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#296: Witnessing Rape: Helplessness and Perceived Strength

#296: Witnessing Rape: Helplessness and Perceived Strength

In our book, A Womb of Her Own, (Routledge, 2017) Kristin Davisson discusses her findings in regard to women who have witnessed the rape of a close friend or family member. The witness may experience feelings of guilt and responsibility as well as shock at the occurrence because the victim was perceived as being a “strong woman.”
Davisson writes as follows:
Feelings of responsibility and helplessness. Feelings of helplessness were referenced almost universally in the sample. Helplessness is noted in the literature as a central facet of trauma, relating to a felt loss of control, powerlessness, fear of annihilation or surrender (as cited in Herman, 1992). For women who did not respond to their helplessness with feelings of anger, it was common for them to reference personal feelings of responsibility for their friend’s assault. Approximately 50% of the sample noted some variation of feeling accountable for their friend’s assault. These women were less likely to reference conscious experiences of anger, and seemed to place blame on themselves. Three women reflected on this below:
I remember feeling like I could have done something, that I could have prevented it, that I should have known.

I wasn’t there. So I felt guilt for… I always feel like I’m always sort of a protector of people, so that fact that I didn’t go that night…there are thoughts of, “oh, If I’d have gone, I usually don’t drink, I could have kept my eye on her.” But I realize that’s a false sense of control really.

I felt like I should have been there for her- or doing something, but the whole time, I had no idea it was happening. I should have known. I feel like it was my fault.

Though only one woman connected her feelings of personal responsibility to a “false sense of control,” one wonders if feeling a sense of personal accountability might be a defense against intolerable experiences of helplessness. Not uncommonly, women described “keeping an eye on” the primary victims following the assault or increasing care-taking behaviors toward other women in their life. To this effect, one participant in her 40’s remarked:
I felt almost as if I was her mother and wasn’t there to help her. I have always been there for her…. I have a 10-year-old little cousin who is developing now. And the thought of her- I tell her everyday, “Don’t let nobody look at you. If you feel, you know, the way somebody’s looking at you and you don’t feel comfortable, scream, holler, fight.” I check on her all the time. Everyday.

In her case, a conviction to help another young woman avoid or protect herself from sexual violence consciously follows feeling in some way “not there” for the primary victim. This may suggest that increased hypervigilance and care-taking, while adaptive responses to feelings of helplessness brought on by the traumatic incident, are indicative of a “false” sense of control.
Strength of the Victim
Among the 13 women sampled, 8 (or 61%) talked about the strength of the female victim. Most commonly, this was voiced in conjunction with feelings of shock, surprise, or personal vulnerability. Often, participants remarked they “never expected” this could happen to a woman like their friend. Several participants reflected on this below:
She was always such a very goal-directed, strong, smart person- very athletic, always had lots of friends. I guess people always say this with violence, but I just didn’t see it happening to her. You know, she wasn’t the vulnerable type.

She is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. Just hearing that could happen to her- a strong independent woman…was so impactful.

She is so strong on her own; I was left feeling more despair about it.

These responses reflect an interesting idea: the concept that personal strength, drive or autonomy may serve a protective quality for women (or enhance a self or other perception of safety) and that, when it comes to sexual assault, there is a specific reaction to this “quality” of a woman being overtaken. This begs the question, did participants feel the “strength” of their female friends was lost or “stolen” by virtue of their victimization?
Is strength overtaken by assault? In response to this very issue, 2 participants offered contrasting remarks. One woman, when discussing her friend’s rape inside a relationship commented, “She is still that strong girl…maybe wounded but strong.” Another participant said of her close friend who survived a gang rape, “She’s a very strong person and she projects herself very well and it made me very angry that someone would take that away from her.” The first participant notes the presence of her friend’s co-occurring strength and vulnerability; here we see the idea that a woman can be wounded and strong simultaneously. In the second participant’s remark, we see the discernment of loss, the idea that a woman’s strength can be “taken” from her. This loss of “strength” may occur literally through the act of sexual assault and/or symbolically through its scope and impact.

#296: Witnessing Rape: Helplessness and Perceived Strength

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). #296: Witnessing Rape: Helplessness and Perceived Strength. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Aug 2018
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