***Content/ Trigger warning: violation of minors***
In 2003, while serving as an international field volunteer in a prestigious organization, I was put in an almost unimaginable situation. My coworker and romantic partner told me, in almost casual conversation, that he was interested in a 14-year-old in his community and that he had been inviting his neighbors’ 8 and 9 year-old girls for “sleepovers” at his home for 6 months. I proceeded to have a complete nervous breakdown and emotional trauma flashback.
Before I could report him, he made up a false claim that I was suicidal and crazy, and convinced a network of 200+ people that I was mentally unstable. I was essentially fired from my position and sent to the US for PTSD treatment; after two months I was finally stable enough to formally report him. I made the most difficult phone call of my life to our organization’s central office and asked to speak to the one person there who I fully trusted- our now sadly deceased project nurse. I told her what had been going on. She said, “We cannot get him on that, but he has been under our eye for other things.” He was relieved from service for excessive marijuana use, but an investigation into the rest was never initiated.
It has been 16 years since my phone call, and this person was never investigated. Here are 11 important things I learned from the process:
- The most important words anyone can hear are “I believe you.” They are also the rarest. I was flat-out told that the organization, to protect its reputation, could not investigate my “allegations.” It was a he-said/ she said situation, according to them. My ex spent two months dismantling my reputation, and it worked. Only five people I talked to believed me- the nurse, one older fellow volunteer, two therapists, and a cousin who had lived a similar experience. Our organization was silent- and this is more the rule than the exception. While I was not working for the BSA, a similar culture of protecting its members, at all costs, exists among them in this incredibly parallel story. If someone trusts you with their experience, believe them.
- It takes a lot to discredit a man, and very little to discredit a woman. Less than two months after we started dating, my partner exhibited extremely odd behaviors, including believing himself to be an Old Testament prophet and discontinuing normal adult bathing and hygiene practices. He was considered by our extended community “loveable and eccentric.” I did not have the words to describe it, but his controlling and emotionally abusive treatment of me was triggering strong emotional flashbacks, and I was considered “mentally unstable,” even though flashbacks did not affect my own work, self-care, or professionalism. The only difference was gender. This is not unusual, this article touches the surface of the active movement to discredit women and their stories, even though the very small number of false accusations fit a profile of a personality-disordered woman. On some level my ex knew this instinctively- his apparent reason for fabricating a case against me before I could come forward about him. Our community chose to believe his story over mine despite the flags.
- Smear campaigns are more common than one might think. What my ex did to me is a classic smear/ gaslighting campaign: triangulation; false “concerned sympathy;” painting the partner as crazy, unreliable, dangerous, suicidal; building a case for the coming discard. These behaviors are a documented tactic of people who need to control and dominate others. If you wonder if you have faced/ are facing something similar, here is a good video about this technique.
- The similarities between sexual predators of children and partner abusers are eerie. There is a good reason my ex selected underage poverty-stricken girls as his targets- and likewise selected me as a target of his campaign to bully me and wear me down. I am not qualified to diagnose anyone’s disorder, but what he practices is a classic form of religious abuse– use of the Bible as a weapon; restricting my free thought and expression; denigrating my education and career goals; socially isolating me; rejecting my healthy sexuality. Research shows that these types of insecure men will choose long-term partners who are young and/ or childlike with weak social support systems and will actively work to discredit the power of strong and independent women. Since my own research, many others have come forward showing similar parallels.
- Organizations and institutions will go to great lengths to protect their reputations. This was true in my case, and is true of institutions of higher learning, churches, youth leadership organizations, government, international corporations, etc. The more the organization feels it has to lose with stakeholders, clients, or public reputation, the greater the chance that an individual’s story will be buried. Even before my own story occurred, we were all admonished about the repercussions of talking with the press about sexual abuse of women and girls overseas, for the good of the organization. We were told it was in our best interests to say nothing. Several organizations have recently come under fire for similar practices. Here is just one example from a legal firm.
- Do not expect an investigation. Very often, there will not be one.
- Do not expect closure. I never got closure on my story, and I know many others who have not, either.
- Do not expect anyone to believe you. My story shows that it is very easy to be falsely discredited in front of a large number of people- who will all be judging the story and deciding who is the more credible party. If the abuser has gone to great lengths to destroy your credibility, there is little chance you can recover from it.
- Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot tell your story. No organization’s, institution’s, or family’s reputation is more important than the truth about mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. The tide is starting to turn; what before was taboo, is now becoming an open topic of discussion thanks to a growing number of people standing up to talk about what they experienced. Here is a great TED Talk list to get started on breaking down the myth that a victim should remain silent, or that it is ever too late to discuss abuse.
- Do not let anyone else dictate your reality. The purpose of smear campaigns, gaslighting, and control tactics is to make a strong, competent person start to doubt his or her reality, experience, version of events, or interpretation of a situation. I look back on this case; the warning signs were there. We all knew at least one of the girls was being sexually abused by her age-inappropriate actions in public with other adults (grabbing the genital regions of adults, etc.). We assumed it was happening in her home. This made her a prime target- it probably did actually start at home, and because she was poor, already marginalized, already displaying the behaviors- she was a prime target for further abuse. We did not want to believe what was happening, but my instincts knew something was wrong. I made the mistake of letting others tell me that my experience was wrong, that my interpretation was wrong, that I was the problem- until suddenly, the truth came out. There is great power in owning your experience and refusing to let anyone else tell you something did not happen the way you lived it.
- Losing your job is worth it. While in the developed world there are whistleblower laws to protect employees who come forward about isolated or systemic abuses of power, in reality a) these same protections do not exist in much of the developing world and b) these protections really only go so far. We are taught to live in fear of losing one’s job as the worst possible thing that could happen. I can say, with all honesty- walking away from an unethical situation, or getting involuntarily released from it- are both far superior to the emotional anguish of staying where you are not valued.
Rachael Shenyo is a US national living and working in Central America as a development specialist, scientist, writer, and life coach. In her coaching, she specializes in helping people find and hear their inner voice, and act upon their life goals. In her scientific work, she works with climate change. Her professional profile may be found on LinkedIn.