Content notes: rape, violence, systematic injustice
I used to call flashbacks time travelling. Partly to make light of the situation – is everything really that bad when you can compare it to a Doctor Who episode? (don’t answer that) – and partly to reinforce for myself that the whirlwind of emotions was a facet of my past. One of post-traumatic stress disorder’s (PTSD’s) best-known symptoms are these flashbacks, but there’s a whole host of other symptoms that make up the trauma-based anxiety disorder. You can have these symptoms with no formal diagnosis, and they can still have a distressing effect on your life despite whatever barrier to diagnosis you may have. These may include:
- body dysmorphia
- repetitive and distressing images or sensations
- low self esteem
- physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling
- chronic pain
Now, imagine having these symptoms and somebody tells you’re making them up. Perhaps they do it subtly, by gently asking about your mental state. Could you be imagining it? Or more aggressively—do you want attention? But ultimately the message is the same: we do not believe you, and if we do, it is your fault.
It seems obvious, but this is the worst thing you can say to a trauma survivor. Yet, this is what many women with PTSD from sexual violence experience daily.
So much is this the reverse attitude to healing that much trauma therapy is, contrary to popular opinion, not focused on expecting you to reshare your trauma story, as this can reinforce the defensive, survival state that trauma, and subsequent triggers, forces you into. However, the reality is that it is extremely hard to escape this constant reliving. Women are consistently told that we will not be believed, in all aspects of life, but especially in violence caused by men.
So, is it any surprise that less than one third of sexual violence allegations are reported?
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard and killing of Sabina Nessa, as well as the laser focus discussion on social media, many women, both with and without PTSD, will feel triggering feelings of fear and anxiety. However, for women with PTSD, especially with other marginalised identities, this is amplified tenfold. These women are already far more at risk of lacking trust in the justice system to begin with and is it any wonder? Despite the fact that only 0.62% of rape allegations are estimated to be false, the majority of perpetrators do not go to prison. This lack of justice, as well as the clinical and painful process of reporting, can be retraumatising.
Retraumatisation is defined as a person re-experiencing a previously traumatic event, either consciously or unconsciously. It can be caused by stressors that mimic the original trauma, in anything from speech to smell. As trauma makes physiological changes to the way your brain works, forcing women to comment on these issues, or to report, when they are not ready, is inherently unsafe. For those survivors that will not come forward, the inherent suspicion and interrogation around these events plays a huge factor.
Seeing news stories such as those about Everard and Nessa can spark a trauma response, even if you do not have a formal PTSD diagnosis. They remind you that the world is not always safe. Especially when they involve police officers, as in Everard’s case, they are calling into question the legal system that is meant to protect us. How can you believe in a system that does not believe you until it is too late? How can you believe in a system that allows these crimes to happen constantly and repeatedly? These are questions that seeing these news articles can bring up in anyone, but especially those who have PTSD from a similar event.
Trauma is also not a one-time event. Your brain can be more disposed to experiencing these fight-or-flight symptoms by exposure to prolonged stress, a lack of a support system, and other systemic injustices. What this means is that whilst you may have one traumatic event that gives you these symptoms, there is nothing to say that you cannot have multiple traumatic events. Seeing the justice system continue to fail in this way is one way we are triggering survivors into re-living feelings of shame.
Everard’s case causes women a deep grief because we have heard it before. Almost every woman you know will have stories of times they have felt unsafe, threatened, and scared at the hands of men, especially men in power. There were opportunities to stop the perpetrator, who was nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues, in multiple instances—one just days before the attack on Everard. The message is clear: we care more about a man’s reputation than your life. Should we, then, just be encouraging women to speak out when the process of reporting often leads to retraumatisation? Why is the focus on women to solve the problem when justice is consistently denied?
This especially hurts those who are reporting historic sexual violence. Preconceived notions about how a survivor should “act” and how much they should remember means that not only is justice harder to reach, but also that the reporting ordeal can be even more painful because the evidence often comes from the trauma story only. More work must be done to educate those in the justice system on trauma narratives and the psychology of both retraumatisation and PTSD, to better understand the way a survivor should be helped with their reporting process and, most importantly, how not to cause further harm.
Instead of shaming people who do not speak out in the wake of such events, we should take a step back and realise not everyone can engage with certain news because it hits so close to home. We must focus on fixing the systemic issues that cause this violence, serving the proper justice for these crimes, and most importantly, making it safer for women to speak up. As it stands, the justice system, as well as society at large, is often a retraumatising experience for a survivor, and this does not allow for adequate justice. Encouraging reporting is a stopgap for a wider problem. Just reporting cannot be our end goal – justice should be. We must do better to achieve it.