This essay was written for CHILD USA by Jennifer Goetz.
Jennifer Goetz is a childhood sexual assault survivor and advocate for sexual assault survivors. She is currently working on her MSW at Widener University and plans on becoming a clinically licensed social worker specializing in trauma therapy for sexual assault survivors.
I was listening to a podcast the other day where sexual assault survivors of a well-known musician spoke about the horrific treatment they received from the public after coming forward. Supporters of this musician used social media to try to discredit these survivors. They called them liars, said they were out to ruin the musician’s life, and claimed that they were only doing this for money – the usual things people say when a survivor comes forward speaking the truth about a predator. The public can be quick to defend these predators. The sexual predator will often say that they would never do something like that, that the survivor is a liar, or, as a last resort, that it was consensual. The public is often quick to believe every word that these predators say.
If, instead, the public stopped and listened to the survivors themselves, the public may hear some indicators that could alert them to the truthfulness of survivors’ stories. I am a child sexual assault survivor myself. I listen carefully to what another survivor says when talking about their assault, including how they feel and what they are thinking. And I have noticed these patterns in their stories.
The following three narrative elements are common in survivors’ stories. These are only potential indicators of truth, and these elements may be absent or only partially present in survivors’ true stories. I want to share what I have observed so that non-survivors of sexual assault will be aware of these potential indicators of truth and be able to better listen to survivors’ stories.
- Memory fragmentation:
Sexual assault survivors may be able to recall certain details that the public deems as irrelevant, and not be able to recall other details. For example: I cannot tell you the exact date of my assault, but I can describe to you the door leading out the room. I cannot tell you what he wore, but I can describe the flooring in the room. This inability to recall what the public deems as important details does not mean I was not assaulted. It means that my brain chose to focus on those things during my assault to help me somehow get through it. Whenever I hear another survivor talk about these unimportant details, I know they are telling the truth about having been sexually assaulted.
- Minimizing one’s assault and comparing it to others’ experiences:
I have noticed that sexual assault survivors, myself included, will compare ourselves to other survivors and downplay our experiences if we think someone else had a more horrific experience. What I mean is we will say things like, “It only happened once to me unlike this other survivor,” “At least I wasn’t beaten like they were,” or “I wasn’t raped like them, but I was just forced to…” Why we do this is a question for social science research to answer. But as a survivor myself, if someone says that another survivor had it worse, it indicates to me that they are being truthful about their sexual assault.
- Desire to be in another place, time, or body:
Going public about being sexually assaulted is hard. Not being believed is devastating. Being attacked by the public for telling the truth is horrific. Not only are survivors attacked by their predators, but they can also be further traumatized by attacks from their predator’s supporters. Because of the harmful effects of public backlash and the consequences of abuse – such as anxiety and/or PTSD – many survivors want to flee or become someone else. The desire to go somewhere else, start over, or become someone else is often mentioned by survivors. A desire to be the person one was before the assault or wanting to be the person one should have been had the assault not happened is often expressed in survivors’ narratives. This is another indicator to me that a survivor is telling the truth about their sexual assault.
Research has shown that the probability of someone lying about being sexually assaulted is very small, yet the public can be quick to label survivors as liars and predators as being truthful about their innocence. A sexual predator is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They have had time to prepare and train the public to see only the sheep’s clothing they wear. The predator has infiltrated places where they will not be seen as a threat. By skillfully creating the persona of a great athlete, musician, actor, teacher, priest, doctor, or coach, the public cannot fathom the sexual predator to be anything but great. We only need to look at R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and Bill Cosby to see examples. Every one of them claimed innocence. Their supporters believed them, but the predators are the liars.
On Traumatic Stress and Memory:
- Kim, E. J., Pellman, B., & Kim, J. J. (2015). Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review. Learning & memory, 22(9), 411-416.
- Himelein, M. J., & McElrath, J. A. V. (1996). Resilient child sexual abuse survivors: Cognitive coping and illusion. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(8), 747-758.
On Being the Self of the Past; Abuse as Turning Point:
- Robinaugh, D. J., and McNally, R. J. (2011). Trauma centrality and PTSD symptom severity in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24(4), 483–486.
On the Low Rates of False-Allegations:
- O’Donohue, W., Cummings, C., & Willis, B. (2018). The frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse: A critical review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 27(5), 459-475.
- Oates, R. K., Jones, D. P. H., Denson, D., Sirotnak, A., Gary, N., & Krugman, R. D. (2000). Erroneous concerns about child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(1), 149-157.
On listening to Survivors, generally
- A previous CHILD USA Post on this topic: https://childusa.org/understanding-cognitive-biases-so-we-can-listen-to-survivors-better/