“Why Didn’t You Say Anything?”
With every public revealing of a public figure’s sexual harassment practices and abusive behavior, people across the country react with a combination of fear, anger, and sadness. With so many similar stories that involve influential people, it’s normal to wonder: how come so many people decided to stay silent in situations where there’s abuse?
As we hear thousands of voices clamoring for justice in favor of our favorite stars via web, television and printed media, we also hear a lot of judgment about the alleged victims’ actions—or lack thereof:
“Staying silent makes you an accomplice.”
“Staying silent perpetuates sexual abuse.”
“You need to speak out.”
“Why did you stay silent?”
“I would have said something.”
“That never would have happened to me.”
The truth is that speaking out against abuse is not always a readily available option for people experiencing relationship abuse or sexual assault. We hear it from the thousands of people who reach out to The Hotline for help every day. We know that abuse thrives in isolation and that it walks hand-in-hand with fear.
Fear muzzles the truth. It hides behind a veil of shame, and it rips you open from the inside out, making you feel like less of a person. We also know first-hand that fearing an abusive partner can be paralyzing, traumatizing, and have long-lasting effects on people’s psyche and body.
To understand violence, we need to accept that fear is a completely natural reaction to a threat, and therefore, it is OK to be afraid. What we can’t do, however, is point fingers at the victims and blame them for not speaking out sooner. We are not in their shoes, and we will never know exactly how they feel.
Here are some reasons why victims and survivors may feel afraid of talking about their experience with abuse:
- Fear of being judged or not being believed
Being a victim of abuse can leave victims feeling ashamed and less-than a person. It can also leave them feeling like no one will believe them because it’s somehow their fault or that they were asking for it. The truth is that regardless of how the abuse happened, abuse is never the victim’s fault and they were never asking for it. It’s worth repeating: it’s important to remember to provide a sympathetic ear free of judgment, validate the other’s person’s experience and just being present when victims of violence or sexual assault are ready to open up.
- Fear of retaliation and going nowhere in their careers
Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity,or background. Abuse is all about power and control, so it makes sense that a survivor would fear retaliation if the abuser held power over them. Our callers and chatters tell us how very real the fear of retaliation is as many of them fear being ostracized by their communities, outed if they are LGBTQ+ or afraid of losing their children, their jobs and their credibility and reputation amongst family and friends.
- Fear of feeling responsible for the abuse or that speaking up can lead to direct physical harm
- Sometimes there’s a huge level of shame associated with attacks like this, as many survivors may feel it was their fault or that speaking up against their abuser may be unsafe and lead to physical harm. Feeling responsible for not fighting back, for allowing the attack to happen or for not feeling strong enough is something that we hear from contacts that reach out to us. The thing is, however, that abuse has nothing to do with the victim! It’s about the abuser’s desire for power and control—as simple as that. No matter why it happens, abuse is not OK and it’s never justified. You are never too small to make a difference and you should not feel responsible for something that was never your fault in the first place.
To the many survivors out there, remember: you are not alone. We believe you, regardless of when and how you decide to speak your truth. We support you and are here for you whenever you feel like you want to talk—no matter when you decide to do so.