Expectations of Victims?: Reactions to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

Near the end of March, a Nova Scotia woman had a very unfortunate experience with her boyfriend and then with the RCMP. While going through the process of reporting a domestic assault and documenting her injuries, this woman received a disturbing accidental voicemail message from the RCMP.

The officer that called seemed to think he had hung up the phone when in actual fact he left a three minute message. The message consisted of several officers discussing this woman’s case. They discussed the complainant’s emotional state and one of the officers asked if she deserved to get hit and laughed.

It is important to say that this is not typical RCMP behaviour. Canadians are helped by dedicated officers every day and Survivor’s Hope works alongside such officers through the SARAH program. The officers involved in the voicemail message are now subjects of a disciplinary inquiry and an official apology has been issued.

IS THIS A REFLECTION OF US?

This story raises a very important concern and it doesn’t have anything to do with the RCMP. For a moment, let’s just think of the voicemail comments coming from average Canadians, not RCMP officers. Do their comments reflect some of the attitudes of the general public? Do we expect victims of domestic violence or sexual violence to express a limited range of emotional responses? Don’t people deserve help regardless of how they emotionally process an experience?

I am most concerned about the first comments heard on the voicemail message which are about the emotional state of the woman. The officers say that when they talked to the woman about what happened, she said she was afraid her boyfriend would kill her, but according to the officers, she was “very nonchalant,” which they point out a few times. I worry that they were pointing out her nonchalance as if it diminished her report of violence and how threatened she felt.

A LITTLE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE THEORY

Every time we discuss domestic violence, we discuss the cycle of violence, or cycle of abuse. The vast majority of domestic violence happens in a patterned matter. This means that it takes place in a relationship that follows a predictable path of building tension, explosive episode, rationalization, and then pretending normal for a while before the tension builds again and the cycle repeats. This is the cyclical pattern of abusive behaviour and those who are subjected to this behaviour by their partners know this cycle very well.

cycle of violence

It may not be surprising then that a victim of domestic violence can report their experience and their fear in a matter-of-fact nonchalant way. The cycle and the abuse, the fear and the pain are very familiar facets of everyday life. Many people organize their lives around this cycle because their partner controls them with abusive behaviours.

Those who live in the cycle of abuse, both the abusive partner and the victimized partner, can become so accustomed to this pattern that this seems normal. Children who grow up seeing the cycle of abuse in their home may come to believe that these behaviours are normal. Even though violence can be normalized in people’s lives, it does not make it okay and it does not mean that the threat of serious harm or even death is not real.

LEARNING TO COPE

Normalizing the cycle of abuse and violent experiences can be a coping strategy for those trapped in the cycle. It is not that they want this to be normal, but they can become so accustomed to it, that they just try to make it work. No one can live constantly in hyperdrive, in that adrenaline pumping state of fight or flight that happens when we feel threatened. Thus, constant fear becomes normal and can be discussed in nonchalant ways, or even minimized and explained away.

There is no typical or standard reaction to domestic violence or to sexual assault or to any other traumatic experience. The range of responses can be from numb to frenzied, from distracted to fixated, from urgent to avoidant, from guilty and shameful to enraged and vengeful and anything in between. Normalizing fear as a coping strategy is definitely not what everyone does when they are brutalized by domestic violence.

The point is that someone who lives in the cycle of abuse may not have the emotional response that we think is “appropriate” or “normal.” No one – not average citizens, not RCMP officers, not medical staff, not crisis workers – should take that as permission to dismiss a victimized person’s request for help.

OUR REACTION MAKES A DIFFERENCE

When we compare self-reporting surveys to police statistics, we find out that more than 70% of domestic violence and sexual violence does not get reported to the authorities, and that’s a conservative estimate. It is not easy to talk to strangers about these experiences. But when someone is able to talk to another about what has happened, the response of that trusted other is very important and can set the tone for the victimized person’s healing process.

This very unfortunate voicemail message might function as a mirror for us. When we look into this mirror, do we see our own assumptions about domestic violence? Do we judge a victim’s credibility based on how we assess their emotional reaction? We know we should not judge a book by its cover, so let’s make sure we don’t judge people by their outward response.

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