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The bizarre practice of victim blaming within the family.

Let us imagine for a minute that you have just received a phone call from a family member. They sound distressed, confused, hysterical even and its difficult to understand them but you manage to make out the words "I've was sexually assaulted." You are the first person they have told. Close your eyes, take a few moments and really imagine yourself having this conversation with your loved one. Now, ask yourself these questions:

What are my immediate thoughts and feelings?

What sensations are happening in my body right now?

Now, let's imagine the same scenario ~ your loved one has called you but this time, they tell you the perpetrator is also a member of your own family. Take another moment to close your eyes and really imagine yourself hearing this. Now, reflect on the same questions above.

What did you notice? Did you have the same response in both scenarios or were they different?

When I run through this exercise with clients most tell me in the first scenario they immediatly feel horror, outrage, shock, anger, and a deep desire to help and protect the victim. When I ask about the second scenario, clients reveal a sense of disbelief, anger, shock, confusion and in some cases, a deep desire to help and protect the alleged perpetrator.

What does this tell us?

Anything that threatens status quo is very hard to face.

The family unit is an intricate complex emotional system that is influenced by internal forces (transgenerational context) and social constructs (gender roles and power dynamics). The notion that individual survival depends upon the collective or familial survival adds another dimesion this. So, in a dysfunctional and maladapted family system, any actual or perceived threat to the family system is essentially expereinced as a threat to the individual and is quickly rejected or attacked. Here are some common ways a family maintains status quo:

Defence mechanisms

Repression, supression, dissociation, minimisation, denial and delusion are some of the ways we essentially defend against our own emotions. In order for a person to have the capacity to remain present to process incest, one must have healthy intact internal and external boundary systems, be able to self soothe, regulate their emotions, have a high EQ and maturity. Examples of denial include:

"It cant be!"

"He is such a lovely person / husband / son / father, it's impossible he could be capable of that"

"I know my father / son / brother and there is no way this could be true!"

Discrediting the victim

One of the most common forms of vicitm blaming I come across is the discrediting of victims. This is where the family focus on the victim's personal relationships, anger issues, truancy, depression or anxiety problems and/or addiction to food, gambling, alcohol or drugs. It's easy not to believe someone if you can show they are not credible. Examples include:

"She's only said this stuff since she started seeing that counsellor and was put on medication"

"I wouldn't take what she is saying seriously, she's crazy"

"Remember when she said that other guy abused her too? She thinks everyone is an abuser"

"I'm sure in her head that's what happened but we all know she is a bit prone to exaggerating!"

"She is such a drama queen and so sensitive, he probably said it in jest and she's taking it the wrong way"

"She's a compulsive liar / alcoholic / drug addict / mentally unstable"

Taking sides

It can be hard for family members to believe or feel empathy for a vicitm if the identified perpetrator is someone they love and trust. It is even harder if the perpetrator is someone they are financially, emotionally or socially dependant on or vice versa. Usually the family will choose a side based on a range of different factors such as:

~Power relations and dynamics

~Family alliances and sub-grouping

~Whether individuals have processed their own past abuse

~The individuals EQ and own levels of insight

~How invested the individual is in maintaining status quo

Shifting blame, minimising, justifying and explaining

This is one of the ugliest sides to victim blaming that re-traumatises the victim by giving her the implicit and sometimes very explicit message - this is your fault. For example:

"Did you see she was dressed very sexy that night and she was all over him"

"She's pretty promiscuous, she probably just feels embarrassed she slept with him so she's saying it was rape"

"What an awful thing to do to him, she's going to give him a heart attack and ruin his reputation"

"She should be ashamed of herself, tearing the family apart like this"

Whilst it is a bizzare and strange phenomena that the person who speaks out against sexual abuse and assault can be rejected by their own family, it certainly isn't an uncommon experience. Survivors of incest who disclose indeed are faced with two horrific realities:

The trauma of being assaulted by your own flesh and blood, and

The trauma of your own family not supporting, believing or helping you.

In most cases, the healthiest option for the victim is to create a new family of people who behave and respond appropriately, who can provide support, help, love and understanding and can hold the abuser accountable for their actions, no matter who they are.

If you are a victim of child abuse or incest, you can contact Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA) for support and information at asca.org.au