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  • Writer's pictureJane

Victims are likely to be re-victimized: let's break this cycle #eliminationofviolenceagainstwomen

Be a dandelion, beat the odds. Photo by Waschbetonstufen Löwenzahn, Wikimedia Commons

The first time I was sexually assaulted was just before my 14th birthday. Since then, I've felt like a magnet for abusive men. I've often asked myself, "Do I have a blinking neon 'victim for the taking' sign on my head?? What is it with me? Why do I keep ending up with abusive jerks?" My latest blog post series has been about answering this question to break the cycle. Of course, the culprit in abuse is the abuser, period. But there are things I can do that will help me understand what's going on, identify and act on red flags, and avoid future relationships with abusive people.

The dance between biology and psychology is fascinating, and a trauma response is a perfect example of our body screwing with our mind ... or maybe it's the other way around. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science (UAMS) found that female adolescents were 4.5 times more likely to be re-victimized within 1-2 years after their first victimization [1]. Research conducted on adult female victims had similar results. Brain scans and trust games included in the study showed decreased social functioning. Mainly, people who had been victimized had difficulty registering abusive behaviour in others (seeing red flags), responding to adverse changes in social behaviour in others (they more easily forgave red flags), and victims struggled with social decision-making ('is it a red flag or is it just me?') [1]. This, all together, makes victims more likely to be re-victimized than people who were never victimized in the first place.

Photo by Thelma Brown (Kenilworth Ivy)

A peek at what's going on ...

There are many theories, and the ones that appealed most to me were those discussed on the YouTube channel Sexplanations [2].

  1. Re-enactment. In this scenario, a victim re-enacts their victimization with a similarly abusive person in hopes of changing the result. One study (by Horowitz et al.) found this behaviour in 57% of victims. An explanation could be that the victim is subconsciously blaming herself, trying to regain control and change the ending. Or, perhaps she's just trying to figure out what went wrong without considering that the answer is "the perpetrator" and nothing further.

  2. Undeveloped detection of danger. Abuse during childhood can affect brain development, which can make it harder for victims to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and identify danger. In this response, victims tend to disassociate when confronted with further abuse rather than seeking help, which makes them more susceptible to re-victimization.

  3. Revictimization is like a high. My initial reaction to this theory was: "WTF???? Victim blaming!!!!" But I reviewed it and now see what they're getting at. An abuser, especially in a domestic situation, will use several tactics to keep their victim under control. Their main tactic includes following violent episodes with love-bombing-type behaviour. Each time they are violent, they follow it with apologies, beg for forgiveness, and shower their victim with gifts. Over time, the violence increases, and the love-bombing decreases in intensity. This cycle causes a reaction similar to drug addiction - with intense highs being followed by extreme lows that are subsequently relieved by seeking that intense high once again - until the lows can no longer be relieved by the highs and rock bottom is hit. The abuser has turned their victim into their addict - how convenient.

  4. Neophobia. People who were abused during childhood tend to stick to what is familiar. We are all born curious about new things, experiences, people, opinions, and ways of doing things - that is how we learn and grow from Day 1. We are also creatures of habit, because habit can keep us safe. When a parent abuses us, our fear of new things becomes greater than our fear of the familiar. We tend to choose relationships that correspond to that familiar, even if it means entering into another abusive relationship.

  5. Counterphobia. This is a fear response. Rather than running from danger, a victim will turn toward danger. They will seek out a relationship type they have experience with and feel they have some control over. Although the victim in this scenario may be revictimized, they don't feel powerless because they are aware of what's going on and feel they have some control (although I'd question how much control they actually have as abuse is abuse).

  6. Flag and boost. Many abusive people are attracted to partners that show traits that make them vulnerable to abuse. These are go-flags for abusers - like the flashing neon sign on my forehead that I can't seem to shake. Our signs flash things like: "I'll let you get close," "I want to try to control my abuse experience through you," "You're familiar to me," and "You are everything. This must be love." But there are also more subtle signs, like letting red flags go and avoiding conflict rather than discussing things that feel wrong. In long-term dependent relationships (between a child and parent, for example), victims have trouble reconciling the fact that someone who is supposed to protect them is abusing them. In this situation, victims will self-blame, which makes it easier for the abuser to continue, and often escalate, the abuse. All these signals work as convenient excuses for perpetrators to start and continue abuse.

Image from @tinybuddhaofficial on Instagram

On becoming a dandelion and beating the odds ...

Suggestions on how to beat the odds after suffering through abuse and assault are vast. Having dealt with abuse throughout most of my life, I've tried pretty much everything. I studied social anthropology, world religions, and education to determine why people (including myself) behave like we do. I travelled the world to rediscover myself and learn new ways of being. I entered therapy a million times, trying to figure out why I was the way I was, what the hell was going on in my marriage, and how I might change things. And I'm a little sad to say that although I've grown tremendously, it took me 20 years to finally say no to an abusive relationship and leave my abuser. WTF?!!

So ... here's what the experts say.

What we can do for ourselves:

  1. Awareness is the first step in eliminating the cycle of re-victimization [1, 3, 7]. In this step, we must identify behaviours that we can change that will help us say no to abuse. This involves recognizing abusive behaviour in others, becoming mindful of how we respond to abuse (and red flags), and learning how to set healthy boundaries. Self-help groups and one-on-one therapy are excellent starting points.

  2. Be gentle with ourselves. When we suffer through abuse or sexual assault, we develop coping mechanisms that can be unhealthy in the long term but keep us safe in the moment [7]. Some examples include being overtly happy (pretending everything is fine), disassociating (locking the abuse/assault in a box, trying not to think about it), becoming overtly sexual (an attempt to control an abusive situation), self-medicating with substances, or responding as described in the theories above. All these responses are common and natural in victims of abuse and sexual assault. You are not strange; you are responding in an expected way to abuse. These responses can continue after we've left the abusive situation [1, 2, 5, 7]. Recognizing how we react to trauma, with an understanding that our reactions are natural (there's nothing wrong with us, just our brain trying to keep us safe!), is enormously important in our healing journey towards self-love and healthy relationships.

  3. Reprogramming. After we've become aware of the coping mechanisms we developed during a traumatic period, we need to re-program incongruent beliefs and behaviours [7]. This is the step I'm struggling with most, as habitual thought patterns are damn hard to break! An incongruent belief is a belief we create about ourselves during a traumatic period - such as believing that we are unloveable, unworthy, unstable, or at fault for the abuse. An incongruent behaviour corresponds to an incongruent belief. For example, if we believe we are at fault for the abuse, we might forgive our abuser's behaviour rather than take steps to protect ourselves [1, 2, 3, 7]. These negative beliefs are not true, but we may believe them on a subconscious level, which can affect the way we respond to trauma in our lives.

  4. Take care of yourself and practice the H.A.L.T. method. We must keep ourselves physically and mentally healthy to stay on track during our healing journey. The YouTuber, Sexplanations, points out how easy it is to fall back into old habits and unhealthy relationships when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. So, before you act, HALT, take care of your unmet needs, then proceed [2].

Photo by Darlene Whiting (Moss Campion)

What we can do as a society:

CDC's diagram [5] on stopping sexual violence says it all: promote social norms that protect against violence, teach prevention skills, provide opportunities to empower and support girls and women, create safe environments, and provide support for victims and survivors. These tactics can be applied at all societal levels, from parenting to school to community.

🎗️ Healing is an ongoing journey. We never recover completely, but we can develop healthy coping strategies that help keep us safe in the future. Today is the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. A good start along this long path toward eliminating violence is to help break the cycles involved. Whether you are a victim, survivor, or any other member of society, you can help eliminate violence through awareness and action.

💞 Thank you for taking the time to read up on why telling our stories matters. October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and we will soon embark on the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. My contribution to awareness has been a series of blog posts that will continue until the International Day for The Elimination of Violence Against Women (Nov. 25th). Please take the time to read through my previous posts on my blog or click on the following links (in order from oldest to newest):

 If you think that you or someone you know is being abused, call (in Canada):

BC: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

AB: Family Violence Information Line: 1-780-310-1818

SK: Mobile Crisis 24/7 Helpline: 306-757-0127

MB: Domestic Abuse Crisis Line: 1-877-977-0007

ON: Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888

QC: SOS violence conjugale 24/7: 1-800-363-9010 (bilingual service available)

NB: Chimo Helpline: 1-800-667-5005

PEI: Island Help Line: 1-800-218-2885

NS: Neighbours, Friends and Families (Abuse and Violence Support Line): 1-855-225-0220 NL: NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre 24/7 Support and Information Line: 1-800-726-2743

Nunavut: Kamatsiaqut Nunavut Helpline: 1-800-265-3333

NWT: NWT Help Line: 1-800-661-0844

YK: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

Reading/reference List

[1] "Social Decision-making and Revictimization Among Interpersonal Violence Victims," UAMS Arbest.

2] "Revictimization," Sexplanations (Youtube)

[3] "The Repetition Compulsion: Why Rape Victims Are More Likely To Be Assaulted Again"

by Farahnaz Mohammed, Girls' Globe.

[4] Gender-Based Violence in Canada

[5] Fast Facts: Preventing Sexual Violence, CDC

[6] "Trauma is Irreversible. How it shapes us is our choice." Sasha Joseph Neulinger, Tedx

[7] "Healthy Sexuality After Sexual Trauma," Mended Light, YouTube.

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