Trigger Warning: Retraumatization in the Wake of Kavanaugh Allegations
In the hallowed halls of Washington, DC, a drama is being played out for the entire world to witness; the confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court for Brett Kavanaugh. In the minds and hearts and bodies of sexual assault survivors, something even more powerful is rampaging through.
In increasing numbers, people are coming forward to share their #metoo stories following the allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and now two other women who say that he perpetrated sexual assault in one form or another in his teens and early adulthood. He adamantly denies any wrongdoing, stating that he was a virgin “many years” into college even though none of his alleged victims have made claims of rape or sexual penetration.
A tweet from the president further fueled the fire, “If the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with Local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
As a result of being bombarded with this information on the news and via social media there is a heightened sense of anxiety and PTSD symptoms among those who report one or more assaults throughout their lifetimes. These triggers re-traumatize. The invasive encounters range from unwanted or coercive touch to violent penetration, from one perpetrator to gang rape, from stranger attack to date rape, from incest to on the job aggression. The gender of the perpetrators and survivors are across the spectrum, but the majority coming forth are female identified.
Less than one-quarter of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Rather, 43 percent of sexual assaults are committed by friends or acquaintances, and 27 percent are committed by a current or former significant other, according to RAINN.
One in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN. For men and boys, that figure is 1 in 33.
In the personal and professional sides of my life, I have many who are survivors. When I sit with them, and listen to their stories, I am astounded at the resilience they embody.
How do we remember and why do we repress?
Cellular memory is based on the idea that our bodies store experiences. We may not be consciously aware of incidents or specific details, but sensations may occur that are otherwise inexplicable. Returning to the scene of the crime, being around people who remind the victim of a perpetrator, a child in their life turning the age they were when their own abuse occurred, hearing the name of the person or people who assaulted them, the death of the perpetrator, all are potent reminders.
According to Renee Fredrickson, Ph.D., in her book entitled A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse, “The traumatic and the trivial are the two kinds of information your mind represses.”
Repression is a protective device that allows people to function amid flashbacks, which feel as genuine as if the event was occurring in the here and now. An example is that of an iceberg. We only see what is above the surface of the water, not what lies beneath. Remember that the tip of the iceberg isn’t what sank The Titanic. Working with a competent therapist can assist the survivor in recalling repressed memories and healing the wounds.
Why do victims wait so long, in some cases, to report abuse?
- Fear of retaliation
- Repressed memory
- Fear of not being believed
- Being told that if they divulge, they will “break up the family”
- The perpetrator(s) minimizing the attack
- Feelings of shame and self-blame
- Having their integrity questioned
- Needing to justify attire, activity and location
- The perpetrator still has power over them as in an employment situation
- If the victim is an undocumented immigrant, they fear deportation
- Not wanting to relive the event(s)
- Societal belief that only penetration constitutes rape
- Being asked why they didn’t fight back
- The perpetrator(s) are still in their life
- Being “outed” as a victim
- Threats by those who are angry about the allegations
- Minimal consequences for perpetrators
- Mental health issues
- Lack of support from family and friends
- Institutional abuse (such as school, workplace and religion)
In the case of Dr. Blasey Ford, many of those factors have come into play. Her statements are being made into political fodder when they could become a rallying cry for justice for survivors. What is occurring is a pattern of behavior from those who question her motives and timing: DARVO – or “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” Those who support the nomination are using those tactics to discredit her and by extension, those who have come forward to name their perpetrators.
Last evening, I watched a Facebook Live feed of a women’s empowerment coach and speaker who called out those who had perpetrated abuse in her life. It began with naming her stepfather who sexually abused her from early childhood on and her mother who failed to intervene. It proceeded to boys and men in her life and the female friends who were complicit by not supporting her and continued to her sisters who minimized and otherwise denied the impact of what their parents did. I cried and cheered along for the courage it must have taken for her to name names despite potential consequences. “I let their lives be more important than mine,” was the impetus for her to come clean with the world.
This is a human issue, not a partisan political issue. People on both sides of the aisle have been perpetrator and victim of assault. I wish healing for all those who have been traumatized by the initial acts and then re-traumatized by the aftermath.
Weinstein, E. (2018). Trigger Warning: Retraumatization in the Wake of Kavanaugh Allegations. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/trigger-warning-retraumatization-in-the-wake-of-kavanaugh-allegations/