The National Crisis of Disclosure of Sexual Violence

Making sense of all the recent reports

Posted Nov 22, 2017

In her landmark, groundbreaking book on father-daughter incest, Judith Lewis Herman states that “..[The] disclosure of the incest secret initiates a profound crisis for the family usually...the abuse has been going on for a number of years and has become an integral part of family life. Disclosure disrupts whatever fragile equilibrium has been maintained, jeopardizes the functioning of all family members, increases the likelihood of violent and desperate behavior, and places everyone, but particularly the daughter, at risk for retaliation.”

Mihai Surdu/ Unsplash
Source: Mihai Surdu/ Unsplash

Herman’s profound insight helps us to understand the crisis of disclosure as it manifests in family life. But, I think we can extrapolate and apply this idea of a crisis of disclosure to better understand what is happening nationwide at this historical juncture as more and more stories are breaking about male perpetrators, often cloaked in fame, fortune, and career success, with a history of violating multiple female victims.

In fact, stunningly and interestingly, if we replace only a few of Herman’s words, we are left with the following (new italicized words are mine): “..[The] disclosure of the rape/assault/harassment secret initiates a profound crisis for the nation usually...the abuse has been going on for a number of years and has become an integral part of the fabric of American life. Disclosure disrupts whatever fragile equilibrium has been maintained, jeopardizes the functioning of all citizens, increases the likelihood of violent and desperate behavior, and places everyone, but particularly the victim/survivor, at risk for retaliation.”

This national, recent crisis of disclosure should help us to see both the violations and the responses as the sociological and structural problems that they are.

Our collective heads are spinning, reeling from the relentless, and rapid crisis of disclosure. The frame nervously shifts. Silence turns to outcry; fear morphs into rage and action; years of shame evolve into #MeToo; stories emerge about violations that happened days ago as well as decades ago; victims/survivors of rape, assault and harassment are met with a confusing combination of virtual hugs, horror, admiration, shock and even impatience if and when a lot of time has elapsed between the violence and the disclosure; we see how the personal becomes political and becomes personal again. Because it’s both. The devastation of violation will always feel personal yet the origin of it is sociopolitical and so must be our proposed solutions.

One would hope that a national crisis of disclosure would help to initiate conversations about sexuality, the misguided fusion and resulting indistinguishability of sex and violence in mainstream media, and the larger social causes and consequences of rape, assault and harassment.

We know that hearing stories of abuse takes its tolls on friends, family members, therapists, and others and produces symptoms such as: numbing out and withdrawing, despair and hopelessness, and a more negative view of the world. In the field of sexual and domestic violence intervention, we refer to this as vicarious trauma. Similarly, the national crisis of disclosure has created responses in citizens that closely mirror this. People are expressing that they cannot deal with, or listen to, one more case like this, that it is all just too much, and that it creates fear that any and all men are predators or potential predators.

For many years, I co-facilitated groups for male abusers and I was the clinical supervisor of a battering intervention program. In addition, I spent years working with female victims/ survivors of violence, adolescent perpetrators and children who had witnessed and experienced violence.

Abusive relationships revolve around the abuser's sense of entitlement and the victim's sense of entrapment. 

I am often asked why survivors of violence wait so long to tell their story or even recant their story. This really gets at how victims are really trapped in abusive relationships and continue to be trapped. A vicious cycle is perpetuated because once the survivor waits or recants, the sense of brutality of what was endured gets minimized by those outside the relationship. The experience gets reduced to, "See, it wasn't that bad. It's never that bad." And, then a dynamic ensues such that survivors are not seen as trustworthy with the experiences they have faced. The reasons that survivors wait to tell or recant their story are the same as why they stay in abusive relationships---it’s about love and it’s about fear. 

Most survivors face a sense of ambivalence--- wanting the violence to stop and the relationship to continue though these may be incompatible goals. And when I refer to a relationship, I mean a relationship of any kind---a partner, a friend, a colleague, etc. Most people want to believe that the person they care about, respect and love, feels that way in return, and that when a person says he is sorry he means it and will not inflict pain again. 

There are so many other reasons why women stay in compromising, abusive situations---love, fear of danger, fear of not being believed, children, finances, health or disability of their partner or themselves, immigration status, religious upbringing, threats that the abuser may have made regarding killing her or himself, racial loyalty (Black women often report that given the rate of incarceration of Black men, they don't want more dirty laundry to be aired), etc. 

Girls and women are socialized to forge and maintain relationships, almost at all costs to themselves. That's what good girls and women are taught to do---to create relationships and to make them work. So, it is a particularly cruel irony that at the time a woman is most vulnerable, in an abusive relationship or when trying to excavate herself from one, we ask why she stayed. But, in actuality, she has done what good women are taught to do---she has conformed, maybe overly so, to societal standards. And, we insist on her resisting and going against all the socialization that has been imposed on her all her life.

When it comes to finally naming and holding perpetrators accountable, survivors already come to the experience of truth-telling with the worry that they won't be believed because they have been told that by abusers over and over again, and society reinforces this through victim-blaming and tolerance and excuses for violence. 

In this current crisis of disclosure, we are being tested as a nation; we have a national healing crisis on our hands. Can we more patiently and compassionately sit with the hopeless and helpless sense of feeling overwhelmed by the disclosures, understanding that that is how survivors have endured the trauma, and can we at least do this long enough to hear the desperately clear misogynist patterns of what has happened? Then, from wherever we are, can we dare to ask ourselves, our communities, and the institutions we inhabit, what it will take---what it will take to truly eradicate sexual violence from our power structures, from the top down, and to this time, really do something?