7 Ways Family Members Re-victimize Sexual Abuse Survivors
Twenty years ago when I first disclosed to my family that I had been sexually abused by my brother as a child, I never would have guessed it would mark the beginning of a long, confusing struggle that would leave me feeling misunderstood, dismissed and even punished for choosing to address my abuse and its effects.
The response from my family did not start out this way. Initially, my mother said the words I needed to hear: she believed me, she was pained for both her children, and she was sorry. My brother acknowledged the truth and even apologized. But as I continued to heal and explore the abuse further, my family members began to push back in ways that hurt me deeply, and only became worse as the years went on.
Disclosure of sexual abuse can be the beginning of a whole second set of problems for survivors, when family members respond in ways that add new pain to old wounds. Healing from past abuse is made more difficult when one is emotionally injured again in the present, repeatedly, and with no guarantee that things will improve. Adding to this pain, family members’ responses often mirror aspects of the abuse itself, leading survivors to feel overpowered, silenced, blamed and shamed. And they may carry this pain alone, unaware that their situation is tragically common.
Here are seven ways that family members revictimize survivors:
1. Denying or minimizing the abuse
Many survivors never receive acknowledgement of their abuse. Family members may accuse them of lying, exaggerating or having false memories. This negation of a survivor’s reality adds insult to emotional injury as it reaffirms past experiences of feeling unheard, unprotected and overpowered.
One might assume, therefore that recognition of their abuse would go a long way toward helping survivors move forward with their families. That is one potential outcome. However, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean that families understand or are willing to recognize the impact of sexual abuse. Even when perpetrators apologize, survivors may be pressured not to talk about their abuse. In my case, I was chastised and directed to stop telling my brother that I needed him to understand and take responsibility for the lasting damage his actions caused me. While I appreciated the acknowledgement that I was telling the truth, my brother’s apology felt meaningless, and was negated by his actions afterward.
2. Blaming and shaming the victim
Placing blame on the survivor, whether overt or subtle, is a regrettably common response. Examples include questioning why victims did not speak up sooner, why they “let it happen,” or even outright accusations of seduction. This shifts the family’s focus onto the survivor’s behavior instead of where it belongs — on the perpetrator’s crimes. I experienced this when my brother lashed out at me, after I expressed anger toward him over the abuse, and told me that I was choosing to “be miserable.”
Embedded in societal attitudes, victim-blaming can be used as a tool to keep survivors quiet. Because sexual abuse victims often blame themselves and internalize shame, they are easily be devastated by these criticisms. It is vital, for survivors to understand that there is nothing anyone can do that makes them deserve to be abused.