Shame keeps victims quiet

Singer Jennifer Ferguson during Anthems of Democracy on April 25, 2014 at the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa
Picture: Gallo Images / City Press / Lucky Nxumalo)

Trauma, powerful emotions prevent sexual abuse survivors from speaking out, writes Angela Daniels

The powerful emotions of shame and guilt are what most often cause victims of sexual abuse to stay quiet, hoping their trauma will eventually dissipate – but it seldom does.

That they only disclose their trauma many years later does not in any way make it less true, clinical psychologist Ian Meyer said yesterday.

In the wake of singer and former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson’s claims that she was raped by Danny Jordaan, as well as the growing number of women who say Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein abused them, the oft-asked question is: Why did she wait to speak up?

“It’s amazing how survivors, mostly women but not only, feel so ashamed they start to doubt themselves. Did they fight sufficiently? Did they refuse sufficiently?

“And then, many people disbelieve . . . certainly 20 years ago. You try to cope by avoidance and denial, [and] opening a criminal case is intensely distressing and protracted,” Meyer said yesterday.

Ferguson herself has said the idea of opening a criminal case at the time of her alleged rape was intolerable.

But with the onset of the #MeToo social media campaign – that encourages women to speak out about abuse – Ferguson says she found the strength to do so and encourages others to do the same.

“It is a call for all of us to have the courage to move out of places that have shamed us,” she said.

She said the “amazing messages” she had received in response had led to a “surge of healing”.

Meyer too believes the campaign is important.

“These social media campaigns are extremely important. They keep [abuse] in the public consciousness.

“Whether it will stop it, I doubt it. You won’t eradicate it, but it is important as it helps people who have been silent for many years,” he says.

Meyer said many people kept quiet as they thought it would “go away, but it did not.

“If you look at Harvey Weinstein, many women have said it [abuse] has scarred them for life.” Taking action is also not always easy, Meyer says, with many not understanding the complex dynamics behind this.

“Going the legal route is very tortuous . . . shoddy police work, dockets going missing.

“You [the victim] become the object of public scrutiny.

“Take, for example, the president’s case. How must that lady have felt? She had no favourable judgment,” Meyer said of Fezekile Kuzwayo, who accused President Jacob Zuma of rape.

So keeping silent was very common, Meyer said.

“It doesn’t mean it is not the truth.” Ferguson agrees that the legal route can be a treacherous one and says important conversations about this must be had. “A systemic overhaul [of the justice system] must happen. Big political questions must be asked,” Ferguson said, adding that questions over safety must be paramount.

“What of the truly voiceless? That’s the context.”

Ferguson also believes it is vitally important that men form part of the conversation.

“If we don’t take our sons on this journey, what is the point?”

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