Survivors of sexual abuse often seek support from family, but sometimes even the best intentions can lead to more hurt.
Nance L. Schick, Esq., was first sexually abused in the seventh grade. In retrospect, she says, she was a prime target.
Her parents divorced when she was younger than 2 years old, leaving her mom to raise 3 daughters alone.
Nance felt she was different from her classmates at school because of the divorce. Being bullied by classmates and told she was going to “hell” because of it, only deepened her self-hatred.
It also made her a target for emotional, financial, and physical abuse from a family member.
Around age 12, the abuse became sexual.
Not knowing her family member had arranged the molestation, Nance told her older sister what had happened. She remembers her sister saying, “Oh, good. You’re not a virgin anymore.” It then became a joke Nance’s sister used to control her.
Her silence and shame made Nance a victim over and over again. By the time she graduated from college, she’d been sexually assaulted at least four times.
In 2014, Nance says a violent assault by a stranger shifted her life and gave her a voice.
“I remember vividly that first day in the Crime Victims Treatment Center,” she often tells students in Dr. Jan Yager’s victimology classes at John Jay College in New York City. “As I filled out the intake sheet, I went down the list of crimes and checked more than I realized.
“It was shocking to me,” she says. “I hadn’t really thought about them individually. I just kept moving, trying to outrun the pain — and the opportunists who saw it targeted me.”
After counseling and coaching, she forgave the abuse and built a new relationship with her family for several years. That is until new forms of abuse started happening.
She tried to be patient and sympathetic until she recognized that she was repeating the unhealthy patterns from home with boyfriends, employees, and clients. Finally, Nance decided to take a stand for her own well-being and began setting firm boundaries.
This meant some big changes in her life.
Family members continued to be “loved from afar.” Nance stopped working with a couple of long-term clients, and eventually, she developed a loving and supportive relationship with a man she’s been with for nearly 10 years.
Nance finally broke the cycle.
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 abuse 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. A 2017 study suggests that almost half of childhood sexual abuse survivors will be exposed to sexual abuse 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 abuse as adults can also be revictimized.
The reason for such a high recurrence rate of repeat experiences 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 a
Sometimes, even if they mean well, your family could contribute to revictimization without even being aware they’re doing it.
These actions could 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 might be reluctant to speak out again if you experience sexual abuse. You might feel as though there’s no point in fighting for your safety.
Here are some of the ways family members could do this.
- Minimizing the abuse: Families that learn about sexual abuse 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 abuse is within a family, some members may not want to pick sides. They may not be able to look past their affection for the person who abused you, even if they know what happened wasn’t right.
- Pushing for forgiveness: Sexual abuse can separate families, and not everyone is willing to make this sacrifice. Family members may ask you to forgive the person who abused you, 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 person who abused you is attending instead of uninviting that person.
Mental health may play an essential role in revictimization.
Both existing mental health conditions and those that occur due to the 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 the trauma could emerge. These behaviors could 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 could 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 could 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 health care 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:
- avoiding high-risk areas, people, and situations
- keeping social interactions in public places
- keeping your cellphone charged at all times
- having an accountability friend who knows where you are and who you are with
- staying alert
- practicing being secure by locking windows and doors
- protecting your drink
- being mindful of how much alcohol you’ve consumed
- taking 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 — might 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 person who abused them
- not attending or supporting events planned by the person who abused them
- 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 person who abused them
- 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 abuse or revictimization.
When you experience a traumatic event, your brain tries to help you survive.
It does this in many ways. Some coping strategies, such as dissociation, might provide relief in the moment but leave you vulnerable to abuse in the future.
Family behaviors might also increase the likelihood of revictimization. While some of these might be unintentional, the “sweep it under the rug” mindset could leave you feeling dismissed and unloved.
Speaking with a mental health care professional could 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 abuse, you can receive confidential support by calling:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 (HOPE)
- National Center for Victims of Crime at 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.