Non-survivor privilege and silence

While it shouldn’t be a privilege to escape abuse in this life, there are trappings of privilege for those who have been so lucky. I know it’s an odd thing to say, and it’s a realization I’ve been slowly moving toward since childhood, but it works like this:

  • Once you survive abuse or violation, you have a knowledge of the human capacity for nastiness that others around you don’t share.
  • It is your duty to keep them blissfully ignorant at the expense of your own soul.
  • When they chatter on about how disgraceful it is for a child not to be on speaking terms with his family, you are a rude asshole if you remind them that the abuse rate in the US and most countries is staggering, so maybe the child had good reason.
  • When you’re the child they’re complaining about, no one will take your side if you try to explain to them six ways from Sunday why it’s much, much better for everyone that you have no contact with your parent/family/ex-husband, or eventually give up and tell the person to mind its own business.
  • If you try to tell your friends that their latest crush shows signs of being violent or abusive, they’ll hate you. If you turn out to be right, they’ll hate you more.

And so on, and so forth. Honestly, if I go through every example, I’ll get too depressed to finish the article. Most of them come from personal experience.

And this – more than anything – is why I hate human beings. Because out of those of you who’ve had the good fortune not to be abused or violated in your lifetime, maybe 1 in 1,000 can be bothered to muster sympathy for those who have. Oh, if you see an abused child on Oprah you cry your heart out, sure. But I’m talking about putting the feelings of a survivor ahead of your own when they’re right there in your face.

When they’re someone you know; someone very much like you. When you get that crumpled feeling in the gut that it’s only random chance it was them and not you, and your first instinct is to explain away why it happened to them (and could therefore never happen to you). Or deny that it happened at all. Or have the awkward sympathetic moment you find yourself trapped in, but immediately pull back to superficiality with this person you once called friend.

When you make some ignorant comment about abuse and someone corrects you with a story from her own experience and your first instinct is to prove her wrong, maybe the “greenest” thing you could do for the environment is become part of it already. Yeah, I’m so gosh darn mean, but goddamnit, this needs to be said.

Those of us who’ve experienced abuse, rape and other violations don’t keep it quiet because we’re ashamed. Or because it’s intensely personal. The main reason we keep it quiet is because we know how you’ll treat us if we tell you. We know you have a culturally-granted privilege to remain ignorant. To not know, and therefore not to be responsible. Not to bother. Not to think about it.

And certainly not to do anything that might help stop or at least curtail it somewhat in the future.

But you are responsible. If you’re not aware that statistically a certain percentage of the people you know must have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at some point in their lives, you are helping the perpetrators of those crimes keep working in the shadows. Because as long as you imagine the problem doesn’t really touch anyone you know, the problem stays hidden.

I saw on a forum the other day some people discrediting a study about rape statistics. “If this study is true,” one poster said, “then about a fourth of the women I know must have been raped at some point, and that’s just not true.” How can anyone think that because a fourth of the women he knows haven’t told him, “Oh, by the way, I’ve been raped before” they must not have been? The answer is: they can’t. They’re beating the knowledge to the punch. They’re shouting in every way they can, “You will not drag me kicking and screaming to the realization that life isn’t fair and I’m one lucky shit not to have suffered worse than I have!”

He might as well help round up victims for abusers. He’s perpetuating the unfairness by perpetuating the silence.

As long as you’re more concerned about your right to be in la-la land denial than someone else’s right not to go through hell, you are fighting on the abuser’s side.

The fact that this is a privilege you are granted through the culture which dictates that abuse victims should lie rather than tell Nice People an uncomfortable truth says something odious about the culture. We are a culture of abuse. We believe strongly in the rights of the best-funded 5% to rule over the less-funded and harder-working 95%. We convince ourselves it’s only natural if certain people, defined by such superficialities as gender and skin color rather than important traits like capability or good judgment, should rule. We convince ourselves that cleaning lady who works two jobs just to make ends meet couldn’t possibly have had the cure for cancer locked in her brain behind a lack of education, so no big loss of potential there!

It’s all part of the same thing. As soon as you decide it’s okay for some people to carry double and triple burdens so that others may carry nothing at all, you have decided abuse is pretty neat and you’re all for it. And if that’s the case, all I’m asking is that you shuck off your privilege and take responsibility for the decision you’ve made and the side you’ve taken.

Ignorance is not “nice.” It’s not “good people.” It’s not “I was just trying to have a nice dinner party, why’d she go and bring up a thing like that when all we were doing was saying how gosh awful wonderful the person who abused her is and how much we’d all like to see him elected God.” Ignorance is the hammer in the hand of oppression.


  1. CowtownGirl says

    First, thank you for this site. Non-survivor priviledge is perhaps the biggest hurdle in coming to peace of mind for me; I believe it leads to crazy-making of the abused. My very closest friends often poke holes in my memories, and have actually said I may be “pyscho” and “dwelling”. I no longer discuss my trauma with them. Even my bf doesn’t want to listen, he just talks over me with his own issues.

    I had written a two page reply outlining my abuse, but instead of making this into a victim impact statement I’d rather keep my head clear and focus on the discussion–non-survivor priviledge! Growing up in a toxic, isolated, working class industry town (in Northern Canada–I mean isolated!!) I’m not sure how I have held onto my own truth. Self-esteem priviledge should be another topic! Those with secure attachments could be another one! Every day I reference myself to people who seem intimidating and ‘normal’ and terrifying, they have the ability to stand up for themselves. If I am challenged by them, even in conversation, how will I come up with the correct response? Will they negate me? This is no way to live, and I have been fighting hard to be heard. My therapists are very validating, but at $170/hour it is becoming obvious I cannot keep treatment up. So I am writing a book about abuse and truth, and have been researching neuroscience to understand what parts of our brains are responsible for our understanding of truths, and how these parts become stronger as we heal more. Anyway, a bit of food for thought, sorry if I went off topic but this is an exciting discussion for me!

  2. ang says

    Superb article. That is exactly what one experiences as a survivor, starting from childhood. Thank you for giving this a name, “non-survivor privilege”

  3. Jonathan Culp says

    You name a real and awful truth, but as an abuse survivor who has cycled through denial myself, I would also challenge you to acknowledge within this analysis the truth that ignorance is not the only road that leads to this particular dead end. Sometimes its a self-preservation strategy for people who have been abused themselves. And of course, some of those people follow this denial where it leads and become the next generation of abusers. This is not in any way to forgive this behaviour, or to deny the reality of non-survivor privilege, but I feel like these facts need to be on the table to understand what’s going on here. We are not our own category of human beings – sometimes the enemy is us. Thanks so much though for starting this conversation.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Jonathan Culp, when you’re talking to someone about a four year old article, “challenge” is too strong a word. What you talk about is something I’ve come to understand well over the past several years, as I’ve discovered just how many of the silencers are themselves victims with issues. A year ago, when Hilary Adams revealed footage of her family court judge father beating her and clearly enjoying it, I was surprised how many people commented in response on various sites, “I was beaten as a child, and I turned out fine. She’s just selfish.” Denial, perhaps, but there’s also a sense of envy there. And now it makes more sense to me why I’ve been actively hated by other victims – I thought they just didn’t like me, but it was that I worked on repairing the damage instead of going into denial, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t.

  5. Lily Grey says

    Thank you. So much. This has made more sense than anything else I have read in a very, very long time. I feel like I am constantly facing this, thank you, thank you.

  6. Dollywitch says

    I’m a victim of emotional abuse/bullying rather than anything physical, so this article doesn’t specifically apply to me. But I relate to it so much nonetheless, and attribute most of my negative experiences in recent years to this. People don’t want to hear about the dark side of humour nature(even when they regularly show it themselves). The problem with this is that a lot of the time this problem can be a cultural one that can be solved if people address it. This “dark side” is often due to cultural insensitivity or lack of responsibility – people not feeling they need to be in any way moral, which can create an environment where rapists and bullies thrive.

    So while some people might have the point of view that this would just make more people feel miserable, it might actually get people to do something about it.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    This article addresses ANY kind of abuser survival, not just physical. You are definitely included!

    And I cannot agree MORE that there’s so much we can do to improve this problem by improving the culture.

  8. George M says

    So my brother says to me a couple of years ago ” you need to let go of all that stuff that happened in the past, move on, forgive them.”

    He received more abuse than I did (he was younger when it started so had longer to wait until his escape). So I start kicking myself, asking why I cannot let go and pretend it didn’t all happen. If he can do it, what is wrong with me that I cannot?

    So when I read this article, I felt better. For fuck’s sake! I was abused! I am right not to forgive. I am right not to forget! Are we not our own worst enemies, we victims of abuse, when we forgive, when we forget? We are saying it is OK to abuse others. We are encouraging them.

    And besides, every time he is tells me Satan has hired the CIA to spy on him, I wonder how much he has really “let things go”. Somehow it is OK to be crazy but not OK to be angry.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    George M,

    FWIW, when I finally got some therapy, the therapist immediately zeroed in on how I pitied my abuser for being less than human rather than being angry with him. She encouraged the anger, and you know why? Because it was popping out in other areas of my life where it didn’t belong. It’s like grieving – you can’t just say, “Well, let’s just be glad for the good times and move on.” You can’t just forgive. You HAVE to move through the process of anger.

    And the good news is: once you acknowledge that anger at a time when you’re safe from your abuser, it eventually expends itself. You retain the sense of outrage, but not all the heavy feelings that go with it. Once you let yourself feel all that anger, you master it. You can summon it as needed when you’re dealing with bullies, or you can channel it into something constructive (that’s why I write these articles). You can use it to fortify yourself, but only when you need it.

    I’m not going to criticize ANY victim’s recovery method – if forgiveness really works for some, that’s great for them. But it is definitely not for everyone, and that advice is coming from the field built to study human emotions and behavior. They know what they’re talking about.

  10. says

    Thank you for this. You describe so well and honestly what an abuse survivor has to face often – if not daily. TR


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