by Lois Bushong, LMFT
Almost daily, as I read my Twitter feed, I learn about another new report of sexual abuse or harassment by a person in a position of authority in a well-respected organization or system perpetrated on one or more of their adult employees or colleagues. It happens in for profit companies, non-profits and religious systems that see themselves as having high, ethical standards. A couple of years ago, we had the “Me Too” movement where an increasing number of adult victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse felt safe for the first time to come forward after years of suffering in silence because of other high-profile cases where the victim/s were finally believed, taken seriously and appropriate justice was carried out. We were shocked at how widespread sexual abuse upon adults was in our supposedly safe world and work places. We wanted to believe that this was the cathartic end of such despicable behavior; that it would henceforth be safe for adult women (and men) to report abuse that occurred at work or church. Sadly, this is not true.
As a marriage and family therapist, I have heard countless stories of sexual abuse over my thirty plus years of working with individuals from all levels of society. My heart has repeatedly been broken as I have listened to these stories of sexual abuse inflicted on adults, abuse which was often deeply buried in fear. I have walked alongside these deeply hurting individuals as they finally, bravely spilled out their stories, still shaking with fear at breaking the silence for the first time even in the safe setting of a counseling office. Yes, for many, this was the very first time these stories were exposed to the light of day.
Another very painful stage in counseling and healing from the sexual abuse is confronting the false guilt expressed in in anger at themselves: “Why didn’t I say anything when it was happening?” or “Why didn’t I walk away?” or “Why didn’t I slap, hit, scream or report? After all, I was not a child. I was a grown, supposedly intelligent woman!” We spend a lot of time overcoming these lies. The longer the abuse took place the greater the victim’s false shame, guilt and misplaced self-directed anger. This is one of the key elements at the core of their long held silence.
At the same time, adult victims are so very angry at themselves for not reporting their perpetrator. One of their huge fears holding them back from reporting the abuse is that someone will state, “I would never have allowed that to happen to me! I would have run, slapped them, yelled, told my CEO, or beat them up” which only drives the victim, who already feels so alone and vulnerable, further into withdrawal. Their wall of silence and pain then becomes even more impenetrable. They then fear they are totally alone and are destined to carry their shame to the grave.
What are the other key reasons adult victims don’t report the sexual abuse done to them? Each story is different and each reason is unique to that wounded soul. Here is a list of some of the reasons why victims stay isolated and fear to venture forward with any form of reporting their story. I am sure there are many more that can be added. This is just a glimpse into their world.
Why Victims Don’t Report
- The abuser threatens to harm the victim and/or their family if they make a report.
- The abuser threatens suicide or self-harm if the victim spills their secret.
- The abuser tells the victim they will not be believed because they are a “nobody” while the abuser has a place of power in the organization.
- The victim is too exhausted emotionally from the trauma of the abuse to go forward and face making a report which could well cause their private life to be put under public scrutiny and gossip.
- The victim does not want to face the possibility of rejection or shunning by their family, friends or the organization/system.
- The abuser and/or the system convince the victim that sexual abuse is not a rape/trauma. There is a scrabbling of terms to protect the system from the victim possibly making this public.
- The victim is told the future of the organization is dependent on their remaining silent.
- The abuser has a place of power and authority in the system or organization and thus has greater credibility than the victim. This is especially true when the perpetrator is the victim’s employer, supervisor or pastor. These same dynamics facilitated the abuse in taking place and kept the victim from resisting successfully enough to stop it when it occurred.
- If the abuser is part of a religious system, the abuser and organization often portray themselves as “God’s voice” to the victim resulting in the victim’s inability to trust even God. In addition, the Biblical command to forgive is used to keep the victim silent: “If you talk about it, you haven’t forgiven. God commands you to forgive.” Thus, even the victim’s faith in God is used as a weapon to keep the victim silent and perpetuate the feelings of false shame and guilt.
- The victim believes the lies and threats told to them by the abuser and the organization.
- The victim protects the narrative of the abuse because it is the only thing they CAN control. The unknowns of whether the perpetrator’s threats would be carried out and that they might not be believed if they report it are too overwhelming.
- The trauma of the abuse causes the “thinking brain” (cortex) to shut down. stopping logical decisions. This going into freeze mode is an automatic response of the brain iin response to severe trauma in order to survive. This results in the victim’s losing their “voice” or power. At the same time the sympathetic nervous system and the mammalian brain” (brain stem) is activated causing the automatic fight or flight response. Because of the threats and lies told them by the abuser, the fight response is rarely activated in such cases. Thus, they are in shock and can’t react when the abuse is occurring. After the incident they most often go into the flight response, causing them to withdraw in silence which to them equals the only control they have in their out of control, very scary world.
- Spiritual bypassing can take place which is “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
- “Trauma has a profound spiritual impact. Trauma raises questions about who God is. Victims are uncertain of His character; His faithfulness; His love and His capacity to keep us, to be our refuge. Trauma mutilates hope; it shatters faith; it turns the world upside-down. It is important that we understand these struggles and do not silence them or treat them as a failure of faith. When we silence victims of trauma we do further damage and in fact, become an obstacle in the work that God can and longs to do in a life battered by trauma and evil.” Quote by Dr. Diane Langberg (@Diane Langberg, PhD) Tweeted: https://twitter.com/dianelangberg/status/1496530444615102465?s=27
- Gaslighting may also take place: the victim “questions the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories. This typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and as a result often also creates a dependency on the perpetrator.”
- The victim believes they were the only victim and is afraid of exposing themselves to all the bad things that could occur if they do report it, especially that they won’t be believed or the organization will blame them, demand an apology and let the abuser go “free”.
- One adult victim who does get the courage to report is not believed, causing other victims of the same perpetrator to remain silent.
- The victim’s feelings of guilt and shame in not reporting immediately because of the lies and threats of the abuser continue to hold them captive, allowing the abuse to continue. The longer the abuse goes on, the greater the guilt and shame for staying silent.
- If the victim reports, the system often uses their energy and resources to prove the victim wrong and thus destroy the victim in order to save the reputation of the abuser and the organization. Then other victims see this taking place and withdraw in self-protection, allowing the abuse to go on for years, and increasing the number of victims.
- Even when victims have the amazing courage to report the abuse and are believed, the system or organization rarely has procedures and resources in place to provide the appropriate and responsible care needed for the victims. Thus victims are often left on their own to figure their way forward. If the system does provide care, it is often conditional, i.e. “Do what I tell you to do” or you are out/fired/sued. Don’t tell anyone else about the abuse; we will handle it.” Thus, the victim is again silenced and separated at this juncture also from a healthy support system.
What Friends of Victims Can Do to Help
- Listen compassionately and actively, without judgement or a lot of questions, and without directing the conversation.
- Do not show discomfort with their strongly expressed emotions or the horror of what they’re reporting. Keep your focus on listening to them, being with them while they tell you however much they feel comfortable telling you.
- Offer empathy, not sympathy. Help them express their feelings about the abuse by making empathetic comments such as, “I imagine you must have felt so terribly afraid.” Or “I can’t imagine how horrible that must have been for you.” Then let them correct you or expand on it or wherever they want to go with the conversation. Letting them be in control of the conversation is very important to someone who has been abused, controlled, and manipulated.
- Frequently tell the victim that you believe them. The abuser has told them often that they would not be believed and thus bought their silence.
- Remind them frequently of your unconditional love.
- Reassure them that you can be trusted with their story and you will not tell anyone without their permission, but you will support them in whatever way you can. At the same time, don’t promise to help them in a way that you can’t. Instead, tell them what you can do to support them, realistically.
- Don’t manipulate them into doing what you want them to do next with their story. It’s their story, and they need to be in control of what happens next.
- Don’t walk away, remind them frequently that you are STILL there with them in whatever way you can honestly be there for them.
- Learn about the trauma brain to better understand yourself what they have gone through. Or read other resources on befriending those who have experienced sexual abuse as adults.
**Great organization for therapists who offer trauma counseling. Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing.
Karen Stoliznow, PhD. “Why Women Don’t Immediately Report Sexual Assault”. December 21,2021. Psychology Today digital magazine.
Denise-Marie Ordway, “Why Many Sexual Assault Survivors May Not Come Forward for Years”. October 5, 2018. The Journalist’s Resources.
Diane Langberg, “Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church”. Brazos Press, c2020.
Miller and Martin Law Firm, “Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias”. February 9, 2021. Reported by Christianity Today magazine, February 11, 2021.
Roxanne Stone, “Brian Houston Steps aside as Hillsong Global Senior Pastor”. Christianity Today, January 29,2022.
Ronan Farrow, “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers tell Their Stories”. October 10,2017, The New Yorker.
“Bill Cosby: The Rise, Fall and Release of ‘America’s Dad’”. BBC News online, June 30, 2021.
Rachel Denhollander, “What is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and U.S. Gymnastics”. Tyndale Momentum Publications, 2019.
“Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed”, Discovery + Documentary, March 2022.