In recent months we witnessed an exponentially growing torrent of sexual abuse and sexual harassment reports and allegations. Amid this growing trend, questions about why the victims waited so long are only obvious.
The following will attempt to explain why they waited, as well as what should be done about it.
Why is it happening?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Sexual abuse doesn’t typically occur among equal “players.” Sexual abuse is conducted by someone with power over the victim. That power is driven by the needs of the victim, best described by the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Those needs are required for survival.
At the bottom, or foundation, are the basic needs of safety and physiology. Above them are the psychological needs of belonging, love, and self-esteem, and finally, on top, are the self-fulfillment needs. A person must first have the foundational needs met, before he or she can start seeking higher level needs met.
Our instinct would guide us to do whatever it takes to achieve those needs. The more fundamental those needs are, the farther we are willing to go to have them met. A sexual abuser would typically be an employer, a parent, or someone with control over the basic needs. An employer controls my income, which provides for the most basic physiological needs. I must have those, so I cannot afford to lose my job. A parent, at an early age, controls those too, as well as safety. I don’t want to be thrown out to the street.
Both can also control my psychological needs for belonging and love. The act of sexual abuse does, though, hurt the self-esteem and self-actualization needs. However, since more critical needs are controlled by the abuser–the victim will put aside self-esteem and self-actualization to assure that the more basic needs are met.
As a result, victims will often suffer from low self-esteem, and may have hard time reaching self-fulfillment later.
Six Bullets, Twenty Hostages
How can a single sexual predator abuse so many victims, yet nobody will come forward? Think of a hostage situation.
One person is pointing a revolver at you and 19 other hostages. It is very clear to all of you that the revolver only has six bullets, and each one of those could kill only one of you. The math is simple: if you all decide to turn on the hostage-taker, you will overrun him, take the gun, and be free. However, up to six of you may die in the process by those six bullets. Now, who wants to go first?
Very few people will go first and sacrifice their own lives to save the others. If you go first, there is a good likelihood that you will die. If you don’t, there is some, albeit unknown, probability that you may survive the ordeal.
The story might be different if there was only one bullet in the revolver. Why? Because even if the probability is only 50% that you would be killed by that one bullet (a risk you might be willing to take), there is a 75% probability that you would be killed if two bullets were fired at you, and 98.4% that you would be killed if all six bullets were fired at you.
If you go first, would others follow so that not all six bullets are shot at you? If you come forward and report sexual abuse–will others follow, or will they stay back while it’s your story versus his?
It didn’t feel that wrong at the time
We are conditioned by societal and cultural norms. The reason why you don’t see an uprise in cultures that are centuries behind ours is because in those countries, those are the norms today. We evolved over time.
Some things that were acceptable in the 1960’s are not acceptable today. Remember that even in our culture women and African-Americans were not allowed to vote (to say the least), and somehow that was okay and appropriate at the time.
Maybe being sexually assaulted at the time felt, even slightly, not as bad as it feels now? Many therapists deal with emotional problems caused by suppressed feelings, only for them to come up later. The victim’s conscious mind may not indicate that this was sexual abuse at the time, while the subconscious mind might feel differently, except that it doesn’t have a clear way to communicate that.
It’s my Fault
Victims may have an elevated sense of ownership and responsibility. As such, they may blame themselves for what happened. They believe that they might have done something to cause the assault.
The assailant, on the other hand, refuses to see how this was his fault. This discrepancy in how the two see who’s responsible for the assault is one of the reasons why victims don’t say anything, and why sexual abusers continues to do so.
By the way, the fact that the victim takes responsibility for the assault only increases the rationalization that the attacker needs to feel innocent and, even worse, continue to assault others.
How should we stop this?
This is not right
The first thing the victim needs to realize is that the assault is not right. It shouldn’t have happened. This is not how things should be. If it doesn’t feel right, well, odds are that it really isn’t right and shouldn’t be happening.
Don’t talk yourself into believing that if it feels natural to your abuser, it must be right. Only you are responsible for your values.
This is not my fault
Second, the victim must start believing that it is not her or his fault. The victim needs to communicate this not only to herself, but also to the attacker. Don’t let the attacker (or yourself) talk you into feeling that it is your fault, and that they are, in fact, the victims, falling prey to your uncontrollable sexual appeal.
This is their fault, and you must communicate that.
He/She Doesn’t know
The victim can also assume that the attacker doesn’t even know that what he is doing is wrong before doing it. While we might find this unbelievable, if you read some of the reasons above, you could see why an abuser might not even realize what he was doing is wrong. Especially if nobody ever complained (even though the reasons for not complaining, as listed above, are far from making it right).
One advantage of thinking this way (that he may not know that this is wrong), is that you make it easier to tell him that what he is doing is unacceptable. You are not coming from an adversarial position, which is harder to maintain, but rather from an empathetic, educational position, which is easier.
What about the next victim?
Again, another source of confidence building and willingness to stop this chain of assaults is to think about the next victim. It may be hard for you to stand up against the abuser if you are the only person getting hurt.
It is easier to take a stand if you think about others that might follow, simply because you didn’t stop it once and for all. Once you start thinking this way, you may find the emotional strength to stand up and willingness to suffer the consequences, if only to protect others.
Finally, as a society, we must educate. We must educate the victims about their rights, about how to stand up to an abuser, about why it is hard for them to do so now. Understanding the problems (as listed above) is a major milestone towards solving them. Furthermore, we don’t only need to educate victims and potential victims, we must also educate potential abusers.
We need to teach them that this is wrong, even if they don’t pick up on the indicators from the victim. We must explain to them why a victim might not tell you that she is being victimized by them, and that the fact that she may not speak up is not a signal that your actions are acceptable.
Disclaimer 1: I do not hold a degree in psychology, and I don’t play a psychologist on TV. However, my own doctoral research focused on motivation.
Disclaimer 2: I know that this topic is emotionally loaded for many people, and it is hard to read an article about it without getting emotional. However, this article is not taking sides, nor does it attempt to justify anything. The purpose of this article is to explain some of the behaviors around this issue to better understand them, and propose solutions.
Disclaimer 3: The opinions provided in this article are mine, and not of the publication that made it available for you to read.