Empathising with victims of sexual assault

Proper public remembrance alone restores dignity and self-respect to the victim
Last week saw several women come out publicly to speak about their suffering at the hands of sexual predators in our society. But do we, those of us who saw or heard them, really understand what they experienced, the full psychological impact of sexual assault? Do we grasp the therapeutic value and empowering nature of this very public act of remembrance of past injustice?
Always reliving the trauma
For a start, these victims must have long endured unbearable stress and anxiety common among all victims of force and violence. They must have found it hard to focus on anything, suffered panic attacks, dreaded being alone, perhaps even consumed by thoughts of death or suicide. They must have relived that horrific moment several times, been startled when touched unexpectedly, jumped at unfamiliar sounds, felt the obsessive need to make themselves secure in their own home. In short, their bodies had been traumatised.
As they tried to make sense of their suffering, they probably ended up blaming themselves for what had happened. To overcome guilt, they may have plunged into denial. And the longer the period of denial and repression, the deeper and more severe the trauma. Suppression of painful memory results in benumbing and disconnection from the world, a withdrawal from real human contact. Thus, they must have had feelings of profound social estrangement. Compounding all of this is a sense of complete helplessness generated by the failure to do anything to avenge the wrongdoing. This must induce a strong sense of shame. So, the victims that we recently saw, heard or read must have endured deep insecurity, estrangement, shame, guilt and virtually a complete loss of agency. But suffering does not stop at this. When persons are wronged, they not only suffer physically or psychologically but are morally scarred, the most injurious of which is the damage to their sense of self-respect. No one likes to be told that they are inferior creatures or count for nothing. But this precisely is what the wrongdoer conveys. When persons are abused, they receive a message of their irrelevance. Intentional wrongdoing attempts to degrade us. Since self-esteem hinges upon critical opinion of the other, the message sent by the wrongdoer significantly lowers the self-esteem of the wronged. In such circumstances, the insult and degradation inflicted on assaulted women must surely have caused deeper moral injury. Breaking the dreadful miasma of silence that implicates everyone — victim, perpetrator and witness — is not easy. Perpetrators want silence because they want to shroud their guilt over their act or, even worse, extract an even greater sense of their own power and self-esteem by keeping the mouths of their victims shut. Victims are silent out of shame and fear; without conditions that bolster confidence and reduce apprehension and, in extreme cases, treat traumatic emotional disorders, they are usually reticent about entering the public domain. It is well known that only a minuscule proportion of rape victims acknowledge it, leave alone file cases. Finally, witnesses don’t speak out because of indifference, callousness, selfishness or a misjudgement of what social norms require. But there is no good alternative to public recall of such crimes. It brings them out into the open, challenges their denial or concealment by perpetrators, and contests versions that, by sanitising events, distort their true character. The purpose behind it is to get perpetrators or complicitous beneficiaries to admit to the knowledge of the crime and to own up responsibility for it. This is important because behind the mediatised drama of public acknowledgment lie painful stories of mutilated lives, broken families and personal betrayals. Public acknowledgement is the crucial first step towards proper healing and repairing impaired moral agency. It is also crucial for restoring social trust. Erasing injustice without collective recall, acknowledgment and eventual reparation can hardly serve as a sound foundation for a sane society.
Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/empathising-with-victims-of-sexual-assault/article25217600.ece

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