My coping strategies worked against me

I was reading an article recently about two women who were sexually abused as children by the same man. He was the brother of one woman and the uncle of the second.

What I found really sad about the experience of these two women was how the law failed to support them and how little understanding there is in the community about how trauma presents.

One of the biggest hurdles is finding the courage to tell someone. Few cases of sexual abuse are reported at the time. In fact it can take decades for an abuse victim to tell anyone. There is little understanding of how shaming and disempowering the abuse is. There is little understanding of what a victim has to go through to be able to speak out. Often, having taken the courageous step to speak out, their stories are dismissed or brushed aside.

If the abuse was within the family, the victim may find themselves estranged from their family when the family choose to support the perpetrator instead of them.

For a child seeking justice for sexual abuse or an adult seeking justice for rape the legal system is incredibly traumatising. Court cases are often delayed, victims have to repeat the details of their experience several times to the police, courts, in cross examination. They can be required to give specific details and their behaviour, appearance and past experiences may even be examined by the defence team.

It is a difficult situation. There is a need to protect the small minority of innocent people accused of sexual crimes they haven’t committed. But what about the genuine victims of actual crimes? Research by a criminologist comparing historical sexual abuse trials to current ones. It found that victims, in particular female victims, were more likely to be asked about their behaviour, what they were wearing, history, appearance, family background. Boys tend to be asked for the facts and are never asked about their clothing.

Another worrying finding was that cross examination of victims is much longer than in the past. Even child victims are questioned three times longer than in the past.

Even just reporting the abuse is hard. The older woman in this article told how she put on a brave face so she appeared okay but physically she felt her heart was going to burst out of her chest.

It took two years for the charges to be laid and the brother to be charged. Then there was the court process. Talking to the police was a cause for great anxiety. But there long periods of time when nothing was happening was also a time of great anxiety. She found she could never relax.

When the committal hearing started it was even harder. The prosecutor was new and did not know her. Whereas the police she was in regular contact with realised she appeared stoic and calm with small signs like redness in her neck to indicate her extreme distress, this new prosecutor had no idea.

This coping strategy of appearing outwardly calm was something this woman had used since she was first abused as a child.

In addition there were aspects of the assault that she found so confronting that she was unable to relate them to the court. Her mind shut down and she dissociated. She felt she wasn’t really there. When she was asked questions she knew the answer to, she couldn’t answer due to her distress. Instead she said she could not remember. She was so angry with herself over her inability to speak in court. Good counselling and a good understanding of how normal her reactions were would have made a big difference to how she felt about herself after the hearing.

Her case never made it to court. The Office of Public Prosecutions decided she was not a strong witness so they dropped the case. Good counselling and support would have helped her to give her story.

Her niece was able to give evidence when her case went to court, although she found it confronting having to describe in detail to a room of people – some strangers- things she had never told anyone. She described it as feeling she was being undressed. She was well supported by family and ultimately found it empowering to be able to give her evidence.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse learn many strategies to cope with the trauma of the abuse. The older woman in this story learned to “put on a brave face”. She learned to keep an outwardly calm demeanour while inside her body was in flight mode. She also learned to dissociate, something she probably did during the abuse.

She is not alone in those coping strategies. They are really common ways to survive with an overwhelming trauma. It is also not uncommon for adult rape victims to have similar coping strategies.

People do not understand these coping strategies. To the person using them, there is full awareness of their level of distress. But to someone watching they appear calm. It is not surprising that uninformed people watch this calm exterior and decide the person is completely unaffected.

If you are in that situation, be kind to yourself. The trauma you have been through is terrible and you are doing the best you can. It helps for people having to face court cases over sexual abuse to understand their coping strategies and identify ways to work with those strategies. If you can use a remote witness box do that. It is less confronting giving evidence that way.

You may decide to not take your sexual abuse to court. Whether you go to court or not, counselling is essential to help you heal.

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with past trauma, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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