by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning: discussion of s*xual abuse, gaslighting, and abuse by women)
This week I had the unfortunate experience where my history of abuse was not believed. It’s certainly not the first time that I’ve disclosed and had my trauma dismissed, but it was the first time that I wasn't believed in a therapeutic context.*
Not being believed can exacerbate existing trauma by increasing shame, preventing further disclosure, and it can lead to an avoidance of support services. It can result in a survivor feeling like the abuser's perspective is valued more than theirs, that their pain is considered irrelevant or invalid, and like they have to suffer in silence.
...betrayal trauma can mean that no answer ever seems sufficient to the question: how could they do this to me?
Not being believed during therapy can be even more harmful because (1) the therapist is in a position of authority and the survivor is typically in a position of emotional vulnerability and (2) it replicates the harmful actions of abusers, bystanders, and others who have failed to protect the victim/survivor.
Denying the abuse occurred can be a common aspect of gaslighting that abusers use to silence victims. They can deny it so often and lie so well, often acting like nothing happened, that survivors begin to question and doubt their own experiences and memories (institutions can do this too - see also Dr. Lucy Thompson's work on institutional trauma). This manipulative denial can coincide with a survivor's own difficulty with accepting that something awful has happened to them, particularly if it involved someone close to them who they trusted. The resulting betrayal trauma can mean that no answer ever seems sufficient to the question: how could they do this to me?
Struggling to understand and accept past abuse can become even more difficult and complicated if the individual experienced trauma related amnesia or betrayal blindness** (i.e. "the dual state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing something important") - which can particularly be the case with childhood sexual abuse.
My experience of not being believed (particularly in spaces that should know better - e.g. therapeutic and feminist) has most often coincided with my disclosing of abuse by women.
Bystanders who witness abuse can do all kinds of mental gymnastics to rationalize and trivialize abuse, because that’s easier than acknowledging the harm that’s been done by someone they know, respect, admire, or even love. It’s even easier to deny it when abusers are notoriously charismatic (especially if they engage in lovebombing), groom those around the victim to make sure they have continued access to them, or act like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - where only their victims witness their abusive and violent side.
These latter aspects, of being able to manipulate the perception of the people around themselves and around a victim, can result in survivors being disbelieved by the very people and institutions meant to protect them. The fact that the constructed idea of an abuser is typically a (cisgender and heterosexual) man,*** often portrayed as being ‘mentally ill’, ‘disturbed’, or uncontrollably violent, makes it easier for abusers who don’t fit that (narrow and problematic) stereotype to access victims and continue to cause harm. It also makes it more difficult for men survivors to be believed and to find support.
If the idea of women being sexually violent makes you uncomfortable because it challenges your understanding of abuse, then I'd argue that your understanding of abuse is either inaccurate, incomplete, or both.
In some ways, then, my experience of not being believed is unsurprising (particularly in spaces that should know better - e.g. therapeutic**** and/or feminist) because it has most often coincided with my disclosing of abuse by women.
Abuse by women goes against the vast majority of research, writing, and understanding of abuse (especially sexual abuse) in these contexts. But it does happen - women do abuse and they do sexually abuse others. I know this is true because I've lived it, researched it, and I've listened to other survivors who have been abused by women too.
If you're not supporting all survivors, then you're oppressing and silencing some survivors - and that's not okay.
If the idea of women being sexually violent makes you uncomfortable because it challenges your understanding of abuse, then I'd argue that your understanding of abuse is either inaccurate, incomplete, or both. If you're not supporting all survivors, then you're oppressing and silencing some survivors - and that's not okay. It can result in harmful situations like survivors feeling excluded and unable to disclose, or survivors seeking understanding in a therapy room only to be told that their experience is unbelievable.
In a society that likes to ignore or deny the horrific and epidemic extent of sexual abuse, to a feminism***** that grounds its theories of violence in a rigid gender binary, there is little space for those of us with devastatingly violent and damaging experiences of sexual abuse perpetrated by women. Experiences that are not antithetical to feminism: "...a close look at sexual victimization perpetrated by women is consistent with feminist imperatives to undertake intersectional analyses, to take into account power relations, and to question gender-based stereotypes..." (Stemple, Flores, and Meyer, 2016).
...there is little space for those of us with devastatingly violent and damaging experiences of sexual abuse perpetrated by women.
This context, where a hard 'norm' has been constructed and repeated so frequently, makes it all the more difficult for those with experiences outside of it to be believed and to find support. This includes queer survivors of domestic abuse, men survivors, nonbinary survivors, and more.
So while my being disbelieved involved one person, its hurt was connected to many more experiences of silencing, exclusion, and erasure. I'm a person who exists outside of the gender binary and my experiences of rape do too.
To those who work with survivors of abuse: do better.
* I’ve had a few problematic therapists in my time, but I’m lucky to have had a few great ones too. Those positive experiences, where I was validated and believed, helped to counter gaslighting significantly.
** While a useful concept in trauma work, it draws on harmful ableist discourse.
*** In addition to harmful and problematic discourses that frame marginalised folks as predatory to justify violence and victimization, such as queer people and racialised folks.
***** A feminism because #notallfeminisms - those that promote this rigid gender binary perspective are much more likely to represent white feminism (as in feminism that engages with or fails to dismantle white supremacy) with a predominant focus on cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, and middle-class women.
Sexual Victimization Perpetrated by Women: Federal Data Reveal Surprising Prevalence by Stemple et al. (2016)
The Proportion of Sexual Offenders Who Are Female Is Higher Than Thought: A Meta-Analysis by Cortoni et al. (2016)
Understanding the Prevalence of Female-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse and the Impact of That on Victims by Jacqui Saradjian (2010)
The False Memory Syndrome at 30: How Flawed Science Turned into Conventional Wisdom by Joshua Kendall (2021)