I could go on about stereotypes surrounding victim responses and the damage they do for pages and pages and pages. But I won’t overwhelm you with that right now. The point is any stereotype is harmful. Expectations about how someone should cope with trauma is very harmful. Not only does someone have to process their trauma but they also have to try to act in a way that society judges as acceptable. That’s a lot for anyone to handle.
In cases of sexual violence, the focus is heavily on victim responses. How the survivor is acting and whether they seem like they have been assaulted is analysed. That doesn’t make any sense. Everyone deals with trauma – especially something as sensitive and complex as sexual violence – differently. How we process trauma is not a conscious decision. Our minds use whatever defence mechanisms it can find to get you through the physical and emotional pain.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to look like they have fought their attacker until their body is shredded to pieces.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to go to the police straight away and of course be covered in physical evidence and a signed confession from their attacker.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to be able to recall their attack very easily and tell this all to multiple professionals who will question their story.
But then victims of sexual violence are supposed to keep quiet about what happened to them because no one wants to know.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to never want to see anyone who is the same gender as their attacker ever again.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to never want to have sex ever again or even be touched.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to hide away.
Victims of sexual violence are supposed to know that they are a victim of sexual violence straight away.
All these required victim responses are completely unrealistic. Our mind’s don’t respond to trauma logically. We are in survival mode. It’s not about doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s about doing what you need to survive. But many people don’t understand that and judge someone’s experiences solely on how they act after the fact.
The only thing that defines whether you are a victim or not is whether you have been sexually assaulted. Nothing else.
There are such a variety of different victim responses. Some people repress their experience because they can’t mentally handle it. Some people wash themselves over and over because they need to be clean. Some people are scared to tell the police but they fear not being believed or being shamed. Some people blame themselves. Some people are threatened. Some people keep dating their attacker. Some people have lots of sex afterwards to try to override the bad experiences with good experiences or to feel a sense of control over their own body. Some people cry, some people drink, some people are silent.
Trauma and stigma don’t mix well. They prevent people from telling anyone about what happened to them never mind the authorities. As a community, we need to understand that and we need to change our response to victims. What can we do to help people handle trauma better? What can we do to end the stigma? What can we do to make reporting sexual violence easier? What can we do to end sexual violence altogether?
Whether you are a victim, a loved one of a victim, you knew a perpetrator or are completely neutral in this situation, you cannot sit back contently. Having another person in the world who understands that how people act after sexual violence varies hugely from society’s expectations and who accepts all variations will make the world a better place.
If you need more information about dealing with the aftermath of sexual violence, HERE is the UK support line. Many survivors also experience depression and I have talked about how I deal with that in this article.