The work of Trihope has the aim to help survivors of sexual abuse and assault find hope, healing and freedom. Because of that, I began to ponder what I believe is the biggest barrier to stopping sexual abuse and the cycles it leads to. At three o’clock in the morning – much to my husband’s delight, I’m sure – I realized what it was. I believe the biggest barrier to ending sexual abuse and its devastating effects is shame. Now, many of you probably know what shame is, but just for clarity I will explain.
Shame VS. Guilt
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is a feeling you have when you have done something bad. Shame on the other hand is when you feel that you, as a whole, are bad.
Shame is a feeling that penetrates the core of a person and it affects the way they interact with the world. And we, as a culture, as a community, shame victims of sexual crimes—both knowingly and unknowingly.
The Faces of Shame
Shame comes in the form of blaming the victim. Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you report it? You shouldn’t walk home alone at night.
Shame can also come in the form of unbelief. I can’t believe that happened to you. But he’s such a nice guy!
Shame also comes in the form of silence—not wanting to talk about things that make us uncomfortable, we sweep it under the rug. These words, or lack thereof, have devastating effects on the victims they are directed at. Instead of treating sexual abuse or assault as the crimes they are, we throw further shame on survivors, keeping victims locked in their trauma.
Shame Vs Outrage, Belief, Action
Let me give you two examples to show what I mean:
- A woman is driving home at night when she gets hit by a drunk driver. She sustains injuries that will affect her for the rest of her life. Her friends and family see the effects—the broken leg, the stiff way she walks. They ask her what happened. She tells them she was hit by a drunk driver. People gasp—are you okay? Did the driver get caught? I’m so sorry this happened to you. Do you need anything?
- A woman is walking home at night when she gets attacked and raped. She sustains injuries that will affect her for the rest of her life. Her friends and family see the effects—her withdrawn behavior, her fearful responses. They ask her what happened. She tells them she was raped. And—silence. It’s like an uncomfortable ooze covers everything. How did this happen? (People don’t want to believe this happened). Why were you alone after dark? Were you drunk? Did you report it? Are you getting help?
Both these women were victims of crimes. In the first example, it is clear who is to blame: the drunk driver that hit her car. There are no clarifying questions such as: Were you drinking? Why were you driving home alone at night? Were you texting? It’s obvious to everyone that she is not to blame, she is a victim.
In the second example, it is also clear who is to blame: the rapist. But our reactions do not match this belief. More questions are asked: How did this happen/What happened? (This question, after already saying you were raped is not helpful. Let’s see, why don’t we let the victim relive the trauma so that we can confirm that yes, she was indeed raped and not making it up.) Why were you walking home at night alone, you know that is dangerous?! Did anyone see you? (Again a seemingly reasonable question, but it indicates doubt that the victim is telling the truth.)
A Better Response
So what should we say? What should we do? Centuries of our shame culture about sexual crimes will not disappear overnight. But each person can begin to make the change.
One way is by being a good listener (not a silent listener). Victims of such crimes most often need someone who will listen to them without judgment. They need someone who will walk along this broken road with them and not give up.
Survivors need encouragement and support to seek help from professionals who know some of the paths to healing. For example, being willing to drive them to and from their therapy appointments and be there for them afterwards – therapy isn’t easy!
Allow them to feel whatever they are feeling. They may be angry—that’s okay. They may not feel anything—that’s okay too. Feelings are not bad. They’re just feelings. They will come and go as the grieving process continues.
Educate yourself on the effects of these crimes and don’t be silent about what you learn.
Most of all, treat survivors as you’ve always treated them. Continue to invite them to friend gatherings and out for coffee, etc. In time, with your support, survivors of sexual abuse and assault can find healing.
Change Begins with You
It’s time to change the way we view and respond to sexual crimes. This change starts with you. Begin by Shattering the Silence.
Photo by Elena Ferrer on Unsplash