Blaming Victims

Words are dangerous; handle them with care

Words are dangerous; handle them with care

After the last four days, during which my friend Alecia Pennington has gone viral, I’ve been reading more accounts of similar situations. It seems a perfect time to finish this article I’ve been thinking about for a while.

People are very good at blaming victims. Look through the comments on any widely-read story about physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse, and you can almost inevitably find people who blame the victim.

It’s happening to Alecia, and also to Cynthia Jeub. It’s happening to girls who claimed abuse at the hands of idolized men like Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, and Bill Cosby. I’ve experienced it myself, though not in the context of national news.

Susan Douglas, over at Homeschoolers Anonymous, observes that when someone makes unexpected claims of being abused, the things they say are weighed against a reputation of the accused abuser. If our first impression of someone was good, and especially if we’ve known or heard of them for a while and they seem like good people, we become subconsciously biased toward them, and may be automatically inclined to disbelieve any accusations of abuse against them.

Yet abusers are most likely to be the people you’d least expect…family members and friends who have perfected the art of giving good impressions. The tactics used by abusers are designed to restrict their victims’ opportunities for being heard and believed, and even to make the victim think they are not being abused.

Gaslighting is a very common tactic, because it’s so effective. By making the victim doubt their own understanding of what happened, you can manipulate them into remaining quiet and even submitting to abuse. I have firsthand experience with being on the victim side of gaslighting, and I had to repeatedly return to my saved emails and letters to assure myself that what I remembered really did happen.

There are hundreds of stories about abuse in Christian families, churches, and organizations. I included links to some of the major sources for these stories when I wrote specifically about child abuse in Christian culture. People will always be around to accuse the victims of making it all up, but how much weight do such accusations really carry?

Research shows that less than one percent of sexual abuse reports made by the victimized children turned out to be false. The vast majority of false accusations are made by people other than the victim, but I’m focusing on whether or not we believe what the victim says.

On the other hand, fewer than forty percent of children actually report the abuse. What this means is that a child is over 160 times more likely to be a silent victim of sexual abuse than to be making a false accusation. (1% of 38% means 0.38% of abuse cases are false reports given by the victim, while 62% of abuse cases are unreported by the victim.)

These statistics should be about the same for all types of abuse, because the basic dynamics and the psychological effects are the same. So why not believe the victim? It’s fine to search out as much information as you can, to gain an objective view of the case, but you’re literally 16,315% safer believing that a child is telling the truth about being abused, than assuming they’re lying. Also, when they do tell their stories, children tend to minimize the severity of the abuse, not exaggerate it (see the same source as I used for the rate of false accusations).

If the accused perpetrator exhibits signs of being abusive, such as protesting that claims have been exaggerated, saying that the victim is lying, or shifting the blame away from themselves, they should instantly become even more suspicious. In the cases of both Alecia Pennington and Cynthia Jeub, their parents have publicly exhibited many classic traits of emotional abusers. So why not believe the victims?

In Christian culture, the reason people might downplay the victim’s suffering, try to keep the story hidden, or refuse to believe it, is often simple; they don’t want their reputation damaged. When these stories go viral, many people, even if they believe the victim, worry about how their “unbelieving enemies” will use the event to take action against Christians in general.

Some of the more insensitive ones will even argue in favor of preserving the reputations of the perpetrators. They do a lot of good with their ministry, people say, and nobody’s perfect after all, so since they said they’re sorry, let’s not get any authorities involved. They want to let the abuser go free of legal consequences, and in some cases even continue as a teacher. Accusations against Bill Gothard had been coming for many, many years before an investigation finally happened and he was forced to resign.

All of this shows a horrible priority of protecting reputation over the well-being of children, and anyone participating in such arguments becomes an enabler of abuse. With as many as 15% of people being sexually abused at some point in their childhood, and far more falling victim to physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, we can’t waste time on doubting the claims of the victims who do speak up.

More than half of them are still out there, suffering silently. They’re probably afraid that if they do say anything, they’ll be attacked and abused even more, if not by their initial abuser then by the ignorant and self-centered masses of skeptics.

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