April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Project S.A.R.A.H.: Why Victims Hesitate to Come Forward

Sexual abuse and assault have become a prime focus in the media lately, with allegations exploding everywhere from Hollywood to the USA gymnastics team. The #metoo movement encourages people to come forward publicly to share their experiences of abuse. These events have raised some questions:

Why don’t these victims come forward right away? Why does it sometimes take years until they expose the truth?

Why, when one accuser comes forward, does it lead to many other victims coming forward with the same accusation?

Through our therapeutic work at Project S.A.R.A.H. and our community research and training, we have some insights we’d like to share.

Let’s start with definitions. Child sexual abuse is any sexual act or behavior with a child by an adult or by a child who is at least four years older. Sexual assault is any sexual act or behavior with an individual without their explicit consent.

There is often a power differential between the abuser and the victim. The power imbalance can be either physical, mental or both. (Think doctor/patient, teacher/student, adult family member/child etc.) The abuser uses their power for coercion. The power imbalance may confuse the victim and make them doubt their initial instinct that this is not OK. “An adult wouldn’t hurt me,” “He’s a doctor, this must be a treatment I don’t understand,” “A rabbi is holier than I am; I have to trust him.”

Two common explanations of a victim’s perceptions of abuse are:

1) Halo effect refers to being blinded by someone’s halo, such as their good qualities, positive reputation, etc. A victim might not allow themselves to believe something is wrong because “this is such a great person,” or they might be afraid no one will believe them.

2) Normalcy bias refers to the process of cognitive minimizing. When faced with a crisis or painful information, we tend to react by minimizing, denying or falsifying an incident so it’s easier for us to accept and we can keep things “normal,” which is more comfortable

These two concepts help us understand the reasons a victim may not recognize or acknowledge what’s going on.

We know that abusers frequently use a manipulative tactic called “grooming” in order to gain access to the victim and abuse them. It can be in the form of gift giving, special attention or touching in a less obvious way to lower the victim’s defenses.

Victims are usually filled with guilt, shame and fear after he/she has been abused. The abuser may have threatened them with harm if they don’t keep silent. The abuser minimizes the abuse by stating “nothing happened to you; you imagined it “or “this is normal, everyone does it, there’s nothing wrong with what I did.” The abuser might tell victims that no one will believe them. They may instill guilt in the victim by saying, “If you tell, I’ll kill myself or you’ll ruin my family, or you’ll send me to jail.” They might project blame on the victim. “It was your fault. You encouraged it, you liked it.”

There are other important factors for victims. Coming forward to disclose abuse is humiliating. They will have to discuss the most personal and intimate experiences they’ve endured and then to be scrutinized for truthfulness by others. They may be ruining lives with their disclosure. They might have to endure a long and grueling court trial. At the same time they are usually suffering from the trauma from the abuse. Victims of sexual trauma are more likely to have PTSD, addictive behavior, commit acts of self-harm and have suicidal ideations. The longer they keep it a secret and don’t get help, the worse the symptoms can become. Who would want to willingly put themselves through that?

It should now be easier to answer the original questions of “why don’t victims come forward?” Perhaps after years of therapy, the victim was finally ready to come forward. Maybe they came forward for validation or to keep others safe from the pain they experienced. They may have been motivated by a culture that’s now providing support for them to think they’ll be believed and accepted. Victims might come forward when they hear of other cases, because it takes away their shame and they then want to share and encourage others to feel validated in this way as well. It’s also possible that hearing someone’s story triggered a repressed memory and that the story sounds familiar. Maybe hearing the abuser’s name and the descriptions of the experience of someone else clarifies that their experience was in fact abuse.

Most importantly, what can and should we do in response? We can start by believing the victims. We are not obligated to judge the abuser. There’s a legal system for that but we must make sure the abuse is immediately reported. We can have feelings of shock and disappointment toward the abuser while still listening to and encouraging and believing the victim. We don’t have to ascertain the truth. Just know it takes tremendous courage for the victim to disclose their story, they are vulnerable and don’t need to be judged or questioned any further. We can refer them for help when needed to mental health professionals trained to treat victims of sexual abuse, such as therapists at Project S.A.R.A.H.

The team at Project S.A.R.A.H. is always available to provide support and counseling, and can be reached at 973-777-7638. To learn more about our services, please join us at the upcoming Project S.A.R.A.H. breakfast, Sunday, April 22, at 9:30 a.m. at Keter Torah.

By Shani Hochstadter, LAC

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