Key background information about how sexual traumas impact survivors
Why Victims of Sexual Violence Often Stay in Contact with Abusers and Other Key Facts About Trauma
Safety, Silencebreakers, Weinstein
Ahead of the start of the Harvey Weinstein trial next week, we write to offer key background information about how sexual traumas impact survivors. Please see facts below and visit TIME’S UP’s website for more information.
Additionally, survivors and independent experts are available to offer context for your reporting:
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected with independent experts on trauma.
- Contact the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund at email@example.com to be connected with Weinstein survivors (“The Silence Breakers”).
FACT: Sexual assault is most often committed by people known to their victims
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three women and one in six men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Of women who are raped, over half (51 percent) are raped by an intimate partner and 40 percent are raped by an acquaintance.
The consequences of sexual trauma are serious: large, epidemiologic studies show that sexual traumas in particular are most frequently associated with PTSD, depression, substance misuse, and other adverse health effects.
FACT: For a variety of reasons, victims may remain friendly with their abusers
Most victims know their abuser, so it is not uncommon for survivors of sexual violence at the hands of a professional acquaintance or intimate partner to maintain contact with their abuser. Doing so does not mean that the victim “consented” in any way to the perpetrator’s abusive behavior.
In addition, because of the complex ways in which sexual assault and related coercion and abuse exploit power and control — and, thus, undermine victims’ self-confidence and self-esteem — many victims struggle to break-off contact. In some instances, abusers may swear that it will never happen again, work to redeem themselves, and exploit their victim’s natural tendency to forgive. In others, those in an abusive relationship may go through periods of calm between incidents of violence.
Victims sometimes cope by focusing on their perpetrator’s loving side and shutting out the abuse, maintaining contact to elicit such affirmative behavior from the abuser. Often, victims may blame themselves for the encounter and convince themselves — or be convinced by the abuser — that an assault was not what they thought it was.
Or, as was likely with Weinstein, an abuser may have actual or perceived power over his victim, and therefore the victim may seek to maintain friendly contact in order to avoid retaliation from the abuser. This is especially likely when the abuser is an extremely powerful “rainmaker” with outsized influence over others (for powerful abusers like Weinstein, “the rules” generally do not apply).
FACT: It often takes time for survivors to report to anyone, let alone to the authorities
There are many reasons why survivors do not disclose traumatic events until long after they occur. Failure to disclose sexual assault immediately does not mean it never happened.
Three out of four sexual assaults go unreported to the police. Rape is often the result of coercion – not physical force – and survivors often need time to reconcile what has happened to them before coming forward, if they choose to do so at all. In addition to shame and stigma, fear of not being believed and/or uncertainty about the consequences of engaging in a complicated justice system tend to prevent sexual assault survivors from reporting to the authorities.
Likewise, an estimated three out of four sexual harassment cases are never formally reported. In addition to the barriers that prevent survivors of other sexual traumas from reporting, survivors of work-related sexual misconduct also legitimately fear for their careers, promotions, and even their safety.
FACT: Many rapists are repeat offenders; after one victim comes forward, others may follow
Once a few stories became public, over 80 women came forward to allege that Harvey Weinstein committed sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to attempted or completed rape. The details of each story are hauntingly familiar, which makes them all the more credible.
Research has shown that most rapists are repeat offenders: a survey of men whose self-reported sexual acts met legal definitions of rape or attempted rape, but whose actions went undetected by the criminal justice system, found that over 60 percent were repeat offenders against multiple victims or the same victim. Eighty percent of respondents admitted to raping women who were intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.
Disassociation or intoxication during an assault, as well as disbelief afterward, often prevent survivors from reconciling what happened even to themselves. Furthermore, gaslighting by perpetrators, a victim’s own self-blame, comorbid mental health conditions, and doubt about whether it is worth the toll of coming forward and navigating the criminal justice system also prevent survivors from disclosing their assault to others.
That is why it usually takes at least one survivor coming forward first before others do: most victims will continue to doubt themselves and assume they will be doubted if they report, unless others come forward to make a complaint about someone.
FACT: Traumatic memories are vivid for victims while banal details are forgotten
The moment of impact in a head-on collision. The joke your friend was telling before the surprise IED blast. The difficult birth of your youngest child. The big boss appearing naked before you in an untied bathrobe, asking for a massage.
It has been reported that the defense will elicit testimony from Deborah Davis, a University of Nevada at Reno psychologist, to suggest that the testifying victims have unreliable or “false” memories of the alleged abuse. But most scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. And current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents.
Traumatic events are processed differently than peripheral information about traumatic events. With extreme emotional arousal at the time of a traumatic event, people experiencing trauma often become narrowly focused on what is happening and, therefore, are more likely to remember it. In contrast, they often have less clear and complete memories about other aspects of the traumatic event, such as the day of the week or the clothes they were wearing.
Likewise, traumatic memories often come to mind as involuntary and intrusive thoughts or ruminations replayed and rehearsed over an entire lifetime. Extraneous details and information, on the other hand, do not re-appear as intrusive thoughts or ruminations, so they become easily forgotten, especially as time passes.
FACT: “False memories” are not likely at play in acquaintance sexual assault
For most events, and particularly for traumatic ones, people tend to remember and report critical central details correctly. They especially tend to identify the right perpetrator when they are known to the victim because of the reliability of “recognition memory,” or the ability to identify information encountered previously.
Even so, traumatic memories – like all memories – are not like a videotape with complete and perfect replay. In general, survivors of trauma remember “pieces, as opposed to complete storylines.” Distortions and some forgetting of details, especially peripheral details, can occur over time.
Additionally, research shows that forgetting, not thinking about, and even misremembering an assault may be both necessary and adaptive to help survivors cope with their reality. When abuse is perpetrated by someone on whom the victim is dependent, the survivor must adapt day-to-day because they are stuck in that relationship. One way to adjust to that situation would be to think or remember less about the abuse, or to reframe it.
Most cases of false memories, on the other hand, involve “recovered memories,” such as formerly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, or repeated suggestions of a false event, especially by someone perceived to be a reliable source. And most cases of false identification of a perpetrator involve trying to identify a stranger.
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