Part 9: The abusive cycle of sexual assault
“They thought that they were the only ones that this happened to.
They thought that, well, my siblings weren’t abused, so it must have just been me.”
Victim advocate Jessica Lind from the Women’s Community in Wausau says she’s seen the story time and again.
“Sometimes we’ll be with a family at our child advocacy center, and a parent will say, ‘Oh my goodness. I never thought that this would happen to my daughter too.”
So often, it’s not just one victim--not just one assault--and not just one consequence.
“When an offender is given power, they are going to continue to find more victims,” Lind says.
Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon adds, “They often get in a cycle where they don’t believe they deserve anything better--or to be treated any better. And that this--is all they are.”
Lee Shipway, executive director at Peaceful Solutions Counseling in Wausau, describes the cycle as not one--but several.
“Imagine a three-pronged triangle. You have victim, perpetrator, rescuer. Oftentimes when someone has been victimized, they get what we call stuck in the triangle, where they shift positions and take one of those three roles.”
Sometimes, that means the victim moves to the rescuer’s role before they’re truly able to help others.
“If they’re spending an inordinate amount of time doing that and not taking care of their own needs, that’s what makes it unhealthy,” she explains. “Don't confuse that with someone who was victimized, who worked through their own acute stress disorder or post traumatic stress disorder and their victimization, and they are healthy and make a conscious decision to be a therapist or to be an advocate at the women's community--but keep their boundaries. They are taking care of themselves as well as taking care of someone else.”
Other times, a victim stays in the victim’s corner. It feels familiar--even normal. Shipway says she sees it in a woman who’s been sexually or physically abused as a child, and goes on to marry a man who abuses her in the same way, because it’s what’s known to her.
“The subconscious goes, ‘Oh, I know that!’ even if it’s bad, that seems familiar. ‘That’s what I know, so I’m going to be attracted to that,’” Shipway explains.
The third cycle is when the victim moves over to the perpetrator’s corner of the triangle. It’s a move that sometimes can make them feel like they’re regaining control of their past.
“They have their own trauma of being sexually abused, but then they have also gone on to abuse someone else,” says child and family therapist Stephanie Hamann.
That last cycle is one that Wetzsteon has seen frequently throughout her career.
“They have had a history of being victimized as a child, sexually abused as a child. Those cases are often even not reported,” she said. The suspects come in all types of crimes--domestic violence, theft, property crime or drug abuse--but it’s common to have the same darker history of sexual abuse once prosecutors start digging into the case.
“There’s something in that person’s past that they have lived with, kept a secret, never gotten treatment or counseling for, and it manifests itself,” Wetzsteon said.
That’s one reason professionals say rehabilitative programs are so important.
“It's really naive of us to think we'll just lock them up and then we'll be done with them,” Shipway says. “They're going to get out of prison at some point and so then they're going to be out in the world again and they're going to be perpetrating against kids again. Most pedophiles have a large number of victims and they don't just grow out of it. It's going to be there unless they get treatment for it. So as a society, it really behooves us to make sure that they do get that treatment--and not just locked away.”
But for victims, breaking the cycle is about helping them find their new normal.
“It's kind of like the stages of grief,” Shipway continued. “The last stage is acceptance. Accepting that this happened, no, I don't like it. I'm never going to like it, but this is something that happened to me and it's something that I've dealt with and something I might continue to deal with as I grow older and different life circumstances come to me and life experiences, and this might get retriggered at points in my life, but I know that I can handle this