If you have been in a violent relationship, or you disclosed about partner rape, you may have encountered mockery, disbelief, blame or a host of other responses that made you feel worse. You may have experienced ignorant and shaming responses not only to what happened to you, but also to how you feel or how you may have been affected. This is called Secondary Wounding.
Trauma expert Aphrodite Matsakis writes that people who have survived abusive relationships experience more frequent and grievous secondary wounding than survivors of any other trauma, and that it can cause people to feel as bad as - or sometimes worse than - when they were assaulted (1). Even people who have made strides in their healing may feel suddenly deflated by a statement that blames or ridicules them for the abuse they experienced. Having been hurt in this way myself, I felt humiliated, deeply hurt and angry. At a deeper level, I wondered if the blaming statements might not be true after all: Was I inherently stupid for living with an abusive partner? Part of me blamed myself for being so upset. I felt as if I should be a "big girl" and ignore it. But secondary wounding isn't called wounding for nothing and if you have nobody to counter those messages, it can delay your healing.You might feel as if what happened to you and your feelings, have no validity.
Secondary wounding may come not only from things people say or do directly to you, but from books and television programs that use the topics of rape inappropriately or irresponsibly. It might also be a conversation you overhear.
If you have experienced secondary wounding, you may find that you still feel hurt and ashamed even years later. You are not alone. It is a very real healing issue, and on this page we'll explore types of secondary wounding and what may help in recovering.
Cassandra, 1898 by Evelyn De Morgan
Cassandra was a prophetess known for the accuracy of her predictions. She spurned Apollo's sexual advances, so he placed a curse on her ensuring that she would never be believed. In this painting, Cassandra tears her hair in frustration at the Fall of Troy, which she'd precdicrted..
TYPES OF SECONDARY WOUNDING
As a survivor of partner rape, you may have experienced the following types of secondary wounding (2, 3)
Denial and disbelief - people don't believe it happened: i.e.
"You're a liar"
"How come you never mentioned this before"? (implied doubt)
"That is not rape"
"He would never do that to you"
"Are you making this rape story up to get back at him because he has a new girlfriend?"
Discounting and minimizing - people do not necessarily disbelieve that it happened but they downplay the trauma and/or it's effect on you: i.e.
"It isn't as bad as if he was a stranger"
"It's not rape if you didn't say no."
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself. There's people a lot worse off than you."
"At least he didn't beat you up"
Your pain can't be so bad - you have slept with him plenty of times
"You're overreacting - you should just get overt it"
"Are you sure it wasn't just a misunderstanding?"
"It was just sex"
It can't have hurt you too badly - you stayed with him"
Minimizing may be prefaced with a denial of the minimization to come : "I don't want to minimize what happened to you but..."
Discounting may take the form of Inappropriate "humour" i.e.:
"Why didn't you lay back and enjoy it?"
"Does poor old hubby have to give you a "consent contract" to sign?
"Who's really getting screwed with this marital rape nonsense?"
"Ooooh! So he's an animal in the bedroom? Lucky you!"
"Stop him from doing it - consent."
Blame - it's your fault or you caused it: i.e.
"Why didn't you leave or call the police?"
"Did you try hard enough to stop him?"
"How can you love somebody who did that to you?"
"Well, you choose to put up with it - I have no sympathy for you "
"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent"
"It wouldn't have happened if you were a good wife and just submitted"
"He must have been upset because you left him"
"What can you expect if you'd given him sex before?"
"What did you do to make him rape you?"
Stigmatisation - being judged negatively because you were abused and/or because of your (normal) reactions to the abuse, i.e.
""You must be crazy to make these allegations - some women cry rape at the drop of a hat"
"You're mentally unbalanced and everything you say is suspect" (often implied rather than stated)
"Some women just like rough sex"
"Stop hiding behind this PTSD thing you're supposed to have"
Implying that you are weak because you are affected - i.e. "I know women who were raped and they're over it - what are you doing wrong?"
"Come on now, you've got three lovely kids, you shouldn't worry about that anymore"
"That counsellor is putting silly ideas in your head"
"Oh, you're just obsessed about this rape stuff"
"I know you've had a hard time but you can't dwell on the past"
Note: Stigmatization can also come from professionals who patronize abused women and treat them as if they are inherently weak and stupid. For example, I was branded a "masochist" by a psychiatrist.
Denial of assistance -refusal of help to which you are entitled or support that you may seek i.e.:
"Don't come crying to us - you made your bed - lie in it"
"If you don't leave I won't help you"
" I don't want to hear it - what happens in your bedroom is private"
Denial of assistance may happen from professional agencies - for example, the police who will not take your claims of rape seriously - as well as the courts; the sexual assault service that will not see you because you still live with the perpetrator; the government agency that will not assist you with funding to seek alternative housing;
Betrayal of Confidence i.e.
Gossiping about what you've disclosed
Telling the perpetrator what you disclosed
Telling the perpetrator where you are when you've left and are trying to remain safe
Siding with/excusing the Perpetrator i.e.
Somebody you trusted going to court with him to be his character witness
"How could you say that about him when he's been so good to you?"
"He must have been really upset, poor guy"
Making it all about them i.e.
"Oh, you think that was bad. Wait until you hear what I went though"
"How could you put me through this?"
Silence (which can be as painful as hurtful words) i.e.:
Changing the subject
Watching you cry and walking way
Giving minimal response and never asking about it again
Sheer nastiness and cruelty (both a cause and a form of secondary wounding) i.e.
"You loved it"
"You deserved it"
"What an idiot!"
Nasty "jokes" about marital rape in your presence
A new partner using it against you
Demanding or pestering for intimate details of the rape/s
"What really happened?"
"Where did he touch you?"
"Did you orgasm?"
NB: Some people may be kindly motivated in asking you to "tell them all about it.". They may genuinely believe it will help you to "get it out." But it is always up to you how much you share, when you share and with whom. It can be traumatizing to share details before you are ready.you talk about it. Don't be afraid to say that you can't discuss it right now. Less well-intentioned people may be looking for something to gossip about, or their questions may have a "getting off on it" feel.
As you can see, there are many terrible ways to experience secondary wounding. If you have, heard statements like the above, you may feel pretty bad. But these comments are not valid. Let's turn to some of the reasons why it happens.
WHY DOES SECONDARY WOUNDING HAPPEN?
Secondary wounding says much less about you and much more about the society we live in and the person wounding you. Let's look at some common causes of secondary wounding (4):
Ignorance: Many people respond in hurtful ways simply because they do not know what they're dealing with. Sexual Violence by partners is something that is still shrouded in ignorance, and the social attitude can seem like one gigantic secondary wound. People without a working knowledge of trauma, or the levels that rape touches women in, often minimize simply because they don't know what they're on about. Burnout: If you have been treated inequitably by a health or legal professional, it may be that they are suffering burnout; a sort of personal hardening to people's woundedness which can happen to some professionals who have worked for a long time around trauma.
"You Get what you Deserve/ Make Your Own Breaks" philosophy: Some people have never been truly frightened or exposed to injustice. They may believe that a truly moral, intelligent "superior" type of woman would not be assaulted by her partner. They might say things like "If that happened to me, I would have left". In order for their own worlds to be safe, they actually need to believe that people who get trouble have asked for it in some way. This attitude might be found in people who judge financially disadvantaged people as lazy. I am aware of raped and /or battered women who have been treated with dreadful contempt by other women who see themselves as somehow stronger and better, and the survivor as weak or immoral. They need to believe it won't happen to them because they obey a certain set of rules. It helps them feel safer, so they wound you.
Generalization: Many people believe that if you have been traumatized, you are a "victim" forever. They will interpret everything you do through those lenses. For example, valid anger may be put down to your "mental problems ".
Cruelty: Secondary wounding, because it hurts, usually seems cruel. As we've seen, it may not always be coming from a desire to inflict deliberate injury. Nevertheless, sometimes it is; somebody will use your trauma against you because they want to hurt you.
EFFECTS OF SECONDARY WOUNDING
Women who have been hurt in relationships commonly give themselves a bad time about what they could or should have done to avoid being hurt. Secondary wounding can add to this. It may compound the low self-esteem issues you may already have (5). One affect of it for me was silencing: After being hurt by secondary wounding, I thought I could never talk about my abusive relationship - and especially the rape - again. My secondary wounding experiences shamed me to the core; and I felt completely alone. If you have felt silenced by somebody's ignorance or cruelty, please don't be. There are people who will hear you - see below.
A terrible affect for women is that they may conclude that there is nowhere to turn with their pain - especially if refusal to help has come from agencies that they've approached, or family members insult and denigrate them., and continue to suffer violence. Alternatively, self-destructive ways of dealing with their pain might emerge. You might also believe that your pain is not valid or even start to question whether you were actually raped. Just be aware that self-doubt can be a common outcome of secondary wounding - even for people in a previously strong place.
Be aware of triggers: As a survivor of trauma, you may have found that
there are times when certain words, noises, smells or other arouse emotions you felt when you were being abused. The same can be true of secondary wounding even years after you are out. Let me illustrate: Several years ago, I received a barrage of really nasty emails from a woman who in a nutshell thought battered women were pathetic, whining idiots and that trauma was transparent excuse for them being too stupid to get out of abusive situations. Unfortunately, instead of blocking her I chose to engage her in debate. Some people really aren't worth the effort because they aren't interested in your point of view. I became really distressed and tearful. I wondered why, when I was an activist more than a decade out of the relationship, it should bother me so badly. For the first time in many years, I called a domestic violence line. The counsellor wisely asked me what it was triggering - had I been similarly attacked in the past for being an abused woman? She was right on the money of course. I was re-experiencing the sense of hopelessness and shame around secondary wounding that had happened a lot earlier. The trigger may be symbolic too; for example, when the secondary wound is somebody breaking your confidence and spreading abroad what you've shared with them, this places you out of control of who knows and what they're thinking or saying. This can trigger in some women the same sense of being out of control they felt when they were raped.
So if you do feel powerful emotion that you know you felt a long time ago, don't beat yourself up. You can get support, which we'll look at below.
Beneath your hurt, you may also feel powerful rage at the person who wounded you. You may toss and turn at night with thoughts of putting a bottle over their head. Your anger is okay and is justified. But please, don't be tempted to act out in ways that are a danger to you or anyone else, or that are not legal. Always do yourself the best justice; don't give the person you're angry with any satisfaction. Don't act out on yourself either by numbing with substances, or otherwise self-harming. Get support to put that anger out there in constructive ways. You might look at some of the suggestions below.
Secondary wounding may hurt more if you have a close or trusting relationship with the person who has hurt you (6). For example, a friend may be genuinely concerned for you when they say that you should "just forget about it - you're doing too much dwelling on the past " or tells you that you're being "negative." You may find that if somebody who has your interest at heart questions you, you doubt yourself more. I think it's important to remember that while somebody may care about you, that doesn't make them an expert on rape, domestic violence, trauma or healing. The only person whose permission you need to name partner rape, own your pain and heal, is yours. As well, if blatant cruelty comes from somebody you've looked to for care - a parent or sibling, for example, this can be devastating. Please be aware that not everybody thinks the way they do.
PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM SECONDARY WOUNDING
I've noticed that it's not unusual for many people to treat a disclosure of rape as if you're showing them what you found up your nose, and they're scared you'll wipe it on them. While we cannot always avoid ignorant or hurtful attitudes, it can be wise to be careful whom we trust to share with. You wouldn't take somebody into your confidence who holds erroneous and offensive beliefs about domestic violence, but sometimes it isn't that obvious. If you want to tell somebody and you're not sure how they'll respond, you might "test the waters" first. Mention a news article you saw about sexual violence and see what the response is. Staying safe isn't cowardice, it's good self-care which is a necessary part of healing.
SUPPORT AND HEALING FROM SECONDARY WOUNDING
Here are some strategies that may help if you have been subjected to secondary wounding:
Writing exercises: Aphrodite Matsakis' wonderful book, I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors (see this page to purchase) suggests the following ways of reducing the impact of Secondary wounding (7):
Identify your secondary wounding experiences.
Write down what they were, and whether you felt your experiences or pain where minimized, denied, stigmatised etc.
Think about how you felt at the time, and whether it still has that impact now. Facing those feelings may be likely to give you some distance from them.
You might also want to look at how it's impacted on your self-esteem, trust etc, and what you would like to change
Speak to your counsellor about experiences of secondary wounding
Call a crisis line - this helped me get an objective perspective
Get a hug from a good friend who can reaffirm your strengths and your growth
Swear your head off to a good friend (I have!)
Join and post about your experiences of secondary wounding on Pandora's Aquarium - you'll see that you're not alone - many of our members have unfortunately been hurt by secondary wounding. The levels of support there are fantastic. You will find comfort. In fact why don't you have a look at our "Top Ten Stupidest Comments " thread - which is viewable by guests.
Know that you deserve support - again, secondary wounds are real wounds. In a perfect world we could all say "Oh well, sticks and stones." With trauma, it isn't that simple. Pay attention to your feelings, and ask for support.
Is it worth raising the issue of the secondary wound with the person who has hurt you? Or do you think it might be better to save your energy if it's likely that you'll get hurt again? Perhaps somebody who has been insensitive still cares enough about your feelings to hear you. They may be glad to be enlightened about something they were ignorant about. Perhaps not; you really need to decide what is in the best interest of your emotional safety.
You might like to write a letter and then decide whether to send it or not. If you do send it, be clear within yourself that you are doing this to address your issue, and not because you have any expectation from them. Always do yourself the best justice.
If you have been treated inequitably by a health or other professional, it could empower you to look at avenues of complaint.
Please feel free also to share unhelpful responses you've had below, and you also get the chance to sound off at the person who wounded you.
Rely on your own sense of humour and that of your friends to expose the silliness behind secondary wounding comments. Some time ago, I had an email stating: "You fucked the guy who 'raped' you? You deserved everything you got, you c*nt." While the 'raped' in quotation marks piece of crass nastiness contained a barb that could have pulled me down, it didn't; it was so over-the-top ugly that I was able to laugh at it. Lotta losers have access to the internet. So many clowns, so few circuses :D You might like to share ridiculous responses you've heard below.
Fight back: be a part of challenging the ignorance from which much secondary wounding comes:
Build a website and share your experiences.
Write letters when you see news articles blaming women for rape/domestic violence.