Coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympics touched on more than the athletic wins and losses. Among the inspirational stories of the competitors’ lives, domestic and sexual abuse survivorship received a good bit of attention.
End the Silence
On one hand, it’s great how much awareness about abuse was promoted during the Olympic games. I wholeheartedly stand behind the rally call to “end the silence.” Headlines touted the fact that gold medal winners Claressa Shields  and Simone Biles  had overcome abuse or neglect as children, or (as in the case of Kayla Harrison ) sexual assault from a trainer.
I do think it is good for “the cause” in general to have awareness in the public about how common domestic violence is and about how being a survivor of domestic violence doesn’t have to break someone forever. The selective appearance, however, of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the sports arena perpetuates some unhelpful notions about the circumstances and dynamics of abuse.
She and She Alone
First of all, association of survivorship with exclusively female athletes can fuel the belief that domestic violence is something that happens only to women. This places the burden of being an example to others of what an abuse survivor can achieve solely on the shoulders of women athletes. At a time they deserve to celebrate the joys of their victories, of being literal world champions, they are asked also to relive personal traumas on a global stage.
I did not see any mention of a single male athlete as an abuse survivor in headlines that came through my various feeds. I later made an effort to find news stories relating a male athlete’s status as an abuse survivor and came up with nothing.
One in Four
Second, this dynamic is not just unfair to the female athletes. It is also unfair to men in general. If we are to have public discussion about any social problems, that discussion must be a complete one. Men do suffer from abuse. National rates put a woman’s statistical chance of being (physically) abused at 1 in 3 and a man’s chance at 1 in 4 -- 1 in 4. That’s 25% of men living with, or with a history of, abuse. (Rates of “severe” physical abuse are 1 in 5 for women and 1 in 7 for men.)  While I am glad that work is being done to de-stigmatize female victims of abuse, I do think the blind eye turned to male survivors can serve to deepen the stigma they carry.
Inspirational or Triggering?
Do you see yourself reflected in the stories of Olympians who have overcome trauma and abuse? If so, do you find the coverage helpful? If not, did you find yourself questioning whether or not survivors like you could thrive as well?
Secondary Trauma & Survivorship
After leaving a domestic violence relationship, it is common for a survivor to take on a supportive role to others in abusive relationships. This is understandable. The survivor knows how much better life can be than it is when dealing with an abuser and feels great compassion for those still victims to active abuse. The survivor may volunteer at a local shelter or hotline, or they may provide emotional support for a family member, friend, coworker, or acquaintance in an abusive relationship.
One of the leading reasons a person stays in a relationship with an abuser is lack of awareness of support available. Once such a victim discovers this help and finds success in leaving their abuser, the survivor that emerges often feels a sense of enthusiastic duty to bring the good news of support to those who still suffer without it.
Not only can taking on another person’s relationship problems complicate the situation a victim has with their abuser, it can also bring negative consequences for the one trying to help.
Ways A Supporter Can Be Harmed By Trying To Help An Abuse Victim
Those Most At-Risk. . .
Hints You May Be Experiencing Harm As A Helper
Use this PROQOL pdf to rate your likelihood of experiencing compassion fatigue.
How to Help Yourself
The answer to any of the harmful effects of supporting a domestic violence victim is self-care. Check out previous posts on self-care here and here. Depending on the situation, this self care may include making the decision to limit contact with domestic violence victims. This may inspire feeling of guilt or selfishness, but as Joyful Heart Foundation founder, Mariska Hargitay points out: “It’s a proven fact that we hold on to trauma. How can somebody who’s holding so much trauma be of service to someone else if they’re full up? You’ve got to empty the glass.”
Have you overextended yourself helping others experiencing domestic violence? Tell me how you realized what was going on and what decisions that realization led you to. Your comments below can help others confronting a similar situation. Thank you!
Rebecca encourages survivors of domestic to speak about their experiences and to lean on each other for support.