Most people would say that they want to support victims of sexual violence, but some incidents of sexual violence reported on in recent years have been met with mixed responses and a less-than-unified front in supporting victims. I explore these public instances of response to sexual violence because they illustrate the disempowerment of victims, how our society has difficulty taking a victim-centered approach to the reports, and how abusers are portrayed, particularly when the abusers are thought to have high moral character or when believing the abuse would mean shifting society’s views of a father figure, a family, or an organization. Later in this post, I suggest ways to respond to victims in light of the dynamics that often occur when sexual violence takes place in a family or community.
Sexual Violence Scandals Portrayed in the Media
In 2011, Jerry Sandusky, assistant football coach at Penn State, was charged with over 40 counts of indecency and sexual abuse of boys. At this point, Sandusky was rejected by his community and there was a trial resulting in a guilty verdict in June of 2012. However, Sandusky had been accused of indecency nearly 15 years before and had even admitted to showering with an underage boy, but he was not prosecuted. Many will remember that this scandal also shed light on the ways in which university officials, including beloved head coach Joe Paterno, did not respond fully to allegations. This led to NCAA sanctions, the firing of Paterno, and the removal of Paterno’s statue at the university. The 2014 documentary Happy Valley explores how the town of State College, Pennsylvania grappled with the allegations and the downfall of Paterno through many stages of disbelief, idealization, and then a more integrated recognition of how Paterno was culpable for more boys being abused.
In recent years, actor and comedian Bill Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by over 40 women. The assaults occurred from 1965 to 2008, and Cosby continues to deny these allegations. Cosby portrayed a beloved father figure, most notably in The Cosby Show. The strong positive perception of his character has come up against the high number of allegations and largely consistent stories of the victims, and members of the public have come to discuss the difficulty of reconciling his fatherly public image with the severity of the allegations against him.
In the spring of 2015, the public became aware of allegations of abuse by Josh Duggar of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting series. The acts occurred when Josh Duggar was a teenager (he is now in his 20s and has children of his own), and four of the five victims were his sisters. Josh Duggar has been a proponent of conservative family values but has stepped down from his role in advocacy organizations. He has not spoken in interviews, but his parents and some of his sisters have been interviewed. The Duggars maintain that they handled the abuse at the time, but they have been criticized in the media for not getting assistance for the victims, minimizing the extent of the abuse, not seeking appropriate treatment for Josh Duggar, and not reporting the abuse to unbiased authorities.
From the Perspective of Victims
These situations bring up a number of concerns for victims of sexual violence. First, the media attention is often focused on the perpetrator or the enabling institutions, and the result is that the conversation is less than fully supportive of victims (if victims are even mentioned). Many victims face the question: If I report the violence, will I even be believed? In the film Happy Valley, one of the victims watches Paterno’s funeral procession with over 50,000 mourners lining the streets and notes feeling unable to speak about his experiences because he will not be attended to or believed when up against the community’s need to protect Paterno’s legacy.
Many victims of sexual violence face ongoing repercussions by reporting because their family will not stay intact or they may face rejection by parts of their family. This would be particularly true for a family like the Duggars, as their brand values a strong family connection and community. With the reports of sexual abuse becoming public, the Duggar family image and narrative deteriorates, and their television show is endangered. In addition to experiencing these types of changes, many victims of abuse feel responsible for being the one that caused the rift in the family because the news of sexual violence came from them.
From the Perspective of the Family
News of sexual violence within a family is often seen as a threat to the family system, and some families respond by minimizing the violence, keeping the news within the family, or pressing to move back toward their norms as quickly as possible. Families may also become defensive, particularly against the application of labels to perpetrators. For example, the Duggar parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, were vehemently against the media and other outsiders labeling Josh Duggar as a pedophile. They stated that his actions were less impactful because he primarily touched his victims over the clothes, and Michelle infamously asserted that her daughters felt more victimized by the media than they ever had by the abuse. While many family members may be initially supportive of victims, they may later indicate wanting to return to the status quo by including both the perpetrator and victim in family events such as weddings or holidays without considering the impact on the victims.
From the Perspective of Bystanders
During these media incidents, the perspective of bystanders or the general community can often be one of mixed feelings and disbelief. Ultimately, most people want to believe that the world is a relatively safe place and that idols like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and Josh Duggar could not be part of scandals involving sexual violence. Our culture often creates idols based on limited and well-crafted public personas. For instance, 19 Kids and Counting is dubbed as a “reality TV” but it is still heavily edited to tell a story. Joe Paterno was a public figure and very involved in his immediate community for decades. He was seen as a “beacon of integrity,” but the public did not see his actions related to minimizing and covering up allegations concerning Sandusky. This new information about Paterno created shifts in public perception in waves, as people grappled with a new and contradictory image of this father figure.
A recent satirical sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, “Court of Public Opinion: The Trial of Bill Cosby,” captures difficulty with cognitive dissonance that bystanders or the public may experience. Amy Schumer plays an attorney defending Bill Cosby’s image, and she shows a clip from The Cosby Show. As the jury laughs at the clips, she says “I am a good person, I like this good show, and last time I checked, good plus good did not equal guilty.” The public’s opinion can be less than supportive of victims when they can believe that abuse may have occurred but do not have the conviction to change their relationships with the perpetrators.
How to Respond to Victims During Disclosure of Abuse
Frequently, when victims of sexual violence come forward, they are afraid and anxious of what will occur after the secret comes out. They often feel an incredible responsibility, even though the responsibility for the abuse is always with the perpetrator. Keeping this in mind, here are some strategies for responding to victims as they disclose the abuse:
Give the victim your full attention. Allow the victim time to tell the story without questions or needing to rush toward action.
Regulate yourself as you listen. You can unpack your own responses later, but keep breathing and do not react impulsively. The victim deserves to tell their story without having to respond to or manage your emotions (even if you are angry at the perpetrator and are supportive to the victim).
Validate their experiences and let them know that they are not to blame for the abuse.
Reassure the victim that you are glad they are able to disclose to you.
Don’t make promises that you cannot keep. For instance, you may not be able to keep the abuse a secret because of mandatory reporting laws concerning children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.
Offer options for support and professional resources while respecting choices. You cannot assume that you will know what the victim needs as far as contacting law enforcement, advocacy, counseling, or medical attention. Victims have different responses to their trauma, and they may want to defer help or more information until a later point, if at all. The victim experienced a loss of power in the abusive dynamic; you can help to empower the victim by respecting choices and boundaries.
Let them know next steps that you may need to take, and make a plan to follow up with them. The disclosure may not be a one-time event, and they may have more to share or check out with you later. It can also be invalidating for a victim to make a disclosure and then never have it mentioned again.
There are also things to keep in mind following the disclosure and in the long term:
Deal with your own biases and misconceptions about sexual violence. If you are noticing that you are having difficulty believing that a perpetrator could have committed sexual violence or are thinking something like “it only happened once” or “it only involved touching” or any sentence that could end “so it wasn’t that bad,” these may be an indication that you are trying to protect yourself from the reality of what has occurred or that you have taken in erroneous messages about sexual violence. This is not something that the victim should have to deal with from you—it is yours to face and process.
Get your own support as needed. The news of this abuse may be very difficult for you to process or accept, and it may change your relationships with people who are close to you. You can get help from a mental health professional to address the impacts you are facing. In Texas, rape crisis centers also provide free services to “secondary survivors” of sexual violence, such as family members of a victim.
Check in with the victim about their choices and boundaries over time. For instance, do not assume that they are fine with seeing their perpetrator at a family event just because time has passed. Ask the victim about their desires and act to prioritize their needs over the desires that others may have to continue traditions without conflict.
Do not make assumptions about the victim’s feelings, reactions, or needs. Victims react differently at different points in their healing, so it is better to ask than to assume.
Doing all of the above means accepting that the image of the perpetrator has changed. This change in that image and in the relationship will vary, but it is important to note and fight the urge for the event to be “over” and for things to go back to “normal.”
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual violence, know that you are not alone. You can contact the following resource and they can help 24/7 and can help connect you to resources in your area: National Sexual Assault Hotline (800) 656-HOPE, go online to Ohl.rainn.org/online/ or en espanol at rainn.org/es
In Austin/Travis County, contact: SafePlace at (512) 267-SAFE.