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Can You Be an Empowered Victim?

by Christine Hill

Every year, there are over 200,000 victims of sexual assault in the United States alone. One in 6 women have experienced rape or attempted rape. These attacks have long-term effects. 33% of women who are assaulted consider suicide. Almost 100% of them experience symptoms of PTSD for at least a few weeks after the assault, and 30% still experience trauma about a year after the event in question.

Sexual violence is a hot topic today, and discussions on the topic can lead to high tempers, finger-pointing, and extreme defensiveness. The statistics are sobering, but for people who have actually undergone sexual assault, it’s about more than statistics; it’s about finding peace and joy after your whole sense of security and trust has been shattered.

Why Do Victims Suffer Guilt and Blame?

One of the most common side-effects of sexual assault is that the victim feels guilt and shame. This tendency can be exacerbated by many things: from society’s tendency to victim-blame, to individual reactions when the victim speaks up (i.e. people feeling uncomfortable, shocked, repulsed).

It’s estimated that two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported, and this is usually due to misdirected shame and guilt that causes victims to withdraw and be silent.

The reasons for this imbalance are numerous, from societal double-standards to miscommunication. However, this cartoon explains a really interesting theory about why the guilt and shame persists. If you keep thinking to yourself “if only I hadn’t…” or “I should have…” it can give you a sense of control.

By controlling those patterns, you can take the unpredictability out of the equation and hopefully protect yourself from a recurrence of the incident.

Trauma Can Set Harmful Patterns

Shame and guilt are reinforced by many long-term effects of the trauma itself. For example, another common effect of sexual violence, especially if it happened early in life, is that the individual frequently finds him or herself in harmful or abusive relationships, as though they’ve set a pattern for themselves and can’t get out of it.

Victims of sexual assault can be as much as 10 times more likely to suffer from an addiction as those who are free of such demons in their closet. There are common underlying factors in both situations, but the problem remains that the past trauma contributes to harmful patterns that perpetuate the blame and guilt. Soon, there are so many layers of self-blame, it’s hard to find where the actual victimization occurred.

Accountability Versus Blame: a Fine Line

These patterns force a difficult question: do you need to accept culpability for an event in order to be empowered to change the pattern? Does admitting that you were an innocent victim in an event mean that you really are powerless over what happens in your own life?

Just about everything is caused by a combination of factors, not just one thing, from addiction to heart disease, to whether or not you have a happy marriage. It’s a combination of your genes, your upbringing, the patterns that you’ve seen in your life, or the society that you’re a part of, and your own personal choices.

Addiction Recovery Casts an Interesting Light

Addiction recovery therapy gives us an interesting setting to examine the relationship between accountability and victimization. For example, step 4 of the 12-Step Program in AA invites participants to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves,” which often prompts claiming your own responsibility and blame for the way that your life turned out.

However, for people who were honestly victims, helpless in a situation bigger than their own control, it can be hard to sort out what part of the situation they were responsible for, and what they can change in order to set their life on a more positive trajectory.

Another interesting example of blame versus victim-hood is played out in equine therapy. Because horses are extremely insightful to the tone and mood of those around them, a sense sharpened by thousands of years cooperating in herds, they have a tendency to start imitating relationships that we’ve seen patterned in our own lives.

They start to react to us in the same way we see many people in our lives react to us, therefore patients learn that when they change their own mood and energy, they can also change their relationships and the way that people act towards them.

While this therapy can be amazingly empowering, it can also have a harmful implied message: if you experienced sexual trauma, there’s something about you that made someone act that way towards you.

How to Find Empowerment

It’s important to remember one simple fact: if you’re a victim of sexual assault, the blame is not yours. While blame can be a tool to help us regain control, it’s scary but important to know that sometimes bad things happen for no reason that you can see yet. Good things happen to people who don’t deserve it sometimes, and bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it, too. It’s part of the difficult balance of life.

So, can you still change harmful patterns? Yes. Here are some tips to help you determine what you are and are not responsible for:

- Talk out the whole thing with a licensed therapist who can help you make sense of it.

- Be completely honest with one or two people who love you and whom you implicitly trust. They can help you sort out what really happened, and give you the reassurance and remind you that you are not supposed to feel guilty or ashamed of what happened.

- Help others who suffer from similar situations. Learning to express compassion and care for them can help you realize that you deserve the same compassion and care.

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