It’s a common way abusers try to discredit and tear down a sexual assault victim: Why did she return after suffering an attack?
It’s a question that arose in the sworn testimony released in the Missouri House’s investigative report into Gov. Eric Greitens. In the report, a woman described Greitens as binding and blindfolding her, spitting in her mouth, touching her sexually despite her repeatedly saying, “Get me out of here. I’m not ready for this,” and then feeling coerced into performing oral sex so she could leave. She said Greitens also took a picture of her while she was bound and naked and threatened to use it against her if she told anyone what happened. She did meet with him again and engaged in consensual sexual encounters. She testified to being hurt and upset when he slapped and hit in some of those encounters.
The legislative committee asked the woman why she continued to have contact with Greitens after the first encounter.
“I’ve asked myself that so many times,” she said. “I think it comes down to a few things. One, I felt really disgusted with myself that I allowed that first time to happen. Really embarrassed that he thought of me as a whore. And so after my — I told my husband and he was clear that he did not want anything to do with me, that he wanted to move into an apartment, and when Eric came back in and he was normal and so kind to me, that felt so much better and it allowed me to just ignore any of those bad feelings about myself, in particular. Because if I thought he was this horrible person, I really felt shameful of myself.”
The committee of five Republicans and two Democrats all found her a credible witness. Two friends also testified that she had told them a similar account of events.
Phyllis Miller, director of sexual assault services at the YWCA in St. Louis, has no connection to this investigation but has helped many women in similar situations. The woman’s explanation makes sense to Miller. A victim may be feeling vulnerable and shameful and blaming herself when the attacker comes back and acts like a different person, perhaps caring and kind, she said. The victim might feel the attacker has changed and wants to put the trauma in the past.
“Everyone wants to be loved or respected or feel some worth,” Miller said. “That’s how they are taken advantage of.”
In some cases, a victim has experienced abuse previously and many not even know what a healthy sexual relationship is supposed to be like. They may feel afraid or threatened or obligated or pressured, she said. When an abuser comes back to a victim, it may be perceived as an opportunity to feel worthy.
The same sort of questions arose when the numerous allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein came to light. There were women who stayed friends with Weinstein after he allegedly assaulted them. Natalia Antonova wrote a piece for Vox last October about why she stayed friendly with the man who had raped her. The question of why itself ignores both the power differentials between men and women in society and the self-loathing survivors deal with in the aftermath of rape, she writes.
“My rapist hugged me by the shoulders and offered me writing advice. I sat next to him, wiping away tears, and listened...We were friends — that was the fiction I created for myself. We’d just had too much to drink. It had been “confusing.” He hadn’t actually meant to hurt me. Forget reporting the rape: Merely admitting it to myself made me want to die.”
Antonova writes that sexual violence doesn’t just affect the body.
“It warps and pollutes the mind.”
Writer Jessica Knoll published a similar piece, I dated my rapist, in which she breaks down the myths surrounding how we think a victim of a violent crime “should” behave. Knoll writes that our definition of what “normal” is when it comes to the behavior of an assault victim is immensely flawed.
“Who would go on a date with her rapist?,” she asks. “Let the record show, most of us,” she answers while listing the numerous instances that have been reported.
“When my rapist asked me out, two years later, I was grateful. I thought his renewed interest in me might actually spell redemption...I still thought this person could offer me something by way of healing..”
Susan Kidder, executive director of Safe Connections in St. Louis, said some survivors of domestic abuse may feel Intimidated, coerced due to a power differential or face some other consequence. There is a documented overlap between intimate partner violence and domestic abuse.
Ultimately, though, Kidder says we must stop asking if the survivor is responsible or accountable for someone else’s violence.
Victims of sexual violence can call the RAINN hotline at 800-656-4673.