Sometimes, the scariest part of being abused happens long after the assault — the moment you let others hear your cry for help. Taking all of that vulnerability, all of that private shame, and putting it out there for the world to see isn’t easy for those who are suffering, and it takes incredible strength to overcome that fear.
Too often when a victim’s cry for help is heard, they’re met with skepticism, a slew of nosy questions, or worse, told that they don’t even deserve to be helped at all. In the process, their chance at recovery is often shattered.
Yet that’s exactly what happens every time we tell a victim that we don’t believe them. In fact, studies show that for some victims, the trauma of not being believed has more of an effect on them than the actual assault itself.
So why then are we so critical as a society when it comes to which victims we should believe, and which ones we shouldn’t? And why — more often than not — do we tend to not believe the girl crying “assault?”
This is why.
1. Assault victims make terrible witnesses.
Almost everyone would agree that PTSD is a common “side effect” that comes in the aftermath of an assault, but unfortunately many people fail to take that into consideration when they are trying to decide if an assault has actually occurred. What many people expect so see is a traumatized victim, but what does that actually look like? Should be chronically terrified? Crying, sobbing, and begging for help? Should she be wailing and flailing and blowing through a box of Kleenex at all times?
Science says no.
In fact, research tells us that PTSD sufferers often experience “dissociation” — or a feeling of being removed from a situation and creating a flat emotional effect.
So really, when you think about it, the victims who aren’t crying, who aren’t wailing and begging for help, are likely to be even more traumatized than the person bawling their eyes out.
2. They often can’t remember exactly what happened.
Have you ever found it odd that victims sometimes come forward claiming abuse and rape, but then can’t exactly explain what happened? If it really happened, if they were really there, they would surely remember what they are basing their serious claims on … right?
You see, brains are a wonderful thing: They hold an endless amount of thoughts, feelings, and random facts, allow us to multitask enough to play Pokémon Go at the same time we’re mentally preparing our grocery list, and they help us remember things like where we live — so that we don’t show up to some stranger’s house every night looking for our beds.
But when our brain is faced with what it perceives to be a life-threatening situation, it stops everything it’s doing and focuses its sole attention on keeping us alive.
James Hopper, Ph.D., trains investigators, prosecutors, judges, and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault, while David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer, and the board president of 1in6, which supports male victims of assault. In a 2014 article they wrote for Time, both experts explain that when the brain is facing a traumatic situation, much of it shuts down so that it is better able to focus on staying alive. Off goes the part of the brain that gives us willful control; off goes the part that allow us to choose what we pay attention to; and off goes the part that controls short- and long-term memory.
Basically, a victim’s brain is working so hard to keep itself alive that it doesn’t have time to pay attention to details or make any new memories. As Hopper explains:
“Victims may remember in exquisite detail what was happening just before and after they realized they were being attacked, including context and the sequence of events. However, they are likely to have very fragmented and incomplete memories for much of what happens after that.”
So when a victim comes forward with a story that contains sketchy details and missing chunks, there’s a good chance that they don’t remember what happened, because they were too busy trying to stay alive.
3. The shame is overwhelming.
If a victim doesn’t want to talk about what happened, then they must be lying, right? Because every victim wants justice, and they should want it now?
It’s an all-too-common misconception — one for which there’s no real basis in truth.
PTSD and brain trauma aside, what happened to a victim was embarrassing. Not because it was their fault, but because they found themselves in a situation where someone stole their dignity, their self-respect, their body, and their emotions, and there was absolutely nothing that they could do to stop it.
It’s a humiliating experience for many victims; one that can take years to get over. And before they can process and accept that what happened wasn’t their fault, they feel shame.
Shame that keeps them from wanting to talk about what happened.
Shame that bottles up the story and hides away the details.
Shame that makes them put a wall up they hope others can’t climb, and leaves people standing on the outside wondering, “If the assault really happened, why aren’t they talking about it?”
They aren’t talking about it because of what happened to them; not because it didn’t.
It happened, and it hurt.
4. We don’t want to think that this can happen to us.
Let’s say a friend of yours went over to your mutual friend’s house to watch a movie one night. It got late, she got tired, and before she knew it, she fell asleep. But let’s say she later told you she awoke in shock while the mutual friend was raping her.
That couldn’t have really happened, right? I mean, it would be a hard thing to imagine — this friend of yours you’ve known so well; one you’ve been alone with countless times before. He’s never tried to rape you, so he couldn’t have raped her … right?
Consider this alarming stat: Research tells us that 93% of women are raped by someone they know, and 1 in 6 women will be assaulted in their lifetimes. So yeah, statistically, there’s a high probability that it did happen.
The only difference between you and your friend in this scenario is that so far, you haven’t been targeted by a rapist. And I know it’s hard — really hard — to believe something so horrible about someone you know and cared about. But just because it’s hard to believe doesn’t make it a lie.
Which brings me to another funny thing about brains: they’re programmed to seek out familiarity. When faced with needing to change their entire perspective and alter what it has long accepted as a fact … well, that confuses our brains so much that our default response is to assume that this “new information” must not true.
As Margaret Heffernen, author of Willful Blindness, puts it, “We could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”
(Got it? Good.)
It’s the same reason why die hard political fans are often unable to see the failure of their own candidate, and why religious conversion topics are so uncomfortable. Our brains believe what they have become accustomed to believing, and anything that tries to change that feels like a lie.
But just because it’s uncomfortable and shocking doesn’t make it a lie, and just because you don’t want to believe that it happened doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
We owe it to the millions of abuse and assault victims who walk this earth to show them our support — and sadly, to the many more who may yet suffer the same fate. Their only real chance of recovery — and our only shot at getting to the root of why and how this happens so often — lies in our compassion, understanding, and open mind.