Part six of ‘Ten years after rape’
Studies have repeatedly found that people who have experienced child abuse, child neglect, domestic abuse and rape have an increased risk of further abuse and rape. Approximately two thirds of people who experienced sexual victimisation experience sexual revictimisation. Revictimisation isn’t unusual, but it is often misunderstood. Victims are blamed for their repeated traumas or disbelieved because “nobody is that unlucky”. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the reasons for why this happens because I have personally experienced and witnessed revictimisation.
My family lived in terror for twelve years. My stepdad was physically abusive to my mum and siblings and we were all emotionally abused. Throughout my childhood, teens and early twenties there were numerous minor sexual assaults from people outside of the family. At 16 I was raped. At 18 I was in an abusive relationship which culminated in an attempted rape after the relationship ended. At 21 I was raped for the second time. When I used to think about all the things that had happened to me, I thought I was either the most unlucky person on the planet or it was my fault.
This pattern of revictimisation is far from unique to me, but without understanding why it happens we are going to struggle to break the devastating cycle.
What might explain revictimisation?
Pre-existing risk factors still remain
People with severe mental illness are at increased risk of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Severe mental illness is notoriously difficult to recover from but being a victim of sexual assault or domestic abuse is likely to make it even harder, and potentially cause other mental health issues such as PTSD.
Alcohol and substance misuse is another factor. Alcohol-facilitated rape is extremely common so people struggling with alcohol misuse may be more likely to be targeted because of their vulnerability. Being a victim of sexual victimisation is associated with problem drinking which, in turn, increases the risk of revictimisation.
Sex workers are at high risk of sexual victimisation so if a person does not leave the industry, the increased risk remains.
Abusers targeting vulnerable people
There is very little research into the reasons sex offenders target people, for obvious reasons, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to presume they choose victims who they believe are less likely to report or to be believed. Substance misusers, sex workers and people with mental illnesses are victimised at a higher rate than the general population and I believe this may well be at least part of the reason. People who have experienced childhood and adult victimisation are more likely to have mental health issues and struggle with alcohol and drugs abuse so this may partially explain revictimisation.
In my own experience, all of my teenage and adult experiences of rape and sexual assault occurred when I was most mentally unwell. Both times I was raped my mental illness had also led to me being physically frail. I don’t doubt that played a part and health professionals and friends have expressed the same sentiment.
Believing the experiences are normal
If you’ve grown up watching one parent/step-parent coerce, control and assault the other, it might make it hard to know what is normal behaviour in relationships. If your only experiences as a sexual being have been non-consensual, you might not even recognise it is wrong.
This theory rings true for me. When I left home at 18, I almost immediately walked into an abusive relationship. I didn’t recognise the ways he controlled, coerced and emotionally abused me. I accepted his heavy-handedness as normal, even when friends had to step in. The first day he did something that actually left an injury, I was in shock, but there had been a misunderstanding. I was in the wrong…
Throughout the relationship I had no say in so many things. He decided where we went, what I wore, what and how many drugs I would take, when and what type of sex we had. I sometimes said no to sex but there was never any point. He would just get angry at me, call me names and threaten me. Even now, I don’t really know what to call those times. I would say no repeatedly but when he actually started having sex with me I would just zone out and let him do whatever he wanted.
Looking back now it is so clear it was abuse, but at 18 I had no idea what a healthy relationship looked like.
The compulsion to repeat
The compulsion to repeat is a Freudian idea. It is an attempt to go back to an earlier point in time and change the ending, like restoring the system to an earlier point. The compulsion is rarely conscious and, in the case of repeating abuse, it can be extremely dangerous.
There is no doubt living in an abusive relationship or be repeatedly sexually victimised is hell, but sometimes a comfortable hell is preferable to the unknown. For someone who has been cut off from friends and family, lacks financial resources and is emotionally beaten down, the thought of leaving an abusive relationship might be more terrifying than staying. Leaving is also the time when domestic abuse victims are most likely to be killed, so sometimes staying really is the best option, at least in the short term. For someone who finds they are repeatedly sexually assaulted, the prospect of working on the issues that make them vulnerable might scare them more than potential future assaults.
More research needs to be done and we need better interventions for those most vulnerable to revictimisation. Until that time, we can all help our friends and family by listening, reminding them there is a way out, and never blaming them for what other people have done to them.
Part seven: My body, rape and recovery