In light of and well-publicized movements including #metoo, the Purple Campaign and Time’s Up, a common refrain remains: Why did he/she wait so long to come forward?
With more than 20 years in law enforcement and as an advocate for survivors, I understand why this question is still so common. The question often is grounded in ignorance and a lack of compassion.
People, for the most part, need time to process painful events. Much like death and the grief and loss that follow, intimate partner violence – that includes sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and many other forms of violence that can go on behind closed doors for decades – almost always leaves behind a legacy of trauma that can take years to understand and learn to live with.
People process trauma differently. Most of my career in law enforcement was spent with special victims. I hated hearing people say things such as: “They don’t act like a rape victim.” I would think to myself, “Well, tell me exactly what a rape victim should act like.” It was as if people had the assumption that there was a manual on how someone should behave when they have experienced a horrific event. But just like it would be outrageous to tell a mourning person at a funeral, “You don’t act like you’re grieving,” it is just as much of a mistake to make the same kinds of assumptions about survivors of intimate partner violence.
I have worked with survivors who were stoic and some who were livid and couldn’t sit still. There is no textbook victim or right or wrong way to behave. The bottom line is it shouldn’t matter when they come forward, but that they finally did! Support and sympathy go a long way toward changing the system and culture for survivors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as a quarter of all women and a 10th of all men have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. There are many reasons victims do not tell people about the violence they have experienced including:
One of the biggest reasons is the fear of retaliation. There’s also the fear for the safety of others, including their children or extended family. At TAP Domestic Violence Services (DVS), we work with survivors who have had their cars destroyed, houses burned, family members assaulted and more. Fear is powerful and crippling. Further, a lot of survivors self-medicate. Numbing the pain is a coping mechanism – one that we don’t recommend as advocates, but see often and try to be compassionate in addressing. For many survivors, fear of judgment for coping habits also can be a reason for keeping quiet.
It is so prevalent in our society today to blame the victim first and the offender last. Perhaps this is due to a deep misunderstanding about the nature of violence, but victim blaming is still deeply rooted in ignorance and hinders efforts to stop these crimes. A study by the ACLU found that of 900 survivors who were surveyed, 88 percent stated that police “sometimes” or “often” don’t believe them. In fact, they stated that the survivors themselves are blamed for the violence.
Trauma begets trauma. The cycle of trauma is a powerful thing. Unfortunately, like a recurring disease, one of the best predictors for either falling into a violent cycle or becoming a perpetrator is having been previously exposed to intimate partner violence. In other words, it is passed from one generation to the next. It festers in our lives and can become consuming. Typically, a survivor isn’t looking to the future, but is just trying to get through one day at a time.
Often we hear from survivors that they didn’t know how to leave or what to do because they didn’t know the resources available in their communities. Our community is blessed with a wealth of resources – the problem is that abusers are often able to isolate their victims from the world, including friends and family who could help survivors access these resources. One survivor was kept in her basement for over a year, cut off from the outside world except for the grocery store bathroom. That is where she found the DVS phone number, on the back of a stall door. She was finally able to access services and has since been relocated to another state.
So, what makes a person come forward? The reasons vary. Often it’s out of desperation—this usually comes at a time when they are truly in fear for their life or their children’s lives. Sometimes it’s because law enforcement intervenes and connects them with resources. Some come forward for justice because they’ve had enough and feel that it’s time for accountability.
Every survivor has made a huge choice when seeking services. We provide as many tools possible and the best advice we can. The main thing to remember is that NO survivor has to be alone. At TAP-DVS, there is a team of caring people ready to help.
If you need help, start by calling our 24/7 hotline at 540-580-0775. For everyone else, start making a difference today by offering your support – and stop blaming the survivors.