BELIEVING SURVIVORS: OVERCOMING DOUBT AND GUILT
This was it.
Every parent's nightmare.
His precious little girl with tears streaming down her face.
Broken. Hurting. Telling the most unbelievable story.
It couldn't be true? Could it?
His doubt was partially anchored in the who. His brother would never have touched her. It was unimaginable. He was a good uncle, friend, and father himself. He couldn't have done something so...awful.
And even if, in some bizarre world that was possible, what did that mean for his baby girl? That she was violated? Could she ever be whole again? He couldn't wrap his head around that. And if it had been happening, surely he was a failure as a father.
There must be a mistake. That was the only reasonable explanation. Believing it was the only thing keeping him sane.
Sexual abuse is far more common than we'd like to admit. We read the stats but never dream they apply to us.
1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.
1 in 3.
There are 3 girls in my family. So statistically one of us will face this horror?
1 in 4.
There were 32 boys in my high school graduating class. So 8 of them have now been affected by sexual violence?
I don’t know about you, but that hits a lot closer to home for me.
Denial is a common response to disclosures of sexual abuse. We live in a world of strong opinions and serious consequences. People can post anything online and millions of people can voice their opinions about it. Lives are shattered by accusations of sexual misconduct. But lives are also shattered by devastating experiences of abuse. And statistically, we know abuse is happening, all the time.
So why don't people believe the stories of abuse? Why is it easier to believe that someone made up a horrendous account of trauma than to believe it really happened? The answers lie in the story above.
1. The alleged abuser is a "good" person.
Most times, abuse comes from someone the victim knows. An acquaintance, friend, or family member is far more likely to abuse than a stranger. But these are people we love and trust. We can't imagine them doing something so horrendous. It's easier for us to picture abusers as monsters, someone you'd recognize instantly as a predator. In reality, though, abusers look like you or me. They often have normal lives and are seen as loving and kind.
2. It hurts too much to admit that someone you love was abused.
No one wants someone they love to be in pain. Our emotional response to hearing that a loved one was abused is similar to what we experience in grief. We want to deny it because then, it won't be true. But that kind of thinking isn’t logical and it won’t last. More importantly, it could seriously wound the one you love. As much as it hurts to accept that your loved one was abused, remember that they are suffering much worse. They need you to believe them.
3. You feel guilty and think you should have stopped the abuse.
Guilt is a powerful emotion, and no one wants its weight on their shoulders. For parents and other caretakers, disclosures of abuse hit particularly close to home. Their job is to care for their children/loved ones and keep them safe. So they feel they have failed if their child suffered abuse. But sometimes there is nothing they could have done. And even if it could have been prevented, denying it after the fact only causes more harm. If we love our children, we must listen to them, even if that makes us feel guilty. Healing begins by believing survivors.
4. There is no proof of the abuse.
The sad reality of abuse is that, most often, it happens in private. There is no physical proof. It's one person's word against another's. But there is proof if you know what to look for. Survivors of sexual abuse show symptoms of the trauma they endured. Signs include:
- depression and anxiety
- chronic pelvic pain
- stomach issues
- eating disorders
- suicidal tendencies, thoughts, or attempts
Look for these things and if you notice them, address them. Create safe spaces for your child to tell you what's going on. Prepare to accept whatever they say without judgment or denial. Maybe there is no tangible proof, but sexual trauma never goes without effect.
Victims of sexual violence have faced incredible trauma. And gathering the strength to talk about it is not easy. As a society, we need to set aside our preconceptions, our fears, our own pain, and our doubts. We need to learn to listen and believe survivors.
To all the survivors out there:
- We hear you.
- We believe you.
- We are here for you.
- If you've never shared your story before, there is someone out there who will listen and believe you. If you’ve been rejected or doubted in the past, it won’t happen here. Our trained advocates will listen to your story and provide free, confidential support. Call us today at 1.800.770.1650 or text 'iowahelp' to 20121.