As a Brit watching the media coverage of the US presidential debate, I’ve found myself quite shocked at the allegations and accusations. But nothing has surprised me more than the lack of compassion towards the women who have come forward to report claims of sexual abuse from Donald Trump. The most outrageous thing I’ve witnessed over and over again is the questions fired towards these women demanding why they didn’t report the abuse sooner, or why they didn’t report it to the police.
From someone who has been assaulted in a violent attempted rape, I know firsthand why victims don’t report the abuse when they should or could have and I’d like to give those who haven’t been in such a situation some insider information.
1 — When you’re emotionally charged, you don’t act rationally
It’s so simple for someone on the outside of the situation to tell someone what they should’ve done, during or following a traumatic event. However, the thing that is constantly overlooked here is that when we are emotionally charged, our brains function differently. The emotions literally take control and rational thinking goes out of the window. It’s easy for a rational thinker to think ‘how can I get justice in this situation?’ or ‘what is the appropriate method of reporting this?’ But once someone is threatened, they are no longer in a rational mindset.
They feel vulnerable, scared and most likely have some form of survivor guilt. These overwhelming emotions often lead to one main response: Get away from the situation. That means getting away physically, mentally and emotionally. It means not revisiting it, not talking about it and sometimes not even acknowledging it for years. So when these women are asked why they didn’t report the abuse in the wake of a traumatic situation it’s because that would have required the rational thinking part of the brain that they didn’t have access to.
2 — You will be shamed.
I remember watching the reactions of the people who I confessed to – that I had been attacked. Amongst the huge disengagement and avoidance I received, I also had the following questions:
‘What were you wearing?’
‘Were you drunk?’
‘What were you doing? ’
All these questions focused on my actions of the evening, as though I must have done something to invite such an aggravated response from a man. It was as though people thought I was walking into a lion’s den waving around a large steak to provoke him to pounce on me. The thing is that men aren’t lions, they are conscious humans who have the ability to control their behaviour based on their judgement of what they think is right or wrong. Even if women did go about waving their bodies around as provocateurs, are we responsible for the men who can’t control their animalistic advances? Personally, I think that in a conscious and civilised society men should be able to control their urges, and I think that we should expect this collectively too.
Unfortunately this isn’t the case. As the Trump campaign has demonstrated, if someone comes out about this kind of maltreatment they can expect to be publicly shamed and ridiculed. Is it any wonder that no one came out until one person had the courage to take this one? Then once one person had spoken, everyone came out of the shadows to tell their own stories. It’ been the same for all public sexual abuse stories – Bill Crosby, Jimmy Savile (UK)—everyone was silent until one spoke. Then, everyone came out even though it was sometimes decades after the event.
In order to encourage change of this kind of predatory behaviour, our culture needs to approach these kinds of claims without judgement. So if someone tells you a story of abuse, stop and think about the situation before you ask questions that could infer it’s their fault. No one deserves to be abused and they shouldn’t be shamed for being a victim of it either.
3 — You’re out on your own.
Most victims go internal after being abused, convincing themselves it was their fault and that they brought it on themselves. This is because we live in a culture where the acknowledgement of abuse means that difficult emotions will have to be aired. There will be shame, guilt, blame, upset and fear that are horrible to experience and as a society we avoid these emotions at all costs. However, this avoidance in-avertedly advocates this rape culture, allowing it to continue unchallenged. I don’t believe that this is done maliciously, instead, I think it’s the fear driven subconscious trying to evade difficult emotions. However, for a victim who is already experiencing their own traumatic emotions, the last thing they want to feel is avoided by others. That makes the decision to tell someone extremely difficult because by doing so they are risking community isolation. Maybe if we lived in a society where abuse victims were treated the same as victims of ill health then this might be an easier decision, but that’s not the case. Until this changes, victims of abuse may stay silent for years in fear of being outcast from their community.
4 — There are repercussions.
To be any kind of whistleblower takes a tremendous amount of courage, especially when blowing it on someone who has fame, power or is a person of influence. Victims of abuse are going out there on their own to report shameful behaviour against someone who probably doesn’t want to admit wrongdoing. That means they’re probably going to deny it viscously at all costs – by attacking back at the victim. A vulnerable, shaken and abused person doesn’t want to create more drama, especially not if it means it will destroy their career, family status or personal reputation. When they’re going up against someone who has a louder voice and bigger audience than themselves they have to consider whether or not speaking out is worth it at all. This decision can be toyed around with for years until victims finally get the courage to voice the event. Sometimes it can take a trigger or their abuser gloating, or taking it a step too far. Sometimes it can take someone else to speak out first and acknowledge that they’re not the only one. Sometimes it’s when they’ve conjured up the courage to face the pain, shame, isolation and repercussions that speaking out will incur.
To change this culture we need to create a supportive environment so that reports can be aired without judgement of the victim. We need to connect with our own emotions and feel what it must have been like to be abused in that situation before we comment. We need to stop this ‘them vs us’ perspective and instead see each other compassionately as human beings.
Previously Published on Trauma on Tour
Photo: Getty Images