We need to rethink the ways we treat survivors of abuse 3 months ago

We need to rethink the ways we treat survivors of abuse

Women's voices are loud now.

Maybe as loud as they've ever been.

The past few years has seen an influx of women find the courage and energy and words to speak, to talk about what has been done to them, to compare their too often not-to-dissimilar experiences with others.

Every time, there's the unwavering solidarity with those who have come forward, the sense of affinity between survivors - and the troubling realisation that so many people share the same stories.

The bravery displayed by survivors who choose to speak out is admirable. Time and time again, since the #MeToo movement's inception and long before it, women have spoken of the abuse they suffered, the pain they experienced, and the hurt that has been caused.

But speaking out doesn't just expose an alleged abuser, it can also expose the survivor who is sharing their story. Expose them to criticism, to hatred, to claims that their stories are untrue, fabricated, or not as bad as they think.

Too often, survivors are asked for more than they are willing to give. The courage it takes to share such stories is recognised and hopefully supported, but sometimes simply speaking is not seen as enough.

Sometimes survivors are asked for more. Sometimes it's demanded of them. Requests for interviews, barrages of DMs, questions around why accusations are being shared on social media rather than with the authorities, despite much research pointing to incredibly valid reasons why this can often be the case. 

Sometimes those who have stayed silent are accused of standing with an abuser, of being complicit, of not caring at all.

But sometimes, people simply don't know what to say, what to add. Sometimes these people are still grappling with what they are learning and what has been done to them.

Speaking out is one of the bravest things a person can do - but it's also one of the most terrifying.

There are countless reasons why a person may fail to report an instance of abuse, assault, or coercion.

This week, a new report published by the Union of Students in Ireland and NUIG's Active Consent Programme showed that a vast number of students (male, female, and non-binary) who have experienced "incidents corresponding to rape" did not report it.

The most common reasons for non-disclosure were that students didn't think their experience was "serious enough" to report. Others said that they didn't want anybody to know, that they felt ashamed or embarrassed.

Other reasons a survivor may not speak out include but are not limited to:

  • Being afraid of their alleged abuser
  • Being threatened by their alleged abuser
  • Being wary of the attention that speaking out might bring
  • Not knowing what will happen once a report is made
  • Not trusting the authorities to take them seriously
  • Not trusting the authorities full stop

Speaking out is an incredible act of bravery but it is also exhausting. It can drain a person until they feel the need to step away for a while, to regroup.

Often this is not an admission of guilt. It is unlikely that a person will go back on their words. Sometimes people just need time. Anybody would.

sexual assaults in ireland

Posting on social media has become synonymous with doing good. During times of turbulence, we struggle to make sense of the world, desperately trying to show our support in any meaningful way, deeply concerned that we aren't doing enough - or that we aren't perceived to be doing enough.

Earlier this month, British journalist Yomi Adegoke spoke candidly about the difficulties involved in adding your voice to the faction when you are still grieving, and still hurting.

Adegoke was writing about the death of George Floyd and the recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, but her words remain relevant for much of the discourse we are too used to seeing on social media now, where saying everything makes you the greatest ally, and saying nothing means that you don't care.

The reality is a lot more complicated, especially when it comes to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

We need to listen, to empathise, to stand back to allow others to speak. We need to recognise when they might need time to reach out. We need to understand when they can't.

There is no right way to be a victim, but there are plenty of right ways to treat survivors.