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Common victim behaviors of survivors of sexual abuse

 In light of the recent media coverage related to Jerry Sandusky, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and MaleSurvivor would like to remind members of the media about normal behaviors that are common for survivors of sexual abuse:

Victim privacy is a basic need. The identity of sexual abuse victims should be protected.

It is common practice for members of the media to refrain from using the victims’ names unless given explicit permission from the victim. 

Keeping victim names private protects victims from further re-victimization that can occur when they lose control of their very personal and painful story or when members of their community or the public at large blame, question, disbelieve or harass them. We just witnessed these damaging actions further victimize “Jane Doe” in the Steubenville, OH rape case. Further, the fear of being “outed” keeps many survivors silent about what happened to them and who did it, which means offenders go unreported.

Survivors of sexual assault are most often the only people who can identify the sex offenders in any community, and they need to trust that their privacy will be respected in order to do so. We appreciate the understanding and cooperation of journalists and bloggers in protecting the identity and privacy of all survivors of sexual assault.

It is common for survivors of sexual assault to initially deny they were abused.

In the words of Joe McGettigan, lead prosecutor in the Sandusky case, “Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence. These emotions cause that response.”

Offenders reinforce these feelings by the things they say and do to victims. They use the shame and fear to bind the victim to them and isolate them from others who might help them. The victim is left feeling alone, isolated and very different from everyone around them.

Victims describe this as a surreal feeling –to see other kids leading normal lives all around them, but feel so different and separate from them due to the abuse they have endured. This shame and silence can last for decades.

Many survivors wait until well into their adult hood to share their secret. For many male victims, the shame and secrecy is compounded by the fear that their own sexuality may have something to do with it, or at least that others will think so. We must look at the stories of children with the eyes of children and recognize that a 10-year-old or 14-year-old boy has little language or understanding of human sexuality, and may have a very difficult time understanding that manipulation, abuse, exploitation and violence are not related to their own sexuality.

Delayed reporting of sexual abuse is a common, normal reaction from someone who has experienced traumatic events.

Sexual abuse can cause intense feelings of embarrassment, fear and humiliation. Survivors are often terrified that they will not be believed and ashamed that they don’t know how to stop the abuse. Victims often feel trapped between wanting the abuse to stop and being terrified of other people learning what has been done to them. That fear can keep victims silent while the abuse is going on, and for years after it has stopped.

It is important to remember that child victims often feel very confused about the abuse while it is ongoing. Offenders may use fun or care taking activities to push the boundaries of a child and create a bond, such as teaching innocent hygiene and introducing games, but including “accidental” sexual touching.

Many victims continue to have a relationship with their abuser.

Though it may be difficult for the public to understand, it is common for survivors of sexual abuse to continue relationships with their abusers after the abuse has stopped. Individuals react to trauma in different ways. For example, it is common for victims to maintain contact with their abusers because they may still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse. This is especially normal when the abuser is a member of the family or a close family friend. It is also common for some victims to maintain contact in an attempt to regain control over their assault. Others may maintain contact in an attempt to regain a feeling of normalcy.

Additionally, offenders often intentionally build a connection or a bond that isn't broken as a result of sexual abuse. The abuse is often one element of an otherwise loving or fun relationship. Offenders may intentionally maintain the non-abusive parts of the relationship to keep victims feeling close to them and thus less likely to report the prior abuse.

A victim's view of the offender's actions change over time.

An adult understands and views sexuality very differently than a child. The knowledge we gain with experience and time can give us the tools to better understand an event that happened when he or she was younger. It is common for survivors to not name their experiences as abuse until they are in adulthood.

It is normal for a victim’s story to evolve throughout the investigative process.

Initially a victim may say nothing happened. It is not uncommon for victims to delay reporting sexual abuse or to deny that they were abused when they are initially questioned. Reasons could include fear of the stigma associated with the abuse, embarrassment and retaliation.

Victims may deny the abuse they’ve suffered, or misrepresent parts of their story.

Many victims try to hide what is happening to them by outright denying it when others ask (including classmates who may make jokes, tease or bully them based on the irregular relationship they see or sense), and by making statements with false bravado.

Sometimes victims fear getting in trouble for their own "bad" or illegal behavior (underage drinking, using drugs, lying to parents about where they are or who they are with) and will make false statements to friends, family and even investigators about those acts.

These false statements do not mean that the entire account of abuse is false. In fact, offenders may intentionally encourage victims to engage in bad or illegal behavior knowing it is one more layer of protection for themselves should the victim report their sexual assaults.

It is normal for victims to freeze and be unable to physically fend off their abuser. 

When faced with imminent threat or danger, most humans will freeze as opposed to fighting or fleeing. This hard-wired, biological response is an automatic impulse that is seen in many other species. The brain instruct parts of the body to literally "shut down" in order to improve the odds of surviving a dangerous traumatic situation.

No victim—whether a teenager, adult, male or female—should have their instinctive response to being sexually assaulted called in to question. No victim should be expected to prevent or interrupt their abuse. The fault for abuse lies squarely on the abuser.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape is the oldest state anti-sexual violence coalition in the U.S. The organization represents 50 sexual assault centers that serve the state’s 67 counties. Each year these centers provide education and confidential services, at no charge, to more than 30,000 men, women and children affected by sexual abuse.

Founded by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in 2000, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center identifies, develops and disseminates resources regarding all aspects of sexual violence prevention and intervention.

MaleSurvivor is committed to preventing, healing, and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men through support, treatment, research, education, advocacy, and activism.