In this three-part series we explore the impossible standards we hold survivors to, what happens when a survivor doesn’t fit our expectations, and what happens when powerful institutions fail to respond to abuse committed within their institutions. If you missed the first two parts, check them out here and here!

We have watched powerful institutions respond to survivors who come forward with their experiences of sexual violence. We have seen investigations opened to look into the Catholic Church’s history of covering up the sexual abuse of children. We have seen people with multiple allegations of sexual violence rise to political offices. We have watched as courts give weak sentences to people who are convicted of sexual violence, often influenced by varying levels of privilege.

As this plays out in the public sphere, we’re reminded that survivors of violence committed by members of powerful institutions, which can include military, prisons, churches, the political arena, and the educational system, among others, face an impossible standard when disclosing the abuse they experienced. They don’t just make reports against the person who harmed them; they make reports against the entire institution in which that person belongs.

Often, they draw attention to systemic issues within the institution itself.

Many of these institutions are symbols of what Americans value most: freedom, opportunity, liberty, and justice. If society teaches us to believe these institutions exemplify everything good in our society, and by extension so do the members of the institution, imagine the uphill climb when a person reports a member of these institutions for committing an act of sexual violence. What about when that accusation also includes the institution’s failure to respond to sexual violence? What must a survivor bring to the table to be taken seriously? To be believed?

Survivors must come prepared to face the judgment of their communities. Survivors may unfortunately find that institutions can use all the resources at their disposal to discredit them. Survivors know many of their fellow community members have a deep loyalty to that institution and the allegations they bring forward may leave them depicted as the enemy.

Survivors of institutional abuse know the institution always comes first. They know members of that institution will work to protect it, even if that means allowing violence to go unquestioned. And yet, many still come forward out of a sense of responsibility to others who may be harmed by this institution.

All of this assumes survivors even have the chance for a public reckoning. Many times, survivors of institutional abuse suffer alone, silenced by the institution that has harmed them. In many institutions, such as prisons, the military, and colleges, the people a survivor reports their assault to are also the people who have harmed them. The message to survivors is often that they may not have justice because their abusers hold the keys to the proverbial courthouse.

Supporting survivors includes looking at how we can change systems to be more affirming and responsive to the neurobiology of trauma.  It also requires that we work to address and dismantle the power differential between institutions which cause harm, and the survivors coming forward to hold them accountable.

The power difference between survivors and the people who harmed them is most obvious when an institution stands behind people accused of violence.

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