We expect our family members to offer unconditional support, but sometimes their best intentions can lead to more hurt.
Learning a loved one has survived sexual violence can be devastating. Feelings of bewilderment, shock, and disbelief may be as strong as the sense of despair that accompanies the news.
When you first reveal your experience, your loved ones may want to “make life easier” for you. They may start making decisions for you, like leaving you out of events, thinking they’re being helpful.
What their instincts tell them to do may not be in your best interest and may contribute to revictimization later in life.
Experiencing abuse more than once is considered revictimization.
It may be a repeat of what originally happened, or it may be another form of abuse. If you’re a sexual assault survivor, revictimization may come in the form of sexual harassment later in life, for example.
If you’ve experienced sexual revictimization, you’re not alone. Research suggests almost half of childhood sexual abuse survivors will be exposed to sexual violence later in life.
Anyone can experience sexual revictimization.
While it’s most commonly seen among those who have survived childhood abuse, revictimization has no age limits.
Women and men who experienced sexual violence as adults can also be revictimized.
The reason for such a high recurrence rate of repeat violence remains under investigation, but many factors may be involved, such as:
- mental health
- support networks
- severity or length of violence
Everyone’s experience is different, and
Sometimes, even if they mean well, your family may contribute to revictimization without even being aware they’re doing it.
These actions can make you feel unheard and unsupported. In some cases, you might be made to feel at fault or as though you’re putting your family in an uncomfortable situation.
When this happens, you may be reluctant to speak out again if you experience sexual violence. You might feel as though there’s no point in fighting for your safety.
Here are some of the ways family members may do this.
- Minimizing the abuse: Families that learn about sexual violence may try to minimize it or even deny it. This may be their way of distancing from the situation.
- Blaming: Blaming, or victim shaming, can range in severity. Some family members may be trying to understand how the trauma happened. Others may be downright hurtful with accusations, suggesting something deliberate was done on your part.
- Refusing to listen: It can be difficult to hear about abuse. Some family members may shut down and refuse to listen to you talk about what happened.
- Remaining neutral: When sexual violence is within a family, some members may not want to pick sides. They may not be able to look past their affection for the abuser, even if they know what happened wasn’t right.
- Pushing for forgiveness: Sexual violence can separate families, and not everyone is willing to make this sacrifice. Family members may ask you to forgive your abuser, thinking the family dynamic can be repaired.
- Distancing: In an effort to help, your family members may leave you out of family events or activities the abuser is attending instead of uninviting that person.
Mental health may play an important role in revictimization.
Both existing mental health conditions and those that occur due to trauma could increase the likelihood of experiencing abuse again.
- the presence of a noncaregiving adult living in the home
- domestic violence
In adults, mental defense mechanisms as a result of trauma can emerge. These behaviors can increase the chances of revictimization.
Trauma-related symptoms often include:
- Substance use: The use of substances — such as or alcohol or drugs — for escape.
- Dissociation: Disconnecting, or dissociating, from your sense of self to create distance from the trauma.
- Low self-esteem: Feeling as though you deserved what happened or you have no value to protect.
- Risky behavior: Engaging in dangerous activities that can be self-destructive.
- Rationalization: Justifying the behavior of the person’s abusive behavior, especially if they were a caregiver.
- Learned helplessness: Feeling as though you may never be able to defend against abuse.
- Fear of abandonment: Putting up with abuse to avoid being alone.
- Acceptance of violence: Justifying ongoing abuse as a part of life.
- Guilt: Feeling as though you shouldn’t have survived when others haven’t or that you’ve hurt your family.
- Reenactment: Putting yourself in risky situations on purpose.
Many of these effects can predispose you to abuse in the future.
Using substances as a form of escape, for example, could place you around people and situations where you’re more likely to be revictimized.
Sexual revictimization isn’t your fault.
No mental health symptom or personality trait you have can take the blame for another person’s hurtful actions.
People who abuse others often seek out someone vulnerable. For this reason, one of the first steps toward preventing revictimization is seeking care from a mental health professional.
Mental healthcare professionals can help you identify the effects of trauma that may keep you vulnerable to abusive situations. Through psychotherapy, you can learn to manage feelings such as guilt, low self-esteem, or helplessness.
You can also gain behavioral tools to help you identify abusive behaviors and strategies to leave abusive situations safely. Therapy can also help with setting and asserting those healthy boundaries with others.
Other ways you can help yourself avoid revictimization include practical safety tips such as:
- avoid high-risk areas, people, and situations
- keep social interactions in public places
- keep your cellphone charged at all times
- have an accountability friend who knows where you are and who you are with
- stay alert
- practice being secure by locking windows and doors
- protect your drink
- be mindful of how much alcohol you’ve consumed
- take a self-defense course
In addition to seeking mental health treatment and practicing general safety, finding ways to feel empowered – taking a martial arts class, for example — may also help prevent revictimization.
When you care about someone, the last thing you want to do is cause them more pain after they’ve survived abuse.
If one of your family members has come to you about a traumatic event, consider supporting them by:
- letting them talk about what happened
- telling them it wasn’t their fault
- focusing on including them during activities, not the abuser
- not attending or supporting events planned by the abuser
- offering help with the recovery process
- avoiding blaming or shaming them
- staying in contact or regularly checking in
- intervening if you see they’re uncomfortable in a situation
- helping them find support resources
- avoiding pressuring them to forgive or be around the abuser
- giving them your full support for seeking legal aid
- not telling them their actions will split up the family
Nothing you’ve done has caused or made you deserve sexual violence or revictimization.
When you experience a traumatic event, your brain tries to help you survive.
It does this in a variety of ways. Some coping strategies, such as dissociation, might provide relief in the moment but leave you vulnerable to abuse in the future.
Family behaviors may also increase the likelihood of revictimization. While some of these may be unintentional, the “sweep it under the rug” mindset can leave you feeling dismissed and unloved.
Speaking with a mental healthcare professional can help combat the effects of trauma and decrease the chances of revictimization.
If you, or someone you know, would like to speak with someone about sexual violence, you can receive confidential support by calling:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 (HOPE)
- National Center for Victims of Crime: 855-484-2846
The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) also offers an online chat feature.
If you’d like help finding local support programs and professionals in your area, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides an online searchable directory.