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How Some Families of Sexual Violence Survivors Are Part of the Problem Too

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I think it’s safe to say that most people are opposed to sexual violence. Rape, sexual harassment and sexual abuse of children are considered heinous acts that most of us would not be caught defending in a debate. And of course, they are classified as crimes by our legal system. In theory, at least, opposition to sexual violence is considered a shared cultural value. Why then is it that, in practice, it’s common for people to turn a blind eye to these destructive, devastating behaviors, and tacitly allow them to continue right in their midst? It’s a question that comes up for me a lot, especially in the area of sexual abuse.

• What is PTSD?

You see, my own family members have a history of behaviors that actually support sexual abuse.

For one, I have known them to repeatedly leave children in the care of adults who are either suspected of — or admitted to — having abused kids in the past.

Also, when I was 11, my parents befriended a local photographer who found ways to be alone with me and tried to get me to confide in him. They invited him into our home several times a week and when he offered to take my picture, they allowed him to be alone with me and photograph me in a child-sized gauzy white dress and veil. Though my parents accepted the photos as a gift and kept the album for years, I was fortunate that their friendship with him ended soon afterward and thus, so did his access to me. Years later, I learned he was charged with sexually abusing children and fled the state to avoid arrest.

Before I was estranged from my family, they chose to leave me out of gatherings in favor of including the person who abused me as a child. My mother’s response to my hurt was to say: “I didn’t invite you because I knew you wouldn’t attend if he was there.” Over the long-term, they have enthusiastically aligned themselves with this person while scolding me for objecting. All the while, they claimed they didn’t want to “take sides” between us — as if it’s acceptable to claim neutrality when one person robbed the other of their childhood, innocence and sense of safety in the world, and later that person tells the victim that she is the problem.

Of course, my story is sadly far from unique. As I speak and write about frequently, the “second wound” is the pain felt by survivors whose family members deny or minimize their abuse, victim-blame, shame, reject and/or ostracize them for disclosing and addressing their abuse within the family. It is a shockingly common response that adds to our trauma, continues indefinitely, and is generally impervious to our efforts to be heard, respected and appropriately cared for.

At times, I look at my family and the countless others who revictimize survivors and ignore obvious dangers, and I ask the question: “Are they OK with sexual abuse?“

It sounds absurd, I know.

But let’s focus on what they do instead of what they claim to believe: 

  • Reject, shame, ostracize and otherwise punish survivors for speaking up, even when their abusers are found guilty in a court of law.
  • Remain in close and even intimate relationships with people who have committed sexual assault or child sexual abuse.
  • Prioritize the keeping of secrets and the family’s reputation over standing up for victims and protecting minors in the family from abusers.
  • Turn a blind eye to red flags like past acts of sexual violence, inappropriate behaviors and boundary violations — especially dangerous when combined with controlling behaviors and narcissistic traits.
  • Threaten and lash out at those who choose to tell the truth, reject abusers and protect minors. In far too many families, these actions are considered unforgivable infractions even while the sexual violence itself is somehow considered forgivable.

So I ask you, do these sound like people who are opposed to sexual violence and care about the destruction it causes every day in families across the world?

My answer? Only in theory, if that. And that’s not good enough.

Here is what I’d like to ask.

If you believe that you…

  • are against sexual assault and abuse,
  • support victims,
  • believe perpetrators should be held accountable,
  • think survivors deserve to be heard,
  • stand for the protection of the vulnerable and wounded…

I ask you, are you living those values within your own life and family?

And here is what I suggest. 

  • Start by examining your beliefs, biases and most of all, your actions.
  • Treat survivors with respect and authority when it comes to their assault or abuse. Listen to what they have to say and carefully consider their needs and feelings.
  • Steer clear of anyone with a history of sexual predation or other indicators that they may be a danger to others.
  • Keep children protected, no matter what it takes.

Because if you don’t, or you won’t…

You are perpetuating the problems you claim to be against. And I’m sorry to tell you, that makes you part of the problem.

Our values are only meaningful if we consistently put them into practice. Are you living by yours?

Photo by Max Rovensky on Unsplash

Originally published: January 16, 2020
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