Why Women Don’t Speak Up About Abuse
We are afraid to tell anyone.
We are afraid to talk about the details.
We are afraid of being blamed.
We are afraid.
Women have had horrendous things implied about them, said to them and done to them. Many of these actions were abusive and illegal. Yet, millions of women around the globe have been afraid to speak. Too afraid to tell the truth. Worried that their words would not be taken seriously. Silenced by the power their abuser could wield in, and against, their lives.
In 2016, the discussion of sexual conduct as it relates to power was wildly debated. How far was too far? What words should be taken seriously and which should be swept under the “it was a joke” rug? In 2017, the dialogue had taken a dramatic shift and women found their voices. They also found support from one another. In 2018, we saw victims of abuse speaking up but then being the targets of horrendous personal attacks and even death threats. Have we taken steps backwards in women feeling safe to speak up?
With the radical explosion of the abuse disclosure hashtag #MeToo and its honor of being named Person of the Year 2017, women were speaking up in masses. It was an incredible shift in our culture to witness.
The powerful message of the #MeToo movement centers around women telling the truth about their experiences with sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.
Why is it not the norm for women to feel safe enough to tell their stories? Why have so many of us been silenced? Why are we so afraid?
As a trauma therapist and advocate for survivors of abuse, I believe we get pushed back into the darkness and are silenced by a few key concerns.
Only “Crazy Girls” Speak Up
We’ve all witnessed a famous woman speak up about her negative life experiences and do it in a manner that makes us uncomfortable. We can’t see ourselves following in her footsteps, thus making many women subconsciously believe that only fiery, aggressive, and foul-mouthed women publicly share their stories of abuse. We might see these boisterous advocates and feel their message is too messy and raw to relate to. They make us uneasy in their brash approach to speaking up, so we stay silent to avoid becoming one of “them”.
The “Nice Girl” Mindset
Nice girls don’t create chaos. We make lemonade out of lemons. We take our life circumstances as they come and faithfully believe that they are somehow helping us become better. Nice girls don’t turn in their boss for sexual harassment, or go to the local police when their pastor has sexually assaulted them. Nice girls clean themselves up and go on with their lives as if nothing terrible happened. Nice girls don’t make anyone else uncomfortable with their story of being raped and instead, hide the pain. Speaking up about abuse requires nice girls to go against what we’ve been taught since childhood – be nice to everyone and don’t complain about the way others are treating you. Nice girls don’t speak up.
Fear of a Smear Campaign
Another reason we are so afraid to tell the truth is the chance that our abuser will orchestrate a calculated smear campaign against us and our allegations. What is a smear campaign? It’s when the abuser and supporters go after the “silence breaker”, as TIME magazine referred to the women of the #MeToo hashtag. Victims worry that becoming a silence breaker will open the door to people attempting to discrediting their character, blaming them for the abuse, and causing enough embarrassment that she retreats from her disclosure to the safety of not discussing the abuse again. A smear campaign can even go so far as to cause unstable strangers to threaten the life of public women who come forward and tell their stories of abuse. When we live in the twisted world of conspiracy theories, smear campaigns can have a devastating impact on victims of abuse who choose to publicly come forward.
The Risks Outweigh the Benefits
Victims of abuse must weigh the risks and benefits when considering disclosure of abuse and too often, the risks seem to far outweigh the benefits. I believe all victims of abuse want to share their stories with at least one other person. Many want to scream what was done to them from the rooftops so the whole world will know exactly who the abuser is behind his public façade. What makes women stay silent and go about their daily lives as if nothing has happened? They feel they have lost enough already and can’t risk losing more at the hands of the abuser or the abuser’s followers.
Culture of Bystander Apathy
For more survivors of abuse to step out of the shadows and speak up, we must culturally address the phenomenon known as “The Bystander Effect”. This occurs when bystanders or witnesses to harm being done, do nothing. It is a well-researched concept that first came to light with the violent and public death of Kitty Genovese in 1964. In a nutshell, people saw a young woman being attacked and did nothing to help her. This effect or apathy happens in families, among peers, in the workplace and in places of worship. The Bystander Effect and looking the other way has caused women to be too afraid to speak up.
How much support will she receive if she comes forward?
When we can fully identify why we are afraid to speak up about our experiences of abuse, we are better prepared to make backup plans for possible negative outcomes. For example, we can speak up in a way that maintains our sense of personal dignity and doesn’t make us feel like we have become too brash in our approach. We can learn that nice girls have a right to set boundaries and have the abuser held accountable for their actions. We can surround ourselves with supportive people so any smear campaign that does occur doesn’t reach our ears. We can put key aspects of our lives out of reach of the abuser to limit the risks of our disclosure. We can build a network of supportive people who will not fall into apathy but will walk with us through the process of disclosure and healing.
Speaking up about abuse is never going to be easy. Many internal fears must be faced. The power of disclosure is that the more women who speak up, the better chances we have to take back power that was stolen by an abuser. We are stronger together.
Keep dreaming big!