The hidden plight of “bad survivors”

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What’s your reaction when you hear a child has been abused? Shock? Anger? Disgust? All of these are common (and reasonable) responses. For most people, however, those emotions are short-lived. They’ll move on to the next article in their feed, the feeling will fade, and after a week, they won’t think about the story unless something reminds them. But victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) don’t have the luxury of forgetting. For many of these kids, the fear, confusion, and sense of betrayal will last long into adulthood.

Thankfully, numerous resources exist to help sexual abuse survivors find support to process their experiences and learn to cope with the harmful impacts. Organizations like StopItNow and Darkness to Light provide helplines, lists of resources, and support referrals to survivors looking for help. In addition, these and other organizations lobby politicians and engage with media outlets to promote the interests of survivors on a larger scale. This provides the network that many survivors need to feel supported and understood.

But for some survivors, even the most widely-accessible services remain out of reach. The obstacles they face aren’t the financial or geographic ones you might expect, but rather barriers that are entirely social. They stem from deeply-rooted ideas about how survivors should think and act. Survivors who violate these norms may feel ostracized and out of place. However, instead of being given the extra support they need, they’re commonly kicked out of survivor spaces, overlooked by advocacy groups, and demonized by other survivors.

An emerging movement

It’s difficult to determine when the term “bad survivor” was first used to describe survivors of sexual abuse and assault who clash with societal norms, but one early example comes from a 2018 article in Swarthmore College’s newspaper, The Daily Gazette. In the piece, Abby Diebold, a political communications strategist and sexual assault survivor, describes how she felt unworthy of the ‘survivor’ label because she was still dealing with trauma and triggers. Ultimately, she concludes that the “stronger today than I was yesterday” idea of healing is overly simplistic and sets unrealistic expectations for survivors.

We are eager to support people who are pushing through, who are making gains, who are “better” – why don’t we extend the same love and kindness to those who might only be surviving, but for whom just that, just surviving, may be the hardest thing in the world?

Abby Diebold, The Phoenix

The #MeToo movement played a significant role in helping the idea of “bad survivors” gain traction. In 2019, Villanova University philosophy professor Miranda Pilipchuk published a paper (page 6 of linked PDF) arguing that #MeToo’s emphasis on publicly disclosing one’s survivor status split survivors into groups: “good” survivors who spoke out about their experiences and “bad” survivors who did not. Spurred by this phenomenon, the “bad survivor” movement continued to grow in the years that followed.

Katie Lotz, a writer, filmmaker, and sexual assault survivor, introduced a similar concept in a 2020 article for Sunstroke Magazine. The piece explores the shame and stigma associated with being a #MeToo-era survivor who wasn’t ready to come forward. Lotz describes her initial “unshakable guilt about doing nothing,” but goes on to explain that she is no longer ashamed of the “Bad Survivor” label. Instead, she views it as a reminder that society’s expectations are a poor reflection of the healing process.

I am not the coy, chaste, ideal archetype of a victim of sexual assault; no one really is. I am not an outspoken, brave, justice seeking survivor. I am simply a person who doesn’t know how to ethically handle her trauma. I am constantly struck by the feeling that I am doing this whole thing wrong, as if there is any “right” way to be a survivor.

Katie Lotz, Sunstroke Magazine

The year 2020 also marked a significant step forward for the visibility of “bad survivors.” Early in the year, the HEAL Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child sexual abuse by empowering survivors, published the first season of their Caution: Unrestricted! video series, releasing five episodes about survivors who don’t conform to society’s preconceived notions. The series, aptly titled Bad Survivors, explored the many different ways survivors might find themselves at odds with societal expectations, from not being repulsed by sex to being in denial about their abuse.

False responsibility

The expectations placed on survivors start the moment their abuse occurs with the idea that they have a responsibility to report what happened. To be clear, reporting is generally good. In a best-case scenario, it can prevent the perpetrator from harming others and help the victim find various sources of support in the days, weeks, and months following the abuse or assault. However, there are countless reasons a survivor may decide not to come forward.

I very often lied about my age then…so I was actually worried about reporting once I realized it was grooming since there was a large chance that a lot of people would blow it off since it was technically “my fault”

Punk, interview with author

In one study, nearly two-thirds of women reported not realizing that their unwanted sexual experience met the definition of rape. This number is likely even higher among child sexual abuse victims, especially when the perpetrator is a parent or guardian. Another study found that 13% of individuals who had been sexually victimized reported experiencing some level of shame because of the experience. In many cases, victims felt like they should have done more to prevent what happened, and the study’s author noted that this shame likely plays a role in decisions not to file a report.

Concerns about being treated appropriately and taken seriously by law enforcement can also play a role. One survivor I spoke to, Mitsuri, said that she tried to report a sexual assault she experienced, but changed her mind when the officer taking her statement implied that information about her masturbatory habits and porn usage could be brought up in court if charges were filed. She also faced pressure from friends of her assailant not to report him, with some telling her that doing so would “ruin his life.”

Sometimes I’ve regretted [not reporting] it because I worry that [my abuser] will do the same thing to someone else

Mitsuri, interview with author

It’s no surprise that many survivors never report their abuse, or only do so years later. Unfortunately, this doesn’t protect them from being judged and even reprimanded for the decision, sometimes by friends and family members. In addition to the self-blame that many survivors already struggle with over their own assault, survivors who don’t report may be told that they’re responsible for any further abuse committed by the same perpetrator. Though it’s often a well-intentioned attempt to encourage a survivor to make a report, this ultimately only serves to shift blame away from abusers and onto their victims.

Unsurprisingly, abusers have found ways to use this to their advantage. One CSA survivor I spoke to, Sasha, shared that his abuser told him they would “both be in trouble if we got caught” in an effort to prevent him from reporting. It worked. Though the abuse ended nearly a decade ago, Sasha has never formally reported or told close friends or family members what happened.

Violating norms

Survivors also face other expectations and stereotypes, sometimes months or years after the abuse has ended. Much of this stems from society’s narrow ideas about how trauma functions, with many people expecting survivors to be put off by things that remind them of their abuse. Survivors are also typically expected to prioritize abuse prevention over privacy and similar issues, with many survivor advocacy organizations portraying them as a monolith. When a survivor doesn’t conform, the backlash can be enough to ruin careers and destroy reputations.

Survivors in sex work

One of the most outspoken people discussing this phenomenon is writer, sex worker, and sex-trafficking survivor, Laura LeMoon. After being forced into the sex industry at 18, LeMoon managed to escape. Several years later, she returned to the industry by choice because it provided a “low-barrier form of employment that I could start right away.” She now advocates for stronger social supports, expanded employment opportunities, and better access to public health services for current and former sex workers.

Unfortunately, this line of work has caused LeMoon to face pushback from employers and even survivor advocates. When her first major article was published, in which she “criticized the ways in which the anti-trafficking movement in the United States treats sex trafficking victims,” her boss at her social services job accused her of “supporting child prostitution” and fired her. In another case, the executive director of an anti-trafficking organization accused her of not being a “real” survivor because she supported consensual sex work.

We (survivors) are maligned from our own movement and we are separated between worthy and unworthy, or good and bad survivors based on how well we tow the company line. My voice is unworthy and I’m a bad person because I don’t advance the agenda of power-hungry non-survivors … who aspire to build their identities on the back of my suffering and the suffering of my survivor siblings.

Laura LeMoon, PULP Magazine

LeMoon has also been cut off from the support opportunities offered by survivor advocacy groups because of the work she does. Despite this, she continues to hold trainings for organizations that want to better support sex workers. She also writes articles about her experiences, not hesitating to point out that “the majority of people in the anti-trafficking movement are people who have NEVER been in the sex industry, by choice or force.”

Toppling the monolith

Supporting sex work isn’t the only opinion that’s controversial for a survivor to hold. In fact, any position other than a blind “for the children” approach can raise eyebrows. In recent years, legislation that uses claims of “child protection” to justify infringing on privacy, such as the EARN IT Act and KOSA, has become increasingly common. Survivors who oppose such measures may be accused of protecting abusers, even when they explain the potential harms of such bills.

At the same time, groups claiming to speak for survivors have increasingly expressed opposition to privacy-preserving measures. In doing so, they overlook the survivors who rely on privacy to safely talk about their experiences. Three of the survivors I spoke to for this series asked that I talk to them on an encrypted messaging platform, and several requested that I address anonymity concerns before interviewing them. The policies being pushed by some advocacy groups would make it harder for these survivors to talk about their experiences.

[Survivor advocacy groups are] often only helpful to people who fit their specific ideals of victims and not all victims. I feel as though there is a lot that they could do to start helping ALL victims rather than just people who fit their ideas of what we should act and be like.

Punk, interview with author

The way “bad survivors” are treated is unacceptable. Sexual abuse and assault survivors shouldn’t have to fall in line to access support resources. They shouldn’t need to hold certain views for their voice to be heard. Cutting survivors off from their community when they don’t act “like survivors” is brazenly manipulative. Such tactics are perhaps best described by Laura LeMoon, as “an abuse of power, no different than when my pimp locked me in a room with five strange men and wouldn’t let me come out until I made his money.”

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

This article is part 1 of a series. You can read part 2 here.

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

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