Bad survivors: the myth of healing

A small adhesive bandage spans a crack in a road, as if it could somehow fix the much-bigger problem.

I previously wrote about how so-called “bad survivors” – those who don’t fit with society’s view of survivorship – are cut off from support and silenced in their communities. This follow-up explores the experiences of sexual assault and abuse survivors whose healing process doesn’t match society’s expectations regarding recovery.

As if ideas about the “right way” to be a survivor weren’t oppressive enough, many survivors also face societal pressure to follow a ‘healing process.’ They’re expected to have recovered from the trauma after some amount of time, or at the very least, be able to cope with it in “healthy and productive” ways. Optimistic as it may be, this view of healing is little more than a myth for most who experience abuse. 

In reality, moving forward after trauma is messy and unpredictable. Victims rarely reach a state where they’re fully “healed,” and many spend years just figuring out how to deal with their triggers. Suicidality rates among adults who were abused as kids are three times the average, and other mental health issues are also widespread. For some survivors, any form of healing consistently takes a backseat to just trying to get through another day.

No timeline for “over it”

As many survivors will tell you, society is largely disinterested in the nuance of healing. This isn’t entirely surprising, as the survivors most people see in the news are those who have made significant progress, know how to avoid and deal with triggers, and can put their trauma symptoms aside for a moment to give an interview about how they’re working to protect other kids from what they went through. Survivors who are still struggling don’t fit the mold, so they’re rarely given any visibility.

Take Juniper, a survivor of several instances of sexual abuse, both as a minor and an adult. To this day, they avoid leaving the house out of fear for their safety and minimize their interactions with others when they do. They have to keep their distance from people, as being touched can trigger panic attacks. Of course, you’re unlikely to see survivors like Juniper in the media, as they’re not the “brave, inspiring survivors” who draw in viewers. Stories like theirs are effectively nonexistent in popular culture.

The bad survivor is the one who’s still “broken,” still freaking out, still triggered, still grieving, still remembering. Still making you remember. They have a panic attack during the action, they think they can perform a certain sexual act but disassociate or throw up anyway.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Vice

This bias in how survivors are represented to the masses means many people simply don’t know how common it is for trauma symptoms to persist for years after abuse. Mitsuri, a survivor I interviewed, encountered this firsthand when she called her ex-partner on the anniversary of an assault she experienced. She expressed a need for support, but instead of being given a sympathetic and safe space to process her emotions, Mitsuri was met with a response along the lines of “get over it.”

Reactions like that can severely damage a survivor’s ability to seek support. The conversation with her ex caused Mitsuri to question whether she was overreacting to her assault, and she would later minimize it to therapists as a result. Faced with an impossible expectation that she be “recovered” from her trauma, she put up a facade to hide the fact that she was still struggling. In doing so, she limited her ability to ask even mental health professionals for help.

Scapegoats and taboo

During the decades it can take to “heal,” many survivors turn to coping mechanisms to deal with their trauma. Unfortunately, even here, society places unnecessary pressure on survivors to conform to public opinion. Survivors who are deemed to be using the “wrong” coping mechanisms can be ostracized, harassed, and even accused of supporting abuse.

One survivor, Ortex, told me that they find comfort in lolicon, a Japanese genre of drawings depicting young girls in sexual situations. Fictional content allows Ortex to reimagine their abuse as a more positive experience within a fantasy world where they could have safely consented as a child. Another survivor who uses fiction as a coping mechanism, Punk, explained that part of the appeal is “an outlet that isn’t harmful to anyone.”

My first sexual experiences were very forceful without me knowing it. So I’m pretty sure now lolicon eases that for me because I have control of the senerio [sic] and am more knowledgable.

Ortex, interview with author

Despite the benefit fictional outlets can provide for survivors, stigmatizing views on lolicon and similar content are widespread. Some critics use the term “virtual child pornography,” even as survivors speak out against the comparison. As a result, survivors who use taboo outlets often feel unwelcome or face harassment in mainstream survivor spaces. Many are forced to find other communities, sacrificing dedicated support for more generic communities where they feel safe and accepted.

The role trauma responses can play in a survivor’s sexuality likely goes much deeper. Though the science isn’t settled, many survivors believe that their abuse led to them experiencing certain kinks, fetishes, or paraphilias, often reflecting the nature of the abuse. In an extreme example, Sephiroth, a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA), told me that he struggles to get aroused unless he thinks about his abuse, leading to strained relationships. So-called “trauma kinks” are not uncommon, but are rarely ever discussed due to their taboo nature.

A screenshot from Twitter showing a CSA survivor being bullied and accused of being an abuser because they view fictional content involving abuse.

Although these attractions and sexual outlets can play an important role in helping some survivors cope with their trauma, they can put others, especially young survivors, in danger of further abuse. Sasha, who was abused at a young age, later found himself intentionally revealing his underage body to adults, chasing the constant affirmation and attention he received from his abuser. This ultimately led to him sharing his nudes online, causing others to fault him for contributing to the spread of child sexual abuse material. Of course, such accusations overlook the responsibility held by the adults receiving those pictures.

Another CSA survivor, Gregory, believes his abuse caused him to develop sexual attractions to children of about the same age he was during the abuse. Though he has never abused a child and actively works to help people involved in abusive behaviors find a better path, he’s found that his attractions make him a scapegoat among survivors. In a particularly egregious case, he was told that his attractions made him ineligible to receive support from a helpline for survivors, even after he explained that he had been abused.

A screenshot of a CSA survivor being turned away from a support hotline because of their attractions.
A screenshot of Gregory’s conversation with a helpline for survivors

Frighteningly, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I also spoke to “bad survivors” who got aroused during their abuse, went on to harm others, or avoided seeking support. Many of them had been cut off from support, accused of enabling abuse, or treated like they were abusers themself because of a trauma response or taboo coping mechanism. Several struggled with severe mental health issues after being told that they “asked for” or “deserved” their abuse, and most felt unsafe disclosing their abuse to others as a result.

Glimmers of hope

Despite all the barriers and setbacks they face, many “bad survivors” still manage to cobble together some semblance of a support network. Nearly every survivor I spoke to while writing this series had a story to share about how they found alternatives to the mainstream support options that remain inaccessible to them.

Mitsuri planned to start therapy the week after we spoke, with the goal of “FINALLY unpack[ing] everything from the abuse.” Both Punk and Ortex discovered that the pro-ship community (which believes fiction needn’t reflect real-world morality) was not only understanding and accepting of their coping mechanisms but also respectful of their trauma and support needs. Gregory found community within MAP Support Club, a peer support group for minor-attracted people who oppose child sexual abuse, which he affectionately described as “the shit.”

It shouldn’t have to be this way, though. Survivors of abuse shouldn’t be asked to strike out on their own for basic support, simply because they don’t meet someone’s arbitrary standards of what a survivor should be. They should be free to speak out and share their stories without worrying about harassment and further abuse from people who claim to be working in their best interest.

Survivors deserve better

To be a “bad survivor” is to live in silence about your abuse. For some, it’s because they aren’t ready to come forward. For others, it’s because raising their voice would mean facing stigma, harassment, and victim blaming. For many, it means never being able to safely seek the support and community they need to learn to live with their trauma. “Bad survivors” have fallen victim, not only to their abusers, but to a society that demands that the abused imitate an idealized “good survivor” who overcomes all odds to live a normal life.

I am a survivor on the days I collapse on the floor of my room and lock the door and sob from fear and pain and exhaustion. I am a survivor on the days I check out of my body and treat it like a burden and an obstacle and a mistake. I am a survivor on the days I ask myself if maybe, just maybe, I deserved it. I am a survivor because still, I survive.

Abby Diebold, The Phoenix

Abuse is anything but normal, and the impacts it can have are as varied and diverse as the people it affects. When sympathy, support opportunities, and a chance to safely come forward are limited to survivors who abide by social norms, access to those resources is denied to the people who need them most. All survivors, no matter what they’re dealing with, should be able to receive the help and kindness they need to thrive, whatever that means for them.

Some names have been changed throughout this article to protect privacy.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, you can find resources and support here.

Notable Replies

  1. As a moral rule, a mentally as well as physically sound future should be every child’s fundamental right — along with air, water, food and shelter — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

    Even if survived, early-life abuse left unchecked typically causes the young child’s brain to improperly develop. It can readily be the starting point of a life in which the brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammatory stress hormones and chemicals, even in otherwise non-stressful daily routines.

    It can amount to non-physical-impact brain-damage abuse: It has been described as an emotionally tumultuous daily existence, indeed a continuous discomforting anticipation of ‘the other shoe dropping’. For me at least, that includes a fear of how badly I will deal with the negative or horrible event — which almost never occurs — and especially if I’ll also conclude that I’m at fault.

    The lasting emotional/psychological pain throughout one’s life from such trauma is very formidable yet invisibly confined to inside one’s head. It is solitarily suffered, unlike an openly visible physical disability or condition, which tends to elicit sympathy/empathy from others.

    It can make every day a mental ordeal, unless the turmoil is prescription and/or illicitly medicated. …

    In the early 1970s, my Grade 2 teacher was the first and most formidably abusive authority figure with whom I was terrifyingly trapped. I cannot recall her abuse in its entirety, but I’ll nevertheless always remember how she had the immoral audacity — and especially the unethical confidence in avoiding any professional repercussions — to blatantly readily aim and fire her knee towards my groin, as I was backed up against the school hall wall.

    Luckily, she missed her mark, instead hitting the top of my left leg. Though there were other terrible teachers, for me she was uniquely traumatizing, especially when she wore her dark sunglasses when dealing with me.

    [For some other very young boys back then and there, there was her sole counterpart — a similarly abusive teacher but with the additional bizarre, scary attribute of her eyes rapidly shifting side to side.]

    But rather than tell anyone about my ordeal with her and consciously feel victimized, I instead felt some misplaced shame: I was a ‘difficult’ boy, therefore she likely perceived me as somehow ‘deserving it’. I was much too young to perceive how a regular-school environment can become the traumatizer of susceptible children like me; the trusted educator indeed the abuser.

    Perhaps not surprising, I feel that schoolteachers should receive mandatory ASD training, especially as the rate of diagnoses increases. There could also be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of child-development science that would also teach students about the often-debilitating condition (without being overly complicated).

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