5 Mistakes People Make When Discussing Sexual Violence

As a survivor, writer, and sexual abuse survivor activist, I participate in and observe real life and online daily conversations on the topic of sexual violence. Hmmm, the topic of sexual violence — like it’s just a topic, not crimes that affect people for the rest of our lives. That change the very structure of our cells, of our brains. Simply a topic of conversation.

Not a polite dinner conversation topic, of course. Yet, still a topic people bring up regularly, because you see, everyone is an expert (I call them the ‘Should Have Dones) on what a victim of a horrific sexual crime Should Have Done after she was brutally raped, sexually molested, abused, or harassed (unless you’re in the political arena and then it’s referred to as ‘sexual misconduct,’ that vague, gray area that cannot be defined, making it easy for politicians to talk in their circles and loopholes, as they are wont to do).

I refer to victims of sexual crimes (including myself) as survivors. Personal choice. We are, and have every right to refer to ourselves as, victims. Society loves to call us victims, in the negative sense of the word. That’s mistake number one so let’s start there.

Mistake #1: Victim Blaming Sexual Violence Survivors

‘Don’t be a victim,’ people spew at us. ‘Just get over it.’ ‘You just want the attention.’ Or my favorite (from a guy): ‘Why didn’t you just call 911? Seems easy enough.” (Well, I was only eleven at the time, and gosh well, 911 didn’t exist in 1975. Plus you know, the whole thing about how my abuser, the military dad next door, had a gun and had threatened to kill me and my baby sister if I told. So there’s that.)

Soooo easy.

One person on Twitter the other day said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to read your books. Are they an endless loop of hopeless reality, victim-mentality, woe-is-me? I prefer stories of go-getters!’

Funny thing is, I am a go-getter. I am ambitious. I’m pretty chill most days. I am also a victim of a serial child molester when I was eleven. Whether I ‘get over it,’ or talk about what happened and how I’ve dealt with it doesn’t change that he sexually abused me. I deal with that reality every day. It doesn’t define me — I don’t wear a label across my forehead, however, I don’t hide it anymore either. Shame no longer owns me.

If you look at the language people use, the focus is on the victim (I’m purposely using the word victim here so stay with me). Don’t be a victim. Get over it. Move on. As if we, the victims of crimes, have Done Something Wrong. As if discussing it means I’m still in victim-mode — which I’m not (because people do want to know); yet people assume that any victim of a sexual crime who discusses their harrowing real-life experience must be looking for attention because why else would we discuss something so private?

Here’s the bigger question: Why do you suppose people focus so much on the victim instead of the perpetrator? I’ve had years to observe this and here’s my completely non-scientific, non-random, non-controlled, non-trial, half-opinion, half-experience-based conclusion:

There’s more than one conclusion, depending on the person’s most treasured belief system. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t know what to say. They don’t want to get into the mind of an abuser, so to avoid that, they pick on the victim. They bully us. We’re accessible, easy targets. Defensive attacks are easier than compassion.

Victims are easy to blame because it’s harder and scarier to connect in any way with the mind of a criminal rapist or child molester — there might be something lurking there they don’t want to see — themselves.

There’s another school of thought (much more scientific):

“Our tendency to blame the victim is ultimately self-protective. It allows us to maintain our rosy worldview and reassure ourselves that nothing bad will happen to us. The problem is that it sacrifices another person’s well-being for our own. It overlooks the reality that perpetrators are to blame for acts of crime and violence, not victims.” (Source: Psychology Today)

I’d really love to see that paradigm shift. Instead of asking victims of sexual crime anything — because we the public are entitled to know nothing about the victim — let’s ask perpetrators why they perpetrate crimes against others. Is it anger? Is it hormonal? Is it societal? Is it mental? How can we fix this?

We know it’s not about sex. We know it’s about power and control. Examining power and patriarchal structures and how we break these down is a start. According to the latest studies, here’s what we do know about men who rape and sexually assault women:

  • Heavy drinking, perceived pressure to have sex,
  • a belief in “rape myths” — such as the idea that no means yes
  • A peer group that uses hostile language to describe women.
  • Men who are highly aroused by rape porn.
  • Narcissism magnifies odds that men will commit sexual assault and rape.
  • What about the idea that rape is about power over women? Some experts feel that research into hostile attitudes toward women supports this idea.
  • Rejection in high school and of looking on as “jocks and the football players got all the attractive women.”As these once-unpopular, often narcissistic men become more successful, [he] suspects that “getting back at these women, having power over them, seems to have become a source of arousal.” (Source: New York Times)

In the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the sexual assault revelation by Dr. Blasey Ford:

“This is what we will expect from the congressional committee:

She will likely be asked to detail every moment of the alleged attack. How much she had to drink. Why she went upstairs. What she was wearing.” (Source: Washington Post)

And she was. That’s exactly what happened.

People feel righteous and justified, as if her drinking or clothing gives Kavanaugh a pass for his (alleged) ‘misconduct.’

**Postscript: we all know the result of that entire situation.

How does what any woman/person wears or drinks justify someone else’s criminal behavior? It doesn’t. In any situation. It simply doesn’t.

Mistake #2: The Language We Use

As I mentioned above, in Western society we focus on the victim:

  • Mary is a battered woman.
  • Rachel is a CSA (childhood sexual abuse) survivor.
  • Joe was raped.

Where are the perpetrators (usually men) who did the abusing in these sentences?

(For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll use men as the perpetrator, though I acknowledge #NotAllMen are abusers so please, let’s not go down that road. It is a well-known and researched fact that men do the majority of abusing (please read the full linked report for more data*) — of women, children, and other men. My point here is not to bash men; simply provide an example. I’m not in any way condemning men exclusively and I acknowledge that women can be abusers too, so everyone breathe.)

*Sex of Perpetrator in Lifetime Reports of Sexual Violence:

Most perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence against women were male. For female rape victims, 98.1% reported only male perpetrators. Additionally, 92.5% of female victims of sexual violence other than rape reported only male perpetrators. For male victims, the sex of the perpetrator varied by the type of sexual violence experienced. The majority of male rape victims (93.3%) reported only male perpetrators. For three of the other forms of sexual violence, a majority of male victims reported only female perpetrators: being made to penetrate (79.2%), sexual coercion (83.6%), and unwanted sexual contact (53.1%). For non-contact unwanted sexual experiences, approximately half of male victims (49.0%) reported only male perpetrators and more than one-third (37.7%) reported only female perpetrators (data not shown).

**For an in-depth discussion on gender symmetry, look at the work of Sherry Hamby, Ph.D.

(“Violence against women, men, and children is a men’s issue, not a women’s issue” — it’s not even a gender issue, according to Jackson Katz. Watch his TEDTalk — an excellent summary of how gendered language is endemic in our society and how we view violence against women and others, perpetuated primarily by men.)

There’s also an assumption (never a good thing) that survivors, especially female survivors, are liars. We must somehow want attention. Women must have ulterior motives for reporting sexual crimes (which violate our civil rights).

Look at the language people use when describing the multitudes of women who accused Bill Cosby in a criminal trial — they must want money or fame — misunderstanding there’s no money or fame to be had, as many of them remained anonymous, he was only convicted for the crimes against one woman, and a criminal trial does not award money.

This is especially true if the victim was drinking or drugged (more on that below). As Jim Hopper mentions in his work, our brains are flooded with chemicals during any kind of intense, traumatic situation, in particular during a sexual assault:

This part of our brain is responsible for executive functions, including focusing attention where we choose, rational thought process and inhibiting impulses. You are using your prefrontal cortex to read this article and absorb what we’ve written, rather than getting distracted by other thoughts in your head or things going on around you. But in states of high stress, fear or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired–sometimes even effectively shut down–by a surge of stress chemicals. (Source: Lisak & Hopper, TIME Ideas, 2014)

Mistake #3: Expecting/Demanding a Hero Story

Like the reader above who expected my book to be about a woman who pulls herself up by the bootstraps and conquers the world, we are conditioned, particularly here in the West, to expect and might I even say demand, a mythic hero’s journey. From sitcoms to TV movies to series to Marvel and DC Universe to epics to The Olympics every two years — we are spoonfed heroes journeys at every turn.

Look at Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter — classic if clichéd examples of The Hero’s Journey (with male protagonists and male best friend side-kicks…plus the the oh-so-important scrappy, brilliant yet with not enough screen time female secondary character, who was never completely fleshed out as well as the guys and oh, always became prettier as the series wore on. Think Hermione — whom I love, yet still.). We do love a flawed underdog who grows to a champion!, finds the strength within themselves despite difficult circumstances, defeats the bad guy (ta-da!), and ultimately gets the girl…and, of course, yes, and they lived happily ever after.

Survivors of sexual violence are my heroes. We get up and live each and every day despite living with some combo of anxiety, depression, flashbacks, dissociation, nightmares, insomnia, triggers, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, migraines, any number of immune disorders, addiction, and all kinds of other shit we are at higher risk for solely because we were a victim of sexual violence at some point in our lives. PTSD is common in anywhere from one-third to one-half of sexual abuse survivors six months after the attack(s). 94% experience symptoms within the first 24 hours.

If and when we choose to share our survivor experience, we don’t owe anyone a hero story.

Life is hard enough as it is. Navigating it as a survivor adds other layers ‘normals’ cannot possibly imagine. Your expectation that we must live our lives according to your heroic expectations is not our issue.

And if I (or other victims) are still in victim mode — so what? Some victims are so traumatized by the crimes against them, the effects are devastating:

  • some repeatedly attempt to kill themselves — and often succeed,
· become addicted to drugs/alcohol (did you know 75% of addicts and 90% of alcoholics were sexually abused as children? Source: The Right Step),
  • develop mental health issues (personality disorders, OCD, anxiety, depression, body dysphoria,
  • have lifelong weight issues
  • are at higher risk of immune disorders
  • can retreat to another mental universe completely (e.g., DID or other personality disorders).

If struggling to get through each day is the best we can do — so what?? Who is anyone to judge us?

Mistake #4: The Perfect Victim Myth

People blame victims for not being perfect. If she wore that red dress, if she was drinking, if she didn’t fight back, if she met the guy and they had sex (how dare a woman want sex), if she was out late walking, if she was asleep in her bed in a nightie, if, if, if.

When you first hear about a crime, it’s our natural curiosity to want to find out more. “What happened? Who was involved, what were the circumstances, is everyone okay?” (Okay, maybe an occasional ‘Who got arrested?’ if you’re that kind of person.)

However, in a sexual violence situation people immediately ask, “What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Was she alone?” This is our go-to. Because it’s somehow her fault for being imperfect. She’s to blame for putting herself in the position to be victimized (and yes, I’m using this passive language on purpose).

Again, with the victim-blaming. Yet the perfect victim expectation goes far beyond that. We’ve all watched enough Hollywood tropes to have been brainwashed into thinking that victims should be thin, virginal, pretty, helpless creatures who are perfect in every way (good), OR they are vampy vixens dressed in leather who we know have it coming because they ooze sex (bad).

In reality, women are not caricatures (surprise!) and are sexually violated at all stages of life.

Cases have been dismissed entirely because the victim didn’t cry sufficiently or wasn’t hysterical enough (if you recall, PTSD used to be referred to as ‘shellshock’ for a reason). Our brains can react in a multitude of ways during and after sexual assault — see Jim Hopper’s comprehensive work to get the neuroscientific background in understandable terms. As Jim points out, investigators have had to learn how to talk to victims differently based on the latest scientific studies on how the brain reacts to intense trauma.

Memory gaps are common — why? Because of the pre-frontal cortex impairment mentioned above. Details can be hazy and remain hazy. The best scientists in the world don’t know exactly why, yet lawyers, judges, and juries demand definitive proof a victim isn’t lying (and even with proof, rape kits are collecting dust. Again, whole other post).

No, let’s discuss it. If there’s DNA present, the victim can undergo the process of having a rape kit done (commonly referred to as a SAK: Sexual Assault Kit). After being raped or sexually assaulted, a victim must again open themselves up to strangers to be intimately examined.

Then there’s this fact: Most kits are never tested unless there’s a criminal investigation. Go ahead, read that again.

Are all SAKs tested?

No. While there are a few cities and states that automatically test all sexual assault kits, in general, SAKs are not tested unless specifically requested by a law enforcement agency for a criminal investigation. There are a variety of reasons that a kit might not be tested including:

  • A decision by law enforcement due to a variety of reasons — such as not prioritizing sexual assault cases or a perceived lack of victim credibility or cooperation — not to further investigate the case.
  • A decision by law enforcement that the results of the kit would not be significant to the investigation. This occurs most often when the suspect does not deny physical contact but instead claims the contact was consensual.
  • Backlogged crime labs. Due to resource issues, some crime labs may take up to a year or longer to test a SAK.
  • Lack of funding for DNA analysis. Some law enforcement jurisdictions, including crime laboratories, are underfunded and may be unable to test every SAK. (Source: National Center for Victims of Crime)

Dissociation (aka, spacing out or acting differently) is common after an assault, sometimes for years — even decades (something I still experience now, forty-plus years after my abuse as a child).

I experienced dissociation each time my abuser molested me (not realizing that watching myself as he abused me was not abnormal). I dissociated frequently throughout high school and college — it was normal for me to watch myself from above. Now that I know what that feeling is (something I can do on command), I’m much more aware. Sometimes, though, it happens and I don’t realize it at all. My family knows, though. My guy says he can see me ‘going under.’

You may also find this PTSD visual helpful (Souce: Daily Cardinal)

As for whether a woman decides to drink, do drugs, wear whatever she wants, meet a guy for sex — she is allowed to do all those things and still does not deserve to be raped. No man deserves to be raped. No child deserves it. No LGBTQ-identifying person. No human.

A person is raped because someone raped them.

By accusing a survivor who is brave enough to come forward for not fitting into the perfect victim myth you’ve come to expect, or accusing them of lying, it’s as if we are all having the wrong argument. What we have here is a faulty car engine (the brain, which in truth isn’t faulty at all), yet you’re accusing, discrediting, and blaming the driver.

When in actuality, the one causing the entire mess is the guy who ran the car off the road.

Allegedly.

Mistake #5: Sexual Violence is Political

Social media is rife with conspiracy theories about this Ford/Kavanaugh situation — which I won’t dignify by going into here on this post. The #MeToo movement, which has brought forward incredible, heartbreaking, brave voices sharing horrific stories of sexual violence, is now being attacked as men vs. women, as right-wing vs those ‘heathen, liberal left’ (never mind the number of priests, GOP’ers identified as child molesters and rapists, Fox News?). Some of the people involved in spreading and believing these stories are tin-foil hat ridiculous.

Geez. See how easy even I lowered myself into the mud? It’s an ugly look, isn’t it? Mud-slinging makes dirty people. Dirty people spread more dirt.

Add to that the conspiracy theorists, fake news, fake accounts, Russian whatevers, bots, and fundamentalists on all sides…we might as well be rolling with the pigs…or is it dogs or fleas? Besides, shouldn’t you be writing instead of arguing politics on social media?)

Which is why I refuse to discuss politics and sexual violence together in the same tweet or post.* I won’t argue with anyone about sexual violence and politics. They are completely separate because my focus is and always will be on the survivor. And if you work with The Joyful Heart Foundation as I do or RAINN (also wonderful), you’ll see they are not political, either.

Advocating is about helping others. Politicizing sexual violence negatively, to further some politician’s career, doesn’t help anyone.

(*If there’s a bill, contributions needed, or volunteering to help or fund services for survivors — then I’m all in to help out survivors).

Making what a survivor goes through, after any kind of assault, fit into some political party ideology is ludicrous to me.
Compassion and kindness are my ideology.

Mistake #6: Assuming All Victims of Sexual Violence Are Liars

One more, on the house.

As I already mentioned above, the other part of politicizing sexual violence is the assumption that all sexual violence survivors are liars (ONLY if the survivor is hurting your candidate). Why do you suppose this is? Because diehard party-line believers and supporters cannot afford to question their own familiar belief system (this topic brings in fallacies, which you can read more about here). Whole other post.

Why didn’t she report? She had plenty of time!” Such an easy question to ask. So simple. As easy as asking a domestic violence survivor why she didn’t just leave, right? Surely, violent, criminal situations can be explained away with a tweet. I hope this sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me, yet that’s what people demand from survivors, particularly women.

I’ve shared above how parts of the brain shut off during trauma. If the victim chooses to come forward immediately, investigators must be trained to question survivors appropriately, keeping this in mind. The victim may not answer in a way politicians or the public would ‘expect’ a perfect victim to answer — yet the knowledge of how the brain responds to trauma is not widely known or understood.

The general public is a different story altogether. Zero comprehension of the brain on trauma. Therefore, we see these brutal social media attacks ensue due to unsatisfactory answers to questions the public has no right to ask.

Shame is another reason. It can take decades for a survivor to speak publicly about their sexual trauma (if they ever do at all). It took me three and a half decades to write Broken Pieces and then Broken Places (Broken People will be available soon-ish).

Fear of retaliation (and considering 90% of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone we know, this is an incredibly valid fear). More specifics from RAINN:

Of the sexual violence crimes not reported to police from 2005–2010, the victim gave the following reasons for not reporting:

  • 20% feared retaliation
  • 13% believed the police would not do anything to help
  • 13% believed it was a personal matter
  • 8% reported to a different official
  • 8% believed it was not important enough to report
  • 7% did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble
  • 2% believed the police could not do anything to help
  • 30% gave another reason or did not cite one reason

Read more statistics about perpetrators of sexual violence.

I won’t go into the details of my own sexual abuse here, but I will share this: as someone who did report (eventually) and testified in two trials at the age of twelve (civil and military), I can tell you it was one of the most terrifying, humiliating, and shameful experiences I’ve ever had, facing the man who abused me, having to explain what he did to me while others scrutinized every excruciating, embarrassing detail for further questioning and cross-examination.

Sure, I was young. Younger than both my kids are now. Too young to know the words I was about to speak.

For the record, he got eighteen months.

Do you need help right now? Contact RAINN 800.656.HOPE (4673). Here are 67 resources for sexual assault survivors via Greatist.

To find out more about Rachel, her activism, books, blog, the weekly #SexAbuseChat she founded on Twitter, or anything else (she has two cats, Squeakers and Pip — they like chicken and Doritos — she knows, it’s weird), visit her website here: RachelintheOC.com, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.