In the movie Good Will Hunting, there is a poignant scene in which Will (Matt Damon) talks with his therapist Sean (Robin Williams) while Sean cradles Will’s counseling file. The folder is jammed with gruesome pictures of injuries Will experienced at the hands of his alcoholic dad.
Sean quietly declares that the pictures exposing Will’s brutally beaten body were not his fault but Will quickly dismisses Sean’s statement and remarks that he knows that already. Yet Sean sees through Will’s veneer of disregard and continues to proclaim Will’s innocence.
Will suddenly erupts in anger as he backs away from Sean, but eventually Sean’s words seem to penetrate his soul and he begins to weep as Sean embraces him. Yet, even though Sean repeatedly tells Will that the abuse was not his fault, Will cries out three seemingly perplexing words: “I’m so sorry” (Schultz & Estabrook, 2012).
What incited Will’s words? Why was he sorry?
In a different culture, in a different time, penned on the pages of Scripture, Tamar, the daughter of King David, who was on the precipice of being raped by her half-brother Amnon, cried, “Where could I get rid of my disgrace?” (2 Sam.13:13).
Discussions about this deeply felt sense of disgrace or shame that survivors frequently experience regarding the violence done to them are resurfacing through the #MeToo movement and the sundry of sexual violence stories perpetrated by both male and female clergy who victimize girls, boys, women, and men within sacred places.
However, the question remains: Why are people who are sexually violated and victimized sorry about what was done to them?
The reasons for the self-condemning experience of shame among victims of sexual violence are myriad (Feiring & Taska, 2005). Shame is a common, complex, and deeply self-conscious emotion engendering a sense of feeling dirty, damaged, and defective which prompt individuals to want to flee from the gaze of others.
While no two survivors of sexual violence react in the same way, many female victims of sexual violence believe there was something too feminine or too sexy that caused the abuse, whereas male victims frequently believe that there was something not masculine enough to stave off the violation.
This is only multiplied when the narrative on Twitter, the school gossip line, or the national news is about what she was wearing or how she was being flirtatious. Statements and questions that center on what a victim of sexual violence did or did not do imply that their actions made them responsible, at least in part, for being violated or failing to prevent the violence.
It does not help when he is criticized for being affectionate with his male friends or embodying more traditionally “feminine” qualities. In both scenarios, individuals are blaming themselves and/or being blamed for causing something when they were the victim of a crime.
So, if it is not crystal clear, let us be emphatic: The sole individual responsible for sexual violence is the perpetrator.
Shame is so prevalent among trauma survivors that recent revisions to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(American Psychiatric Association, 2013) included the addition of negative alterations in cognitions and moods as a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (e.g. exaggerated blame of self) (Donde, 2017).
This pervasive shame experience among sexual violence survivors is understood more fullythrough the abuse dichotomy whereby individuals come to accept sexual offenses as deserved (Briere, 1992).
When a vulnerable individual is violated by someone in a position of power and trust who holds spiritual authority, this individual is saddled with a dilemma: My youth pastor, Sunday School teacher, or camp counselor was sexual with me because she or he was bad orbecause I am bad.
This tension is especially pronounced if the attention was enjoyed. And most assuredly the badness is confirmed if the victim’s body responded (a common physiological response). As Lisa Fontes explains, “Most children seek affection. If they receive sexual abuse instead, they may come to believe it was their desire for closeness that brought about the sexual acts” (Fontes, 2005, p. 139).
Not only does shame for sexual violence bubble up from the inside, self-condemnation for the abuse is also pervasive because perpetrators of sexual violence are skilled at what they do.
They are adept at turning the tables of responsibility in the direction of the survivor or creating an atmosphere of apparent consent and complicity, with words like “our relationship” or “we” when referring to the abusive relationship.
Dr. Anna Salter, an expert on sexual predation explains, “Survivors often internalize the sex offender’s version of the abuse, partly because he is the only person who knows about it at the time, and therefore is in a unique position to define her reality” (Salter, 1995, p. 185).
A criticism of sexual abuse survivors who share their story of violation many years later is, “Why did it take so long to tell?”Insinuated in the question is that the length of secret-keeping indicates that the trauma storyline is contrived.
The short answer, however, for why it takes many individuals a long time to tell is the shame. Perpetrators blame victims. And too often social media and news outlets blame victims. And sadly, many, many survivors blame themselves for what happened tothem.
It is no small miracle when a survivor garners the courage to disclose the abuse. This truth-telling is an indication they are starting to believe what Sean so desperately wanted his client Will to know: It’s not your fault.
Wouldn’t it be a shame not to listen?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Bender, L., Weinstein, B., Weinstein, H., Gordon, J., (Producer), Armstrong, S., Smith, K., & Mosier, S. (Producers), & Van Sant, G., Escoffier, J., Elfman, D., Scalia, P., Miramax
Films, Miramax Home Entertainment (Firm), & Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Firm (Directors). (1997). Good Will Hunting [Video file]. Miramax Home Entertainment.
Briere, J. N. (1992). Child abuse trauma: Theory and treatment of the lasting effects. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Donde, S. D. (2017). College women’s attributions of blame for experiences of sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32(22), 3520-3538.
Feiring, C., & Taska, L. S. (2005). The persistence of shame following sexual abuse: A longitudinal look at risk and recovery. Child Maltreatment,10(4), 337-349.
Fontes, L. A. (2005). Child abuse and culture: Working with diverse families. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Salter, A. C. (1995). Transforming trauma: A guide to understanding and treating adult survivors of child sexual abuse.Thousand Oaks, NY: Sage Publications.
Schultz, T., & Estabrook, H. (2012). Beyond desolate: Hope versus hate in the rubble of sexual abuse. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books.
Tammy Schultz, Ph.D., professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Wheaton College, has passionately taught about transformation from sexual violence in the US, Canada, Central Asia, Nicaragua, South Korea, and the Ukraine. She co-authored Beyond Desolate: Hope versus hate in the rubble of sexual abuse.
Hannah Estabrook, M.A., LPCC-S, has been working as a clinician in the mental health field for over a decade and is currently employed by the Franklin County Municipal Court as Coordinator of CATCH Court, a pioneering Specialized Docket that serves victims of prostitution and human trafficking. She also serves as a Pastor of Franklinton Abbey in Columbus, Ohio. She co-authored Beyond Desolate: Hope versus hate in the rubble of sexual abuse.