Discussion about sexual assault and domestic is relevant at any time. However, in light of recent events, this year’s National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an especially important opportunity to critically examine the issues faced by victims of abuse.
In this blog, I aim to address three of the most common sources of misperceptions about victims of sexual abuse and assault.
Why do victims stay in abusive relationships?
To recognize the broadest concerns that victims of domestic and/or sexual abuse face is to understand that the trauma inflicted upon these individuals is not only physical, but also psychological. Threats from abusers often leave victims with overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Oftentimes, victims remain in abusive relationships because they fear further physical harm to themselves or their family. Furthermore, they may also be concerned with the detriments on the children, such as a lack of financial support or a threat to their children’s health. Abusers in domestic violence relationships also tend to promise to reform, guilting the victim into staying. Additionally, it is common for the abuser to systematically attack the victim’s self-esteem, forcing the victim to reach a point where they don’t feel capable of leaving. As a result, many incidents of domestic violence go unreported and unaddressed. There is a common misperception that a victim of abuse is at fault for all the harm that happens for them. Intentional or not, such victim-blaming assumptions have created an environment of shame and stigma in which it is extremely difficult for a survivor to come forward and report the issue. As a result, barriers are created for survivors’ access to safety, resources, and support. This only perpetuates the cycle of violence.
Why don’t victims speak up sooner?
Recently, there have been many women who have disclosed their experiences of being sexually victimized in the past. In many cases, the incidents they reported took place years (and even decades) ago. Should these delays warrant doubts about the veracity of their encounters? David Schwartz, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Southern California, states that these delays are “both understandable and predictable.” In a recent article, Dr. Schwartz highlights what he has learned about these victims from his experience as a researcher and clinician: victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are overwhelmed with “fear, pain, self-doubt, and shame.” Yes, there has been tremendous social progress in regards to perceiving sexual assault/domestic violence as an issue that shouldn’t be confined within the walls of an abusive home or the mind of the victim. However, we still have a long way to go. In a culture that consistently discounts reportings of assault and abuse, excusing the actions of the perpetrator, it should come as no surprise when the victim fears dismissal of their deepest, darkest concerns.
How common are false accusations?
Recent public furor has painted a very vivid picture of what victims face when they voice their distress: skepticism, denial, scorn, and eventually dismissal. This happens because there is a common perception that false reporting is common. However, research has shown that only 2-6% of accusations of sexual victimization are false. Also unrecognized is the fact that false allegations of sexual violence are no higher than other types of crime. However, these victims of other types of crime, such as theft and burglary, aren’t met with the same level of suspicion. Since 91% of victims of sexual violence are women, it begs the question of whether the dismissal of victims’ allegations can be attributed to implicit (or even explicit) gender-based discrimination. A popular response to the rarity of false accusations is that even if they are common, they still happen. This is extremely surprising, given the diminutive frequency of false allegations — especially when compared to the widespread prevalence and underreporting of sexual victimization. Most critically, the importance given to false allegations diverts our attention away from actually addressing the issues of violence and abuse.
Although great strides have been made to increasingly criminalize sexual assault and domestic violence, there is still clear room for improvement when it comes to supporting the victims of such violence. Instead of making excuses for assailants and enabling sexual victimization, it is time we lift the barriers to reporting and seeking support. In other words, it is time to embrace the courage of the survivors who come forward instead of silencing them.
By Tasfia Jahangir