by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning - discussion of physical, emotional, and s*xual abuse - mention of h*mophobia, tr*nsphobia, and b*phobia)
When people think of violence or abuse, they tend to think of that stereotype of physical violence - aggression and anger. Silence can seem like the antithesis of that - calm and peaceful. But silence can show up in many ways in abusive contexts, sometimes playing a key role in its continuation.
One of the most pertinent ways that silence can impact on abuse is when abusers coerce victims into silence. This can be done in a wide variety of ways, such as making threats about what they will do if the victim tells someone (usually threatening to harm someone they care about), or shaming them into silence. This can involve using the victim's own actions against them, like those who have been exploited online being threatened with the exposure of those images to family members, friends, employers and so on. For LGBT+ people, it can include being outed without your consent.
When victims are silenced through fear, coercion, intimidation, and further violence, it often enables the abuse to continue. It first accomplishes this by making sure that those who would be likely to intervene are not aware of it. It can also function later as a means of invalidating the victim's experience - such as people questioning why the victim didn't tell anyone sooner.
...if the abuse is chronic then they could have learned that silence was a better coping and survival strategy.
The concept of Learned Helplessness refers to when people are repeatedly exposed to a stressful situation or occurrence and as a result, feel like they are unable to change or control it. For instance, if an individual was to be hurt once by a perpetrator, they may fight back, call for help, tell people afterwards, and take action to avoid that person. But if that individual was hurt repeatedly by that perpetrator over a long period of time and the situation felt impossible to change, they might stop fighting back, and they may fall silent - in the belief that such actions would either serve no purpose at all, or they may make it worse.
This is why it can be problematic when people ask how much a person resisted during sexual abuse or if they called for help - because not only can some people freeze or dissociate which makes such actions difficult and/or impossible - but if the abuse is chronic then they could have learned that silence was a better coping and survival strategy.
Another example could be a queer child living with unaccepting family members. They might challenge their parent's homophobic views, but if that is repeatedly unsuccessful, or frequently results in further distress and/or emotional abuse, then they may consider silence a safer approach for the time being. It does not mean that they have stopped being queer, or stopped caring about LGBT+ issues, but that silence has become a survival strategy.
The silent treatment
Standing up for yourself can have many positive consequences, such as feeling empowered, and better self confidence and self esteem - it can be the beginning of putting boundaries in place that can keep you safer and help you thrive. Another possible consequence can be abusers giving you the 'cold shoulder' or the silent treatment. This can be a manipulative strategy designed to wear you down and get you to give in to something that you don't want to do. It uses the relationship you have with someone, giving it and taking it away, based on their terms to get you to do what they want - threatening you with the constant fear of abandonment.
This isn't to be confused with situations where someone you know or care about genuinely needs some space or time to process things or for self care after a difficult conversation. Nor, is it the same as implementing a no-contact boundary. A no-contact boundary is used when someone needs to have zero contact with a particular person - because they have been abusive, hurtful, violent - and no other means of resolving that relationship/situation have been effective. It is a tool used for safety and self care.
Being abused can leave a person feeling powerless and isolated, and when it seems like those around you don't care enough to stop it or speak out about it, that loneliness and vulnerability can accumulate.
On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (#IDAHOTB2020), I can't help but also think about the silence of those who witness abuse and do or say nothing - those who allow it to continue uncontested. Whether it is looking the other way when homophobic bullying happens, assuming that it doesn't have anything to do with them, or disbelieving or minimising the experiences of those who disclose violence and abuse - it's a silencing that can make a bad situation worse. Being abused can leave a person feeling powerless and isolated, and when it seems like those around you don't care enough to stop it or speak out about it, that loneliness and vulnerability can accumulate.
So, as this year's theme of IDAHOTB2020 is 'Break the Silence', I hope that those who witness homophobic, transphobic, and biphobic abuse speak out and speak up for those who are currently using silence to survive.
Read about how I broke my silence in the new book chapter - 'Sexual Abuse and Surviving with(in) Psychology', published in the edited collection - MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak About Sexual Violence and Abuse.