and sounds can bring back deep-rooted subconscious memories that begin to affect that person in that moment but later on in life. Most importantly, there is no right time to begin your healing journey; and no magical light bulb that goes off to tell you when you may be ready.. Some individuals may also be fearful or distrustful towards authorities.
“Statistics show that offenders are more likely to choose victims who have been previously assaulted — but a woman who reports more than one assault is less likely to be believed. This is partly because of widespread misconceptions. The number of false reports is vastly overestimated. Common responses to trauma are often viewed as evidence of unreliability. And when it comes to the most serious assaults, the public imagines that they are committed by strangers in a dark alley, and base their view of how victims should react on that idea — even though the vast majority of assaults occur between people who know one another.”
"If the perpetrator is a woman, a boy or teenager should consider himself to have been “initiated” into the exciting world of sex."
We discussed this myth in the previous post, but a recent occurrence on social media will help to put this myth into context. Earlier this month, the famous rapper Boosie went on Instagram live and bragged to his followers about how he had older women perform sexual acts on his underage sons. This is a perfect example of an individual glorifying not only sexual assault but also hypersexualizing their own kids. The rapper also has a young daughter, but if these types of things were said about her on Instagram live, the world would have likely erupted. Instead, his fans and followers still praise him and comment his pictures, and Instagram has done nothing about the fact he said these things over their platform. This shows us how much we normalize sexual violence today, how we treat crimes differently when they involve famous people, how gender influences how a person perceives what is sexual violence and what is not sexual violence, and quite frankly it says a lot about us as a society.
"Guys Can't Be Sexually Assaulted by Women"
"Women can and do sexually abuse and assault men, but it rarely gets reported by the survivor. If you include emotional blackmail as a way of forcing a guy to submit to sexual assault, then the number of crimes greatly increases. Sexual assault of a guy by a female does not have to involve penile penetration; a female attacker can use sex toys or other foreign objects on an unwilling male. It’s also not uncommon for males to experience involuntary erections during a sexual assault."
"Only Gay Men Sexually Assault Other Guys"
"The vast majority of male offenders who sexually abuse or assault other men identify themselves as heterosexual. Some offenders target males simply because it gives them a greater feeling of dominance, power and control than abusing a woman. Sexual assault is usually much more about violence and anger than it is about lust or sexual attraction. The vast majority of males who target boys for sexual abuse aren’t gay."
"Guys Who Experience Child Sexual Abuse Will Grow Up to Become Abusers Themselves."
Contrary to common belief, statistics show that many male perpetrators of sexual violence have actually suffered from something other than sexual abuse as a child. Perpetrators are actually more likely to have experienced physical or emotional abuse in their childhood, or have witnessed domestic violence. "Although premature sexual experiences often cause profound emotional damage to boys, most male survivors don’t repeat the abuses that happened to them."
Equally as important, are the myths around sexual violence when it relates to LGBTQ2+ sexual assault survivors, and how differently society treats these crimes. Vice has a really good article that helps to break down some of these myths and how they differ from cis-gender and heterosexual experiences. It's important that we understand how these experiences can differ from others and how many of them are fueled by already present marginalization and the "continuous hyper-sexualization of trans identities in media". In order to learn more about this, feel free to read this article.
I hope that this blog urges us to look at sexual violence differently and to stop normalizing it based on gender stereotypes. These myths and reactions can seriously negatively impact survivors and how they heal. This is a hard topic to discuss, and it's equally as hard for me to write about it. As this month continues to progress, we should reflect on the only crime that is not declining in Canada. Most importantly, believe survivors if they are willing to open up about it, because the responses to sexual violence can seriously influence how a person perceives and feels about their own experience. Survivors have a right to own their own experiences, and to have their experiences validated as well.