Although sexual assault victims are not responsible for their assaults, they may be able to acquire knowledge and skills they can use to understand the concept of revictimization and to reduce the probability that they will be assaulted again. The phenomenon known as sexual revictimization is one of the most complex and multi-faceted questions facing victims of sexual violence and those in the sexual assault field. Complex because the literature illustrates much debate regarding what sexual assault revictimization is, its causes, the connections between previous abuse and later victimization and effective prevention strategies; multi-faceted because there are a multitude of angles from which to explore this issue.
So, why does revictimization happen? Before we go on to look at some of the reasons, a reminder: This is not an exercise in how to blame victims more, even if there are factors that make some victims vulnerable to further abuse, perpetrators alone are responsible for the abuse they commit.
WHY REVICTIMIZATION HAPPENS – SOME OF THE REASONS
Personalities forged in an environment of early abuse. Children who are abused by people they are close to learn to equate love with violence and sexual exploitation. They have not learned to create safe and appropriate boundaries with people, and they grow up unable to see themselves as having any right to choice. Their self-image is so damaged that they may see nothing wrong with even extremely abusive treatment of them by others. It is seen as unavoidable and the ultimate cost of love. Also, some women sexually abused as children may believe that their sexuality is all they have of any worth. Secondly, Researchers hypothesize that feelings of betrayal lead to a strong need to re-establish trust in others, but poor judgment about which individuals are trustworthy. Third, they believe that abuse leads to powerlessness, similar to the concept of learned helplessness in regard to battered women. This sense of powerlessness inhibits victims from asserting themselves in rebuffing unwanted sexual advances. Fourth, in a process that is termed “stigmatization,” victims of sexual abuse develop a negative self-image that may lead to substance abuse, risky sexual behaviour, or even criminal activity.
Compulsion to repeat trauma. Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma. These behavioural re-enactments are rarely consciously understood to be related to earlier life experiences. Survivors of earlier rape and abuse may put themselves at risk of further harm, not because they want to be abused or hurt, but because they may be seeking a different, better outcome, or to have more control. It may also be because they believe they deserve the pain inflicted on them. Often, re-enactment has a compulsive and involuntary feel. Survivors may feel completely numb, and unaware of how re-enactment is taking place. Conversely, it may call forth the same terror and shame as experienced in childhood.
The effect of trauma. It is true that some people may have a series of violent partners, or encounters with rapists. While some survivors may be overly cautious about everybody, other traumatized people actually have a harder time forming accurate assessments of danger. This theory is different from the perpetrators who falsely seek to engage the trust of a trauma survivor in order to abuse them. Psychological and social vulnerability among victims of child sexual abuse (e.g., decreased awareness of danger, lack of assertiveness) are picked up on by potential offenders. Once in a vulnerable situation with a potential offender, victims of sexual abuse may not have the awareness of danger, confidence, or assertiveness to end the encounter safely.
Traumatic Bonding. there’s also a theory about the tendency of abused children to cling tenaciously to the very perpetrators who hurt them. Perpetrators of sexual abuse may capitalize on this tendency by giving their victim the only sense of specialness, of being loved, that they have ever had. People subjected to trauma and neglect are vulnerable to developing the tendency to traumatically bond with those who harm them. For example in domestic violence, traumatic bonding is often behind the excuses of battered women for the violence of their partners, and for the repeated returning to a batterer.
Once potential victims and offenders have crossed paths, the psychological processes triggered by past victimizations may make victims of sexual assault more vulnerable than others. Victims who suffer low self-esteem and feel powerless to control their lives may fail to take normal safety precautions or to resist trespasses by others. They may find it difficult to say no or may accept victimization as part of a relationship. According to research, low levels of assertiveness in sexual situations predicted revictimization; women who were revictimized were more likely to describe themselves as non-assertive and overly nurturing.
Adapted from Vera Institute of Justice: Reducing Sexual Revictimization, A Field Test With An Urban Sample.