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12 Walls That Prevent Abuse Survivors From Ever Telling


People can be quick to question the motivations of abuse survivors who choose to tell their story. “Why now? Is it for revenge? Money? Attention?” Questions like these come quickly and easily in a culture that has long demonstrated a tendency to shun such stories – perhaps because we see them as reflectors of shame. These questions divert attention away from what I believe is a more reasonable consideration: the number of motivations that exist for never telling. Here are 12 walls I’ve observed in my own work and research that prevent abuse survivors from ever telling their story. Creating a safer future – one in which survivors are supported if they choose to tell their story – requires removing many barriers that should have never been built to begin with.

1. A major reason for remaining silent is the understandable belief that the credibility of the truth-teller will be called into question. If the story threatens the identity, power, or position of a well-known and loved individual, then many might immediately seek to discredit the story to protect the more powerful individual.

2. Some might feel they have a moral responsibility to remain loyal or submissive. Religious communities sometimes inculcate such virtues into followers, without exceptions, conditioning them to believe that to remain silent is to be a good follower. Revealing information about an abusive person or organization will likely cause others within those communities to blame the truth-teller for betraying virtues like loyalty and submission. Truth-tellers are then manipulated into feeling their decision to speak out was wrong and brought undeserved, needless harm to another.

3. Survivors are often very close to their abuser. The abuser might be a family member, boss, friend, or co-worker – someone in a position of trust. Therefore, survivors might have a natural concern for the well-being of the abuser or for the tight-knit group of family, friends, or co-workers and perhaps will fear what will happen to those they are exposing. They also know many close to the abuser might suggest they lack compassion, mercy, forgiveness, for not just “letting it go.”

4. In contexts where the accused is considered an important contributor to a religious belief system or cause, truth-tellers might be condemned for bringing public shame upon the spiritual community. Communities that trumpet their glory will bury anything they might perceive as a display of shame. These self-righteous communities will condemn any who might be seen as giving reasons for outsiders to look upon the people and their beliefs with suspicion.

5. Fear of being blamed for the abuse can easily outweigh any motivation to tell. Tragically, many survivors have been made to believe their abuse was self-inflicted or deserved, either through their attire, attractiveness, assertive personality, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6. Telling a story of abuse requires tremendous courage and vulnerability because it is impossible to know how others will respond. Some respond by simply distancing themselves because they lack the emotional maturity needed to hear ugly truths or be present with someone with an abuse story. Their silence can be unspeakably painful.

I will add a note here: I’m not suggesting telling is a mark or test of courage. Choosing to never tell does not make one less courageous.

7. If the abuse took place years ago, survivors might believe they will be accused for not coming forward sooner. When people ask, “Why did it take so long for this to be told?” they are suggesting the survivor is at fault for not reporting the abuse.

8. Survivors often suffer relational loss after their story is made known. Friends and family may abandon them over what they perceive as a betrayal, especially if they are hearing other narratives being spread by the accused. In some cases, survivors have had to relocate to another school, church, or community to escape harassment.

9. Survivors are sometimes threatened with defamation lawsuits after they go public with their story. Some have even been told that they will be “destroyed” if they blow the whistle. For good reasons then, survivors fear losing their jobs, facing legal expenses, and ruining future job opportunities.

10. Survivors risk losing their reputation if they go public, especially if the accused is a powerful individual. The abuser can easily use that power to spread a narrative in which the truth-teller is made to appear vindictive, selfish, confused, mentally ill, bitter, or in need of attention.

11. In some cases, survivors are intimidated with threats against their safety. The fear of retaliation is a strong (and sometimes necessary) deterrent to exposing the abuser. Survivors who are trying to tell their story of abuse might know that great effort will have to go into creating a safety plan and having a support system in place if they ever decide to tell.

12. Some survivors face condemnation for not following procedures designed to keep matters internal. People ask, “Why did they have to go public?” Few, in my experience, understand the many unsuccessful attempts survivors often make to appeal to those who have the authority to do something. Many who decide to go public only do so after all other appeals have failed.

Any one of these barriers can cause a great deal of stress. Usually there are multiple motivations that exist for never telling. This also produces despair. Survivors begin believing that telling others will never accomplish anything because the barriers are too many and too great. I believe many have retracted their story upon meeting these powerful silencing influences.

It is no wonder then that false accusations are rare. Choosing to expose an abuser, especially one with power, carries great risk. Nevertheless, we tend to be quick to question the motivations of survivors who tell and we are not so quick to consider the many strong motivations that exist for never telling.

This article originally appeared here.