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We Need to Start Believing Abuse Survivors

Why don’t survivors report their abuse?

They do. Ask them how it went.

Be honest.

The real question is: why don’t we believe survivors when they come forward?

That’s a trickier question. And I won’t pretend to answer. Anecdotally, I can say I’ve met hundreds of survivors over the years who have shared their stories with me about how they came forward to tell their story. It never goes well. Fortunately, we are all becoming more trauma informed, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Our male survivor’s group at Peace Over Violence began with 10 men. At the end of six months, there were three. Glenn, Mike and me. I’m not using their real names, and I won’t refer to their experiences, but it’s important to acknowledge them here because my relationship with these two men is key to my recovery. They’ll come up again later.

The group meetings were heavy. A mixture of trauma education and group therapy, the men in that group had all been carrying their childhood sexual abuse (CSA) for years. I’ve written about the burden of time in Chapter 11, but it’s something I come back to over and over. Many of us in the group shared how we believed that the further we got away from the abuse, the better we would get. We were, in effect, doing what many people tell survivors to do: get over it.

The problem is that doesn’t work. That’s why the men in the survivor group are often in their 40s or older. They held it in for decades, trying to get over it and then their lives come apart. As did mine. Think about it for a minute. We were following the masculinity script we’d inherited. Be a man.

The irony, of course, is that we spent decades trying to act like men until it almost killed us.

This is a point I want to make here. People love to ask why survivors of abuse don’t come forward. Why they sometimes wait years to do so.

I had a friend in college who was repeatedly raped by her father. She came forward several times and was not believed. She was told not to say such things, that what she was saying was simply not possible. That she was wrong for bringing it up. Not being believed heaps trauma upon trauma.

When she was triggered, she’d disappear. We would be having a conversation and then all of the sudden she was gone. I could see it in her eyes. Though she was sitting in front of me, she was no longer an adult but a frightened little girl.

I had no understanding of what was happening, and it was only years later, when my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms stormed out of me that I thought back on what must have been going on for her. Her father raped her repeatedly over the years, and then when she trusted other adults with her experience, they told her she was making it up. There’s no way your father would do that.

What’s a child to do? They get on with it. They survive. And they quit telling people. Why the fuck would they tell anyone else?

That’s why when people questioned Christine Blasey Ford’s motives for coming forward during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation I felt like I was going to lose my mind. It’s not complicated. Seeing her abuser all over television triggered her trauma. Duh. And what did she get for coming forward? Death threats. Harassment. Both her and her family. Not being able to live in her home.

In other words: more trauma.

What did Brett Kavanaugh get? A lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Think about the message that sends.

This isn’t meant to be political. The reason Christine Blasey Ford is on my mind as I’m writing this is because the Kavanaugh hearings were going on while I was in the male survivor’s group at Peace Over Violence. Several of us discussed in group about how frustrating it was to watch Ms. Ford get castigated for telling the truth about what Kavanaugh did to her.

It made perfect sense to us why she was sharing her experience now, but it was terrifying to watch the reaction. This is how the system is set up. The abuser gets the benefit of the doubt before the victim. That’s what happened to my friend in college. Her father was a well-regarded community leader. He was believed. My friend was not.

Just imagine if we ever get access to Jeffrey Epstein‘s list of clients, we’ll all see this is not a partisan issue. Assholes of every philosophical persuasion were a part of that network. But I digress.

The reason for the digression is to shine a light on what the 10 men who showed up to Peace Over Violence’s Male Survivor’s of Sexual Abuse support group were carrying with them for decades. A couple of the men were abused by strangers, like me, but more often the abuse came from someone close to them (like my friend from college). Imagine how even more difficult it would be if both parents abused you, as is the case for a few of the men in the group.

Showing up at the men’s support group was an attempt by those 10 men to begin to move forward. Again. Everyone in that room had already been to countless therapists, religious programs, healers and fill-in-the-blanks to make peace with their pasts. Many of us were recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Some were still self-medicating. We all had/have problems with sex and relationships. Intimacy. Trust. The constellation of symptoms varied some, but the one thing we all had in common was the burden of this secret that, left untreated, would kill us.

So as the weeks went by, the other men quit coming. One by one. Until there were three. There’s no judgment here. Rather, I’m trying to highlight how difficult trauma recovery is. You’re constantly fighting with your own body and mind. They keep turning against you in an attempt to protect you. Trauma therapy engages those parts of your self that would rather stay in self-protection mode.

Shit’s gonna get worse before it gets better.

Why don’t we believe survivors when they report their abuse?

The Numbers

  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
  • 30 percent of women were between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of their first completed rape.
  • 12.3 percent of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization.
  • 27.8 percent of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization.
  • More than one third of women who report being raped before age 18 also experience rape as an adult.
  • 96 percent of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8 percent of people who sexually abuse children are adults.
  • 34 percent of people who sexually abuse a child are family members of the child.
  • It is estimated that 325,000 children per year are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial child sexual exploitation.
  • The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12-14 years old, and the average age at which boys first become victims of prostitution is 11-13 years old.
  • Only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is ever reported to the authorities.

From the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Image by Eliot Sanders

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