We need to stop using a survivor’s fear of coming forward as a reason to disbelieve them
It’s a question that often stems from ignorance about the intricacies and dynamics of abuse and, at best, is offensive—at worst, detrimental to putting an end to abuse. It isn’t uncommon for people to take time to process a hardship in their life before feeling like they want to speak out about, but the bottom line is it shouldn’t matter when someone comes forward to report abuse, only that we listen and believe.
“There is nothing to suggest that because someone has waited to speak publically about abuse that they’re more likely to have engaged in false reporting,” says Tricia Bent-Goodley Ph.D., licensed social worker and professor at Howard University School of Social Work.“It takes a lot for people to share this kind of pain, and we need to be supportive.”
There are a number of reasons survivors don’t come forward immediately once they’ve been abused or assaulted. Here are a few:
Survivors of abuse and assault, and specifically domestic violence, may stay silent about their experience because they fear for their safety or the safety of their children.
“We know that making the violence known and seeking help, unfortunately, can increase the potential for further victimization, injury and even lethality,” Bent-Goodley says. An abuser may fear a loss of control and tighten their grip on a survivor by ratcheting up the violence or may simply lash out in retaliation for exposing the abuse.
Judgment and Blame.
Many survivors do not report abuse for fear of being revictimized by a flawed legal system that won’t support them, or stigmatized by peers who don’t believe them. They may also fear judgment from police. A study by the ACLU found that, of 900 survivors surveyed, 88 percent stated police “sometimes” or “often” do not believe victims or blame victims for violence.
They Don’t Know They’ve Been Abused.
Some survivors don’t even realize that what they experienced is abuse.
“There are oftentimes when we actually have to explain to a survivor that what they’ve experienced is abuse,” Bent-Goodley says. “Being exposed to violence in relationships on television, in social media, in music [also known as rape culture], sometimes people think that these behaviors are normal and they haven’t necessarily been exposed to definitions, ideas and discussions about what a healthy relationship is.”
Sometimes survivors don’t come forward because they’re busy just surviving and often, need time to process what they’re going through.
“Different people process trauma differently, and so it’s expected that responses to trauma will be varied,” Bent-Goodley says. “Trauma-based responses often don’t fold out in a timeline that makes sense to other people. How someone is able to reconcile and deal with and negotiate trauma is very individualized.”
In short, they may just not be ready. Author Leslie Morgan Steiner released her memoir Crazy Love, the first DomesticShelters.org Book Club selection, about surviving an abusive husband, 20 years after it happened. She says it was very hard to talk about initially because she didn’t want to admit to herself that she was a battered wife. “It’s an incredibly traumatic thing to be abused by somebody you love.”
What Makes Them Come Forward?
Just as the public will sometimes blame survivors for not speaking out, survivors can also find themselves judged when they do. The reasons for coming forward is as varied as the reasons for staying silent.
“Some people come forward because they’re in fear for their life,” Bent-Goodley says. “We see that a lot where they think something awful is going to happen and they feel like, at that point, they’ve got to seek outside help.”
Others come forward to protect their children, to seek justice against their abuser through the court system, to lend support to other survivors or because they want to bring more awareness about the prevalence of abuse.
Every survivor needs to take into account personal safety when deciding to speak out, and the decision is yours alone to make. But if you think you’re ready to share your story and advocate against abuse, learn how to start the process in, “Speaking Out.”