Disclaimer: this article is just one persons’ best attempt to approach the issue of silence around abuse and how to respond to survivors. I am imperfectly muddling through ideas and encourage others to do their own imperfect muddling. I will have undoubtedly missed important stuff. I might have written stuff you don’t agree with. I am not an expert on all survivors. I have observed some things in my own life and in the lives of others – what’s worked, what hasn’t – and this is my best offering at this moment in time. Where I use ‘she’ and ‘her’ this is only for reasons of ‘flow’ in the writing – mentally replace with whatever pronouns are more relevant to the survivor(s) in your life.
Sexual Violence and the Culture of Silence
People seem to not really want to talk about sexual violence. Survivors sometimes avoid talking about it because they are afraid of having difficult feelings triggered and/or fear of shaming (from self, or others). People who have not experienced any sexual trauma might want to avoid talking about it for lots of reasons: existing secondary trauma; fear of being secondarily traumatised; they are uncomfortable with topics which include the word “sexual”; they find it taboo and stressful to talk about; or because they lack the emotional skills to respond. This is all very understandable. In this article, I want to explore what this culture of silence can look or feel like to survivors and what we might do as a society to start challenging this culture of silence surrounding sexual violence. In the second half of this article, I will specifically address those who feel that they simply don’t have the skills to respond to communication about sexual violence and I will try to give them some pointers.
I have noticed that lots of very kind and supportive people will immediately jump to “distracting” a survivor who is in pain. Invite them out! Talk about something else! Change the subject! What about self-care: have you had a bath? Have you eaten? As well-meaning as this might be, it can mirror the silencing and dismissal that survivors have experienced time and time again since the traumatising incident(s): families who brush it under the rug; police who didn’t think it was important to investigate too hard; teachers who didn’t take notice of obvious distress; partners who didn’t recognise how past rape influenced the current relationship, and who never asked. Sometimes everybody seems to be frightened and looking the other way. The silencing of survivors usually begins straight after the incident (or even during) and then continues seemingly unendingly thereafter. Even those who really care for the survivor and want her to be ok can unknowingly perpetuate it. Distractions can be lovely if they are what the survivor wants, but often there is no alternative given because distractions are easier for the supporter than talking about it would be.
I think many people believe that their loved one, who might be in counselling or under mental health care, is receiving support elsewhere and talking to ‘the experts’ about their painful experiences – but this is so often not the case. Some survivors will never disclose to professionals, because of a lack of contact with them or for some other good reason, and even those who do disclose to professionals are often encouraged not to talk about it.
Mental health professionals rarely wish to discuss abuse, even when it is the primary reason for a person’s distress and consequent referral to their service. They are mostly invested in med regimes, mindfulness, or CBT, based on your main ‘diagnosis’. A treatment plan is written and the professional wants to stick to it. Apparently, it isn’t ‘mindful’ to talk about the past, or the reason for your distress, even if you have crippling PTSD. Talking about trauma takes too long, it is too costly, so it is best for these professionals to stick an ineffective plaster on the gaping wound and encourage the person to move on, as forcefully as possible.
Even private or voluntary-sector counsellors, reluctant to “retraumatise” a client, will try and steer the person back into “the now” and away from discussing abuse and trauma. Often this is to “stabilise” the person before they get into any potentially traumatic material. But for somebody who is constantly in a cycle of PTSD responses, stopping them discussing the thing they wish to discuss is itself a re-enactment of the silencing they have experienced as a part of sexual trauma. No person will ever become ‘stabilised’ if their own counsellor is triggering them with subtle or overt suggestion that it would be ‘best’ for them to not talk or think about it. Not talking or thinking about abuse is what many survivors do as part of a response called “dissociation” – where a person cuts off from what happened and tries to ignore it and carry on (even when there is ongoing abuse). Dissociation can cause a person to feel cut off from their own body and identity. It only stops when somebody acknowledges fully and comprehensively their experiences, including abuse or violent incident(s). Not talking about it seems antithetical to this.
When people don’t want the survivor to talk, the survivor is sometimes relieved because who wants to talk about the most distressing event(s) of their life? Easier in some ways to just keep on trudging through daily familiar grind of PTSD, C-PTSD, autoimmune flair-ups, and severe dissociative or panic symptoms (all of which might eventually, indirectly or directly, bring them an early death) than face the very real pain of healing. Silence is what we are used to; it is a familiar, stifling blanket of yuck. Better to please other people, better not to rock the boat, better not to risk feeling ones’ feelings or connecting meaningfully with what trauma has meant for our bodies and lives, better to try and numb it down and accept distractions. Best to cling to that blanket of silencing yuck and stride forwards, rather than risk people seeing that you are underneath the blanket, and you can’t breathe for the stink of the unaired trauma. Sometimes you start to think the stink of unaired trauma is you. So, you pull the blanket tighter. Keep a lid on that smell.
People don’t commonly want to think about the sexual violation of somebody they love – the survivor understands this, because often she doesn’t want to think about it either. But even if she has dissociated and doesn’t want to think or talk about it, her body asserts the trauma again and again in ways that can’t be ignored. She is reminded in dreams, through smells, by the sight of her own body, by everyday feelings or thoughts, by somatisation and pains. She is reminded by jokes, tv, radio. She is reminded by the awkward dismissal/distraction from others, by the news, by her lack of a job due to trauma-induced disability. She is reminded by an out of control triggered reaction to something seemingly innocuous to others. She is reminded by her lack of family support after disclosing, by special occasions, by her isolation, her poverty, by her grappling for self-esteem and fear of rejection, by her disconnect. The body is never truly silent. So, a survivor engages with sexual violence, whether she talks about it or not, whether the people in her life have to think about it or not. This is part of the cruel legacy of sexual abuse and sexual violence on the bodies and minds of survivors.
In my experience, the only people willing to listen, when a survivor is ready, and on her terms, tend to be (often older) feminists, support staff in rape crisis centres, or other survivors (many of whom are also those same older feminists and support staff in rape crisis centres). This means that it is sometimes/often survivors themselves who risk secondary trauma to do the listening. They do this because they know, keenly, what it is to be trapped in chronic, oppressive silence and/or because they care about those who are trapped by it. But it isn’t fair that these people are the only ones willing or able to do this work. It would be easier on these few individuals if more people were willing to step up and if we took communal responsibility for ending the culture of silence around sexual violence.
“What good does talking do, though?” you might ask? Is it going to help the survivor that much anyway? Will it not just upset them more? It might not be the magic bullet to resolve all trauma issues, and it certainly won’t stop sexual violence from happening in the first place, but it can provide some “air” around the trauma, some space outside of the survivors’ own head, so that they can start asking questions or expressing feelings about the incident(s), which can help. Talking works best if the survivor is not confined to talking in one relationship, to one helpline, or to one support person. Being confined in this way reinforces sexual violence as secret, shameful, as something we shouldn’t really be discussing openly. Additionally, if the survivor has lots of people to talk to, it might not matter so much if one person is unable/unwilling to talk about it because there are other people. A community of caring people can challenge the messages given to a survivor when she is abused, such as: you don’t matter; I will not listen to you; I do not care about you. When lots of people are willing to listen, it provides the kind of environment where it is possible for the survivor to find her own way to healing, whatever that looks like. It breaks the abusive pattern of silence and shame, it tells her she does matter, people will listen to her, and they do care.
Talking also only works if it is something the survivor chooses to do and wants to do. You might put out an offer to talk, but she might not be ready, and this is ok. It is vital that survivors’ boundaries are respected. Being able to be in control of ones’ story and having boundaries respected can also be healing. Just knowing that somebody is willing to hear can also make somebody feel more secure that there is an avenue – an opening, hopefully several openings – if she wants it, when she’s ready.
I think the most common reason why people don’t want to hear survivors’ stories is simply a feeling of lack – of not knowing how to respond to disclosures in a helpful way. If this is your reason, I completely understand: there is no abundance of major studies or discussion about how best to respond survivors’ words and there are no major public health campaigns to guide people. But I am going to try and give you some basic guidance, which I hope provides suggestions for how to give a ‘good enough’ response. Please note, that this is mainly advice to people who have not experienced sexual violence themselves or who no longer feel affected – it can be more complicated if you are yourself in the process of trying to heal trauma and don’t want to be distressed by discussing upsetting things that have happened to you too. But if you are able to listen, but don’t know how to respond, then read on:
1) Actually respond. Reacting with silence gives the survivor chance to fill this silence in with messages she might have heard from an abuser or from a culture which shames survivors. She is more likely to think things like “this person thinks I am shameful and disgusting” (as per abuse conditioning) than she is to recognise that you simply feel awkward or are trying to “give space” to her. So, respond. It doesn’t have to be in complicated words. “Oh, that is awful, I am so sad that you have to deal with this” or “I had no idea you were dealing with this, thank you for trusting me, how can I help?” – these are perfectly good responses. They help the person to know you haven’t received the information in a negative way and that you have heard her.
2) Check in with her for a few days after she’s disclosed – every day if you think it is appropriate to the person. Let her know that you are not scared of talking to her nor of her having more to say about it. If you have something else to do and might be delayed in responding, let her know. Ask “how are you doing?”. If she is not doing well, let her know she can carry on talking about that. Don’t shut her down. Be prepared that she might regret telling you, due to abusive conditioning to be silent. Ask questions about any regrets, be curious, let her know that you are glad she was able to speak about it, and that if she needs to ask you anything about your response she is free to do so.
3) Express boundaries clearly rather than skirting around them. If you are busy and can’t talk, say so rather than just being emotionally unavailable. You don’t have to be an expert who is always switched on and you don’t have to be there for anybody 24/7. Or you might want to be. Your boundaries are your own and only you know how to set these in each case. Don’t offer a free and open listening ear to somebody you don’t actually like, and don’t want to be around – this isn’t fair on you or the other person. If you become avoidant, the survivor might think it is because of what happened to them rather than that you weren’t interested in friendship in the first place. If you are a survivor yourself and therefore feel unable to talk about it without triggering your own stuff, consider letting her know the broad reason for not wanting to talk about it (if this feels ok and safe for you). It will make her feel less alone, even if you never discuss abuse directly.
4) Do a bit of homework. Read blogs by survivors. Read public forums on the topic. Read stats and myth busting sheets. Read feminist writing about sexual violence and violence against women. Read about the effects of rape and abuse on men. Join discussion groups. Read a book with related themes in your book group and listen carefully to how people respond. Read twitter hashtags on relevant topics. Generally, get stuck in to understanding the effect of rape and sexual violence on victims, the issues involved, and how different people respond to similar events. But go at your own pace, there is no need to overwhelm yourself because stressed out people struggle to listen anyway.
5) Get support for yourself if you feel traumatised by the information you have been told about somebody else’s life. You could give rape crisis a call, get some counselling for yourself, or talk to a trusted friend or faith leader. It is important to take care of yourself and we must all collectively heal from the pain of sexual violence. Remember that survivors had no choice in being traumatised and you had no choice that you were born into a world where people you love are inevitably traumatised and need to talk about it, even if nothing happened to you directly. We all need to grieve and to heal from the disastrous effects of violence in our lives. It might also bring up issues from your own past that you had forgotten or not thought about for a while. Take care of yourself and remember that you matter.
1) Try not to give ‘stock’ answers such as ‘I believe you’ or ‘it’s not your fault’ without first listening to whether or not the survivor expected disbelief or blame. It can be a bit jarring if somebody tells you that they ‘believe you’ when you didn’t for a second think that they wouldn’t. Lots of survivors do expect disbelief or feel guilt – but this is not universal. Additionally, the survivor might have spent a long time assessing your trustworthiness before she opened up to you – so although she might not expect belief in general, she might expect it from you specifically. Rather than using words to convey these things, try using behaviour. You show belief if you take a survivor seriously, ask her how she feels, ask what action she wants taken, offer support in this action. You can show that you don’t blame her by expressing your sorrow that she was hurt and being on her side. There’s no need to say these things in words, unless she directly asks you about them.
2) Don’t assume that if this happened a long time ago she must have spoken to others before you about it – she might not have done. Also, don’t assume that the person doesn’t need a strong response because it happened long ago. For her it might feel like she is reliving it every day. In that sense, it is still recent for her. “Oh, how dare he have hurt you? I’m so sorry”, or “oh no, how do you feel? can I help?” are good kinds of responses no matter when the trauma happened.
3) Respond in line with your general character. Don’t suddenly go all “PC” social worker on them if you usually use expletives and are direct. On the other hand, if you are a bit of a PC social work type, then you do you. If you don’t, she will notice the discrepancy and feel like your relationship has changed somehow. Be normal, whatever normal is for you.
4) Don’t dismiss survivors whose responses to abuse do not fit in with your preconceived worldview <– this is a very important sentence, so maybe read it again and think about how this might apply to you and what you expect responses to abuse to be like. Responses to abuse are varied and wide-ranging. Try not to judge people for what they do, or have done, to survive – now or in the past.
5) Don’t expect that if somebody knows (intellectually) that the messages of the perpetrator were abusive/untrue that such messages will not have been absorbed or believed by the survivor. Even those with an analysis of abuse before they are abused are often unprepared for how insidious the messages of the perpetrator can be and the effects of that on their body and feelings.
6) Don’t treat the survivor as though she “broken” or “damaged” and don’t act like her saviour. She is likely to scan for changes in your attitude or beliefs about her following talking about sexual violence because it is a personal thing to share and can feel risky. She is a survivor and a strong person to have gotten through the event(s) and to be actively working on healing by talking about it. Give her the respect she deserves and show her that you think she’s flipping awesome.
To end on a positive note: Do-bi-do-bi-do-bi-do (that was a little song for you, in celebration of you being the sort of person who cares about the wellbeing of survivors). Best of luck in challenging the culture of silence and in all your sharing and listening and responding.