Angry that assault victims aren't taking it to the police? STOP SILENCING THEM!

It has been... A Week.  A week of painful triggers for many, including myself, although one that seems to have burst open the all-important discussion we needed to have on sexual assault and balance of power and the silencing of victims.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, or blissfully un-tuned to Canadian media sources, a very prominent and popular radio host was accused of assault earlier this week by four women, and several more have now joined them, and from what we're hearing, there will likely be more to the story.

I have no intention of discussing this particular case.  But what I *do* feel the need to comment on is the absolutely hideous online treatment of these women and their stories.  Because if anyone ever doubted the concept of "rape culture", there are now pages and pages in the comments section of various publications and social media sites that show rape culture at its revolting finest.  I have been gobsmacked by the number of otherwise well-educated and upstanding men and women who have jumped on the rape culture bandwagon, and have made copious use of the "unfollow" button.

The reactions started out with all the oh-so-typical:  Rape jokes (seriously people, RAPE JOKES?!?!?), "they're just in it for the money" (erm... the only one asking for money is actually the accused, so, no), "they're just looking for the free publicity" (1. if that were true, why would they wish to remain anonymous in public?, 2. yeah, it's every girl's dream to be publicly shamed and hit with death threats and abuse from total strangers, I think I'll give it a try!), "they're just vengeful exes", "women lie about rape all the time" (uh, no – the stats for false accusation are pretty much the same as those for any other crime, and we don't immediately doubt the store owner who claims he was robbed), "hysterical bitches", "they just want to make men look bad", blah blah blah.  Basically, the types of comments you can always expect from assholes.  And, sigh... there will always be assholes.

But what freaks me out most has been the more insidious messages, made by people who seem reasonably... reasonable.  On the surface, for instance, "innocent until proven guilty" is a very fair, balanced statement – just so long as it's extended to the complainants as well.  Because if it becomes "well he hasn't been convicted so it can't be true" you are essentially calling the complainants liars.  Furthermore, lack of conviction doesn't mean nothing happened – it COULD mean that nothing happened, but it could also mean that there wasn't enough evidence to convict, that they struck a deal to avoid muckraking, or any number of other things.

I am reminded of the day my mother stumbled upon my blog post that referred to her marrying my step father as "thus introducing sexual predator #2 into our I-thought-it-was-finally-going-to-be-happy home".  Her response (not to me, but to everyone on her email list who was a friend of mine, it seems, but that's a whole other story...), was that he wasn't convicted until a few years later.  Erm, yeah... somehow forgetting that in order for a conviction to happen, HE HAD TO HAVE PREVIOUSLY DONE SOMETHING WRONG.  Which he did, and was already doing.  That's how the conviction eventually was successful.  And at the time she made that response, I thought it was just another example of her gas lighting and not making sense for the sake of self-defence, but now I'm seeing that this happens all over the place – Not Convicted = Not Real.

"Innocent until proven guilty" has become "if you haven't got a squeaky-clean record yourself, and have a poop-load of evidence to back you up and are able to convince a still-not-friendly-to-sexual-assault-victims system to agree that the person you're accusing is guilty BEYOND THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT, then...  You Were Not Assaulted."

Which is insane.

But that's not even the part I wanted to address.  I've gone off on a tangent.  (Although an important tangent.)  

Some other tangents?  "How can they expect us to believe them if they're anonymous?"  (the threats and accusations and assumptions in the comments sections should make it pretty obvious why they don't want to give their names – although look, one brave soul now has, which brings us to...)  "I can't believe them if they haven't gone to the police."  "I can't believe them if they won't press charges."  "I can't believe them if they took so long to report."  etc., etc., etc.  There are, fortunately, a number of brilliant people who have written about why assault victims don't go to the police, don't press charges, stay silent, etc.  I will share just a few links, but please feel free to share more in the comments section below (I moderate this comments section, for what should be obvious reasons!).

But first, this sobering graphic, courtesy of the YWCA:

Some answers to "Why don't women report sexual assault?":
Some analysis of the power dynamic and the PR spin:  (I'm leaving the titles out, since they all reference his name, and I've seen enough of that)
Enough with the tangents, Lyss, GET TO YOUR POINT!!!

OK, so now that Lucy DeCoutere has (hopefully!) put an end to all those stupid "I won't believe anonymous victims" posts, we now get to the type of silencing behaviour that I wanted to address, because I haven't seen anyone else deal with it yet.  And it's important, because I see so many people using it, and I think it's one of the top reasons why victims not only don't say anything to the police, but don't say anything to ANYBODY.  And it's this:
"If he was so awful to her, why didn't she leave immediately?  Why did she talk to him again later?"

Ms. DeCoutere touched on her own feelings and reasons in this excellent CBC interview, but I'd like to expand on some of the UNIVERSAL reasons for this all-too-common phenomenon.  And the all-too-common reason why victims aren't believed.  Because people need to stop using a victim's confusion or seemingly illogical behaviour against her or him – BECAUSE CONFUSION AND ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOUR ARE TWO EXCELLENT SIGNS THAT AN ASSAULT HAS TAKEN PLACE.

Hopefully it's easy for everyone to understand that suddenly and unexpectedly getting punched in the head and/or choked and/or slapped and/or raped by someone you know and trust is an incredibly traumatic event.  Yes?  With me so far?

What you might not know is what happens to a person's brain and body during a traumatic event.  Yes, there is the obvious physical trauma of a blow to the head or a lack of oxygen, but what is less obvious is the internal trauma.  A neuroscientist would be better at explaining the finer details of what I'm about to describe, but here's the basics a-la-Lyss for we laypersons:

When a traumatic event occurs, the brain receives the signal "crap, I'm in real danger here", and does it's damnedest to try and get us out of danger.  We all know about the fight-or-flight-or-freeze phenomenon, but there are other internal emergency procedures going on inside.  We get flooded with an explosion of various neuro-chemicals, some brain functions get stopped or slowed down, while other brain functions go into hyper-drive.  All the various bits of the brain are so busy trying to do their job at rescuing us, that they don't have time or resources available to communicate effectively with each other.  In trying to make sense of what's happening and store the information to protect us from potential future danger, all sorts of information is hastily filed with all sorts of other information (you should see the "filing" system in my office right now... argh!), and some serious "re-wiring" of neural connections takes place.  Depending on the level of threat and the duration of the threat, this re-wiring and neurochemical flooding can cause massive injury to the brain – we know it as Post Traumatic Stress, but it's essentially a bad Brain Injury, caused by neurochemicals rather than a physical trauma (although, if part of the trauma was getting punched in the head, then the physical trauma to the brain would also affect and compound the neurochemical trauma).

There are many possible effects to this type of brain injury.  Dissociation, confusion, losing track of a timeline around the point of trauma, memory loss, minimization, numbing, and so many more.  Sometimes this lasts a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, sometimes days, weeks, months, or even a lifetime if untreated.  And in all that confusion, it's easy to doubt yourself.  And if you doubt yourself, how the hell can you expect anyone else to believe you?

Amidst all the forgetting and dissociating and confusion and doubt, yes, it's quite likely that in this state of Traumatic Shock, you will act like nothing has happened.  You will make decisions that don't seem to make sense because... well, because they don't make sense.  Because your brain isn't functioning the way it normally functions.  BECAUSE YOU HAVE A BRAIN INJURY.

But here's the thing, and I need everyone to pay attention here:  Unlike physical brain injuries, the healing of Traumatic Brain Injuries is directly affected by other people's reactions and support.  Because when a victim is lost in an injured brain fog, other people's doubts and questions will only increase his or her own confusion – the victim's thoughts and doubts and confusion and mistrust and self-blame and other painful brain activity will CONTINUE TO INJURE him or her, and compound the injury.  Reminders of the event will shoot off little "aftershocks" of those neurochemicals (my brain is so "primed" for this still, that if something scares me, it totally feels like my entire head is exploding), other people's doubt and questions add to and stir up the soup, and the injury gets worse.

I must repeat: Casting aspersions on a victim's story INCREASES their TRAUMA.  If your first reaction to a victim's truth is doubt or blame or accusation, then you are re-victimizing the victim.

And someone who already doubts themselves and is questioning everything they remember already KNOWS that they aren't going to be able to convince anyone of their story.  Not telling their story is actually the subconscious protecting their story until they can be sure enough to tell it.  But if their first telling is met with the same vitriol I've seen splashed across the internet this week, they're not likely to try again for a very long time.  It doesn't have to be hundreds of thousands of internet trolls, it can be one person saying "are you sure?", or "that can't be!" or "I don't believe you" or "what did you do to bring this on?" to have this effect.

And the longer a person is silenced, the more abuse the perpetrators manage to get away with.  The more other victims believe they're all alone.  And the longer the person is silenced, the easier it is to stay in that cycle of self-doubt and blame – and the easier it is for people to dismiss their story when they finally get the nerve to share it.  Which is an awesome (!) way to perpetuate the type of environment where rapists can get away with being rapists.

Keeping doubt in and blame upon the victims of sexual assault is what rape culture is all about.  If you refuse to believe a victim's story until a conviction has gone through (did you see that graphic above?!?), then you are a part of it.  If you refuse to offer support and validation when a victim tells his or her story, then you are also guilty of injuring the victim.

I do not wish to minimize sexual assault, nor do I wish to speak for every victim in what I'm about to say, but: for me, the reactions (or non-reactions) of the people I initially told my story to have had more serious and longer-lasting damage than the sexual abuse and assaults ever did.  I have, with some excellent treatment and therapy, pretty much gotten past the sexual trauma.  What I still fight, constantly, is the trauma of not being believed, of the blame, and the doubt and the minimization and the gas lighting and the impossible requirement to "prove it".  Those injuries are still deep-seeded in my brain, and my body, and it's an endless battle trying to lessen their effects on my day-to-day life.

So please, people, STOP getting angry at the victims for not going to the police.  Stop questioning why someone who'd just endured a trauma would have a few memory gaps, or do something slightly illogical, or have the short-term version of Stockholm syndrome, or whatever.  Be considerate, be compassionate, be supportive, ACCEPT THEIR STORY.  If not, you are a part of their injury, you are a part of why victims are afraid to speak out, you are a part of rape culture.

Stop imposing what YOU, as a non-traumatized, non-injured person would do in the victim's shoes, and recognize that you aren't them and they aren't you, and you haven't got a frikken' clue how you'd react while in the grip of a traumatic brain injury.  Do the same thing you'd do for a car accident victim, or an earthquake victim, or a workplace-accident victim:  LISTEN TO THEM, support them, ASK THEM what you can do to assist, and then help them.  And then pray to whoever you wish that you are NEVER in their shoes.


  • Betty


    This is so well written! I agree with everything you say. I wish people would stop getting angry at victims for not going to the police. Sometimes that is just too daunting an issue. You are right, everyone needs someone to listen to them without judging, without feeling they are putting too much pressure on the listener. They just need to be heard, sometimes over and over again until they can say it without feeling so much pain. And sometimes they just need to be held closely and comforted and believed!! Thanks so much for being a voice for so many! 😃❤️

    This is so well written! I agree with everything you say. I wish people would stop getting angry at victims for not going to the police. Sometimes that is just too daunting an issue. You are right, everyone needs someone to listen to them without judging, without feeling they are putting too much pressure on the listener. They just need to be heard, sometimes over and over again until they can say it without feeling so much pain. And sometimes they just need to be held closely and comforted and believed!! Thanks so much for being a voice for so many! 😃❤️

  • Alyssa Wright, cellist, singer-songwriter

    Alyssa Wright, cellist, singer-songwriter

    Thanks Betty – and welcome to my little corner of the internet! :)

    Thanks Betty – and welcome to my little corner of the internet! smile

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