First of all, if you JUST escaped from a sexual assault situation, please make sure you’ve found a safe place before you read further. Call 911 if you’re worried about your safety. Once you’re certain that you’re out of harm’s way, consider reading this article first for what to do immediately after a sexual assault. If you’re out of immediate danger, but you're stuck (or have been) in a sexually abusive relationship wondering why you’ve stayed quiet about your assault, keep reading.
When so many have made the brave step to go public about their own experiences, why do an estimated 90% of sexual assault victims remain silent? What is it about predators that gives them the power to keep victims quiet? Why haven’t you gotten help yet for your own situation? The truth is that sexual predators have a way of making their victims feel it’s in their best interest to be silent or that speaking up wouldn’t do them any good. Victims may also deal with deep shame about their story, and shame thrives on silence.
Those who commit sexual assault are often pretty sneaky in the ways they influence their victims. Whether they know it or not, most of them are following patterns of behavior that we’ve been able to do some research on. Whether they’re a stranger who came into your life with the sole purpose of assaulting you, or someone you knew well or is even in your family, it’s likely that their behavior is what makes their victims feel like they must be silent. It’s never okay to judge a victim because they are remaining silent, especially if the victim is you. Get to know what predatory manipulation looks like to understand a little bit more about victim silence.
Grooming or persuasion behaviors can look like:
- Befriending your parents or trying to look good in front of them. Whether it’s a neighbor, a coach, or a new boyfriend, gaining the trust of your most trusted family and friends, may add to the victim’s feelings that no one will believe them down the line.
- Giving extra attention, gifts, etc. This could also be simple text messages, attention, or affection. You learn to trust them because they fulfill your basic need for feeling loved, feeling special, feeling beautiful, etc. Everyone wants those things! This behavior may leave the victim feeling loyal or beholden to the predator.
- Isolating or creating ways to be alone with you. This could look like making sure that you’re so busy you aren’t spending time with the people you’re close to by filling your schedule with activities, be those dates, extra practices for music or sports, etc. Limiting your access to friends, family, or money also makes it difficult for the victim to reach out for help or even consider leaving the situation.
- Pushing conversation boundaries and touch desensitization. Perhaps they introduce sexual topics, show the victims sexual material, or frequently touch the victim without asking first. This behavior makes it so that when they advance sexually, their victim is already used to the sexual element in their relationship and may not protest.
- Threatening, both emotional and physical. This could look like making the victim aware of what the consequences could be if they tell anyone or break off the relationship—that could be threats of physical assault, but could be as subtle as saying, “you have to keep this between us because nobody will understand what we have.”
All of these subtle moves amount to the victim feeling truly alone and helpless, sometimes even unaware of the assault. If they even want out, the victim often assumes that nobody would believe them or that their predator is the only person who truly loves or knows them. By no means is this an extensive list of ways predators keep victims silent! But it could get you started as you research.
The Link Between Silence and Shame
First of all, if you have been sexually assaulted, you have nothing to be ashamed of. It is not your fault. It was not your fault. The fault lies only with the person who violated you and made you feel less than. Experiences like this can make you feel lonely and isolated, but it’s important to know that you are not alone. It’s estimated that at least 1 in 6 women and 1 in 25 men experience a sexual assault at least once as an adult. With those odds, it’s extremely likely that there is someone in your circle who has had a similar experience, or would understand yours. So many victims remain silent for fear of judgment, because they blame themselves, or because they don’t believe there’s any help to be had. What if, though, telling your story could actually set you free from some of those feelings?
If you’ve been afraid to talk to anyone, you might be struggling with shame. Researcher and professor, Dr. Brene Brown, says, "If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive." Though shame may be telling you that you’ll never survive whatever judgment you’ll face after sharing your story, you might actually find a lot of love, acceptance, and support on the other side.
How to Safely Get Help
If you’re considering getting help, think about how you’re going to do that safely. If you’re no longer in the abusive relationship, you still need to consider your emotional safety. When you’re still in a volatile situation, it’s important to plan how you’re going to stay safe from further harm. Reach out to RAINN, an organization that offers help for victims of sexual harassment and violence. You can chat with them online or call them at 800.656.HOPE (4673)—they’ll have state-specific ideas on how and where you can get the help you need, and can also help you determine the right safety plan for you.
Remember that when you’re in the middle of a highly stressful moment, the brain doesn’t function at its highest capacity. Having these things decided ahead of time, could really help you in the moment. For more great ideas about what can go in your safety plan, check out “How to Exit an Abusive Relationship Safely” on VeryWellMind.
What to Do When You’re Out
Getting help is a huge and difficult step, but don’t forget about what comes after that. Victims of sexual assault have been through something horrendous, and it’s crucial to make sure there will be continued support as you recover and rebuild your life. Consider the following:
- Seek help with a licensed therapist. Experiencing a sexual assault will impact your mental, whether that manifests as depression, anxiety, PTSD or another diagnosis.
- Find ways to stay and feel safe. Take self-defense classes, carry mace, and move in with someone you love and trust. Find activities that help you feel empowered and people who make you feel secure.
- Sexual assault hurts more than just your mind and body. It breaks your heart, hurts your soul, and makes you feel farther away from yourself than you did before. Find ways to take care of your spirit. Seek community, faith, and activities that make you feel fulfilled. Remind yourself that life can be beautiful, and that you can have peace. Consider prayer, too. Whether you want to pray aloud, silently, or write in a journal, taking some time to commune with the Holy Spirit can be incredibly healing for your own.
- Check out these 15 Tips to Protect Yourself.
You can also talk to us! We have Hope Coaches and email mentors at the ready, willing to listen to you and offer you resources. We’ll even pray for you, if you want. We believe that Jesus doesn’t want you to feel shamed, silenced, or stuck. He sees you as a beautifully wonderfully made child of God, and wants you to have a life of abundant joy. If you want to know more about that joy, please reach out to us, and remember: you are never alone.
Staying hopeful after abuse and assault is difficult, but not impossible. We've witnessed many people rediscover a sense of hope after assault, and find healing after abuse.