We all understand that children and elderly are vulnerable populations, but what about adult victims? What happens when the victim of a predator is a grown man or woman?
It is disheartening that we even need to pose this question. The truth is…anyone can fall prey to a skilled predator. However, it is a sad reality that most people will choose to blame the adult victims leaving them to suffer in silence. No wonder almost 7,000 people a month search Amazon books for the phrase—Can adults be victims? If that many people are asking this question, then we have a long way to go in educating the public about abuse of power and the abuse of adults.
Abuse of Power in Adult Victims
Abuse of power can occur in any relationship where there is a significant power imbalance—relationships with pastors, doctors, therapists, coaches, or teachers, for example. These mentoring relationships are the perfect breeding ground for this type of predator. Their victims already have something they are struggling with, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually throwing the scales off even more. In this scenario, the abusers typically play the “savior” role, promising to be whatever the victim needs in order to help them feel better.
In 2014, I found myself in this situation. I was in therapy with a local psychiatrist. He was a Christian, grandfatherly type. He was also a therapist and a church leader. He seemed kind and considerate, at least in the beginning. I thought the therapy was helping me, but when I noticed red flags, I did what so many of us do. I forfeited my right to say, “No, this doesn’t feel right.” Instead, I chose the socially acceptable route. I squelched my intuition and gave the authority figure the benefit of the doubt.
Milgrim, a famous psychologist, coined the term ‘authority bias’, our tendency as humans to blindly follow people in perceived positions of authority. Even when the subjects in the study thought they were hurting other participants via electric shock, they continued to obey. We are socially programmed to relinquish control to people in positions of authority.
There are other reasons we side with abusers and blame victims. It is far too frightening to accept that evil predators are lurking in our midst, so we blame the victims, thereby keeping our little worlds intact. In addition, believing victims means admitting we were duped by people we loved and trusted, and that is tough to do. I can tell you that when we turn a blind eye to abuse, whether to keep our sense of safety intact or because the predators seem like good people, we are keeping their secrets, giving them a pass to continue to hurt others.
Can Adult Victims Give Consent in Relationships with Great Imbalances of Power?
Isn’t an intimate relationship between a therapist and client or a doctor and patient considered a mutual affair? Both are adults. The answer is NO! Why?
- Consent cannot be given in a relationship with an imbalance of power. Why? Because you cannot say yes if no is not also an option. We are taught from a very young age not to say no to people in positions of authority. My abuser was a doctor and a church elder and 20 years my senior.
- On top of that, early sexual abuse trains us that as defective people we don’t have the right to say no.
- A woman seeking help is likely in an emotionally fragile state. Her regular defenses are down.
- If the perpetrator is a religious leader as mine was there is added pressure on the woman to comply. This relationship is blessed by God, he might tell her. We have a special relationship; our situation is unique.
- Once the woman is attached to this mentor, she will not want to risk losing the support. This will be a powerful motivator to comply.
- A skilled predator will find the victims’ voids and attempt to fill them. The victim then becomes attached not to the abuser but to the deep-seated need that is being met. This is akin to being given a taste of a drug. Once hooked, the abuser will continue to up the ante knowing the victim is trapped.
Adult Victims Typically Blame Themselves
Onlookers tend to blame victims, but in addition, adult victims will often blame themselves. Why?
- Trauma Bonding: According to Nicole McDermott, “Trauma bonding describes an unhealthy type of attachment toward a person that causes trauma. More specifically, trauma bonding relationships are perpetuated by cycles of abuse, followed by love and kindness.” The victims become attached to the supposedly loving side of their abusers and begin focusing on the good in the relationship while attempting to minimize the bad. “While it’s hard to believe that people can develop affection for an abuser, trauma bonding is an example of the extremes to which a person’s subconscious mind will go in order to reduce inconsistencies between their beliefs and experiences,” according to Dr. Moore. After a trauma bond forms, victims will struggle to see the abuse and will even defend their abusers.
- Guilt: How can we turn on our abusers after all they did for us? My abuser played on my empathy. He said it would kill him if I ever left. He shared details about his personal life and made me feel sorry for him. He gave me gifts, longer sessions, and free sessions, so when he hurt me, I felt too guilty to turn him in. To alleviate our guilt, victims accept some of the blame.
- Shame: Shame is the great silencer. We may know the perpetrators hurt us, but we feel too much shame and embarrassment about what happened, about staying as long as we did, about why we didn’t leave. So, we stay quiet. We blame ourselves. See my article on conquering shame here: https://amynordhues.com/conquering-a-mountain-of-shame-its-worth-the-hike/
- Low Self-Worth: This is especially true for victims of childhood abuse. We assume that these bad things happen to us because we deserve them. Or maybe our defectiveness caused the abuse to happen. We were too needy. We were too broken. I want to be clear on this point. While low self-worth makes us more vulnerable to predators, there is no such thing as a victim type! People cannot bring abuse upon themselves. Abuse will never occur without the abusers’ intent! A 1991 study states: “Attempts at finding a coherent set of commonalities among victims of therapist abuse (e.g. Gutheil) have generally resulted in a list so broad and vague as to be indistinguishable from the larger patient pool.” Another study found that “no client characteristic predicts sexual involvement with a therapist” and that “characteristics of victims are no different from those seen in the larger patient population.”
- Transference: According to the American Psychological Association transference is defined as “a projection of one’s unconscious feelings onto their therapist.” The APA explains that these feelings are ones that were originally directed toward important figures in the person’s childhood, such as their parents. This can lead to intense and often confusing feelings for patients in therapy. Victims may assume the abuse was their fault because they “fell in love” with their therapist or because their therapist was a “father-figure” when the feelings they were having were a result of powerful transference and not about the therapist at all. It is the professional’s responsibility to help the client see that the feelings they are experiencing are not about the therapist but about other significant relationships in their lives.
- Gaslighting: Gaslighting can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but always with one goal in mind—to throw the victims off-kilter. Essentially, gaslighters mess with victims’ minds until they are so unsure of themselves that they no longer trust their own interpretation of reality. As a result, they have no choice but to become dependent on the abusers. When the relationship ends, the victims may be so disoriented that they question the role they played in the abuse. (Note: You cannot be a victim and a willing participant in a crime committed against you!)
Adult Victims May Need Help to Recognize the Abuse
Victims need our assistance in seeing the abuse of power for what it was so that they can forgive themselves and find healing. So how can we make it easier for adult victims to come forward, to report, and to seek help?
The key is empathy.
According to Brene Brown, “Empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle. Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it does not require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through.”
So how can we do this?
- We judge what we do not understand so we need to educate ourselves. Just like you are doing now. I wasn’t able to gain justice until I found an attorney who was trained in abuse of power. The first few attorneys I reached out to shamed and blamed me. In their minds, adults couldn’t be abused. No one is immune to a skilled predator!
- Sit with victims in their pain. You don’t have to understand abuse to relate to the emotions that come with it—hurt, loss, anger, betrayal. Let the victim know that you relate if not to their experience to their emotions. When you sense they are ready, point them toward professional help. We were harmed in relationship, and we will find healing through relationship.
- Be open to seeing things through the victims’ lens. Victims threaten us. They rattle our sense that the world is a safe and good place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If evil can befall good people, then we are all vulnerable and we don’t like vulnerable. We like control.
In closing, I want to say a few things:
Serial predators rely on the protection of their loyal fan base. Without it, their schemes wouldn’t work. They count on two things: Their fans will go to bat for them if anything leaks out, and victims will be vilified.
It is a terrifying prospect that an outwardly Christian church elder can also be an evil sociopath, that a supposedly kind and gentle grandfatherly type can be a sexual predator. But waking up and facing this harsh reality is the only way we can begin to experience empathy—the only way we can truly be there for a victim. The only way we can make abusers accountable for their crimes.
Finally, to those of you reading this article or those who will take the time to read my book to educate yourself on this type of betrayal, I say thank you. When we understand peoples’ suffering, we can offer them compassion and empathy. It is then and only then that the stigma of adult abuse will lessen, adult victims can finally be treated as the crime victims they are, and laws will start to change.