I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I have only said this out loud for the last year.
I am 41 years old. I have been in counseling off and on since the age of 17, and I have been with my current counselor for the last ten years.
And still, I struggle to say, “I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.”
Why? The Flinch.
Every time I say this out loud to someone in the course of conversation, the response is always a mental – and sometimes physical – flinch. I can see the brain of the other person recoil in disgust.
It is difficult for me to not take that disgust personally, especially since in our culture we are fond of holding victims responsible for the horrible abuse that they have suffered at the hands of another person, whether a family member or stranger. Foundational to our way of life is the cultural and personal psychology of victim shaming, the absolute refusal on all levels to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions.
Take for a moment our language. In cases of sexual assault, onlookers will claim that “she was asking for it” and blame her hairstyle or makeup or clothing or claim that she had been drinking. With domestic violence, we passively point out that, “Mary was beaten” instead of “John beat Mary up.” We ask, “Why don’t you leave?” We are asking the wrong question. We should be asking, “Why won’t the abuser stop abusive behaviors?
And in my particular case, family members will simply call you a liar and refuse to believe that the abuse happened at all.
Why do we participate in victim shaming in our culture? Why do we refuse to hold perpetrators responsible?
Blaming Victims for Their Abuse is a Cultural Problem
Just recently, a story broke out of Los Angeles in which a prominent school and their army of lawyers blamed an abuse survivor for the actions of her abuser. Marlborough, the all-girls private school, contends that a woman now suing for emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse she suffered for years at the hands of her English teacher is her fault. Not only that, they claim that she is to blame for not speaking up soon enough, as if the behavior of her perpetrator is somehow her responsibility.
Victim shaming of this magnitude requires an entire community (and, apparently, an absence of a soul).
Spotlight, the 2016 Oscar-winning film about sexual abuse and the church, showcases how an entire team of of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists were required to expose the rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, along with the cover-ups by entire communities, specifically Boston. Meredith Goldstein writes, “…[Spotlight] was about an entire community that became complicit — from law enforcement to parents of victims to the newspaper itself. The question was no longer why it took 34 years to remove Geoghan from his post. It was: Why did so many people — including The Boston Globe, which covered these abuse cases piecemeal — not notice the greater trend and question how much the Catholic Church knew about the systemic problem?”
Like a flu virus, the silence and shame and blame crawls from one person to another, and pretty soon, we are all complicit in shaming victims instead of holding perpetrators responsible.
Blaming Victims for Their Abuse is Your Problem
Victim shaming is also, ironically, my problem. My mother, who was complicit in my sexual abuse, was also a victim of domestic violence and abuse. For years after I got out of that nightmare and started my own healing journey, I asked over and over, “Why didn’t she leave?”
While I do hold her responsible for her own actions, I am not proud of this question. Why was it so easy for me to ask this about her, and so much harder to say, “Why did my father do such terrible things, not just to me but to her?”
When it comes down to it, assault, abuse and domestic violence are yucky, hence The Flinch that I experience from others when I talk about it. I am learning more and more not to take this personally, because I think we need to feel uncomfortable with these subjects.
And we need to use this discomfort to spur us into action. Some reasons for The Flinch and for our personal and cultural tendencies toward victim shaming have to do with what we want to believe.
- It Won’t Happen to Me – If we refuse to talk about the problem, we can feel secure for a little bit longer in the belief that it won’t happen to us or to those we love.
- I Don’t Know Abuse When I See It – If I remain uneducated or ignore the signs of abuse, I don’t have to get involved in a yucky situation.
- I Don’t Want to Hear About Abuse – 1 in 4 women you encounter have been sexually abused or assaulted. If you are willing to listen and talk about this issue, you may be the one person who helps one of these women.
- If I Believe You, Then I Am Responsible – I recently found out that many extended family members do not believe that I was abused. After a long, long time of processing through the idea of blaming a child for being sexually abused by her father, I decided that their response wasn’t about me.
They didn’t want to see the truth, because then they would have to be honest and transparent and ask hard questions. They would have to bear some of the responsibility, as a community who were first complicit and then covered up the truth.
We can do better. We can place blame and responsibility for abuse on the people who deserve that burden: the perpetrators, not the victims.
Kelly Wilson is an author and comedian who entertains and inspires with stories of humor, healing, and hope. She is the author of Live Cheap and Free, Don’t Punch People in the Junk, and Caskets From Costco. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Kelly writes and speaks about finding hope in the process of recovery. Kelly writes for a living and lives with her Magically Delicious husband, junk-punching children, dog, cat, and stereotypical minivan in Portland, Oregon. Read more about her at http://www.wilsonwrites.com.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Kelly. Watch for more guest posts from Gravity authors each Thursday!