Time’s Up and #metoo are defining the discourse on exposing sexual abuse, sexual advances and even the current dialogue of casual sexual conversation. As movements, the trends set by #metoo and Time’s up to react to sexual assault and empower people are significant for protecting the equality between the sexes and raising psychological awareness about the harm in ignoring the coercive and abusive practices disregarded in the past.
“Get over it” may have been the most comforting words a victim and survivor of abuse may have heard in the past if she dared say that she was raped, abused or molested, or even rubbed against her will. The emotional and physical harm caused by sexual attacks in the workplace, on the bus or at home have been well documented and we see the clinical sequalae when we consult at organizations and firms and in our private consultation rooms daily. People present with a variety of ills including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and much more. Still, despite the continuing media coverage of the Sandusky’s, Cosby’s, Weinstein’s, members of the clergy, physicians, school teachers and more, it is our experience, and research bears out, that there is still a major reluctance on the part of victims to tell what was done to them.
The fear of entering the conversation on abuse stems from the fact that many who report what they experienced are, at least initially, not believed. These casualties of abuse also fear being shunned by friends and relatives for bringing negative attention to themselves, their family and even their wider social circle. The biggest fear that we have heard is, as one of our patients so clearly articulated, “I am afraid that they will say I caused it to happen.” This blaming the victim is a far too common initial reaction when a survivor goes public. It often does not dissipate. We hear abusers make comments like “She’s making it up,” or “She’s so ugly who would want to touch her.” This victim manipulation is precisely what an abuser does as part of the grooming process and the distortions continue even after the abuser is exposed.
While there are many brave individuals willing to come forward to describe how they were abused, if you study the pattern you will find that this is most likely to occur only when there are a group of individuals who were abused by the same person. The squeamishness of the public regarding discussing the issue of sexual abuse is evident still even in the face of the reality of how often abuse occurs. Recent studies indicate that one in four women and one in six men have been abused sexually.
There are two significant issues that may disrupt the movements to expose abusers and prevent future abuse. One is related to the genteel and arcane nature of the topic the other to the social and political issues of our time. It is almost impossible to find, report and detain every abuser for all the reasons that most survivors never report what happened. Beyond that, even when someone has been accused, imprisoned and remanded to therapy there is little control over the rehabilitation process. It has been reported that only about five percent of abusers who go through a rehabilitation program will be recidivists. While that may be true for a select few in specific programs there is no long term longitudinal data to support that as a lifetime outcome. It further does not take into account individuals who because of incomplete police work, survivors who report but are not willing to testify in court or any other number of reasons, are not charged or placed on probation and not mandated to treatment.
The social and political environment causes us to be concerned that there may in fact be a backlash against the anti sexual assault and empowerment movements. President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape could have been an international watershed moment, a strong statement about how wrong it is when powerful people use their resources to disempower and sexually demean others. There are many similar instances of powerful men who use their power status and personality to alter the conversation. These cases may not be outliers and have the potential to lay the groundwork for a future male counterattack thereby negating progress in the battle against abuse. Using the exceptionally rare but real instances when someone is accused but has done nothing wrong as a benchmark against all accusations is just another part of the toolkit to protect abusers. For the fight against abuse to be successful the Attorney General of Philadelphia’s report on abuse in the Catholic Church provides a roadmap. Call out the abusers. Report them to the authorities. Uncover their attempts to change the discourse and hide behind euphemisms and always support victims.