Over Fifty Years Of Personal Injury Law Practice

Why do child sexual abuse victims sometimes react passively?

On Behalf of | Jan 5, 2024 | Clergy Abuse

When a child experiences sexual abuse, many of them keep the abuse a secret for years. In fact, some are haunted as adults by the fact that they did not fight back against the violence that was done to them and were, instead, somewhat or entirely passive toward their abuser.

It’s important to understand that a passive reaction to trauma is very normal. In fact, it may be an innate survival mechanism.

Passivity is a coping strategy

Psychologists have observed that passive behavior may, in fact, be the default reaction to prolonged, repeated stress or violence where the victim believes there can be no escape. 

Why would this be? Essentially it comes down to this: It takes a great deal of physical and mental energy to fight back against an abuser. If it seems like the abuse is inevitable no matter what they do, then the victim may subconsciously respond in a way that minimizes their emotional and physical pain.

When a child is sexually abused by a clergy member who has the respect, admiration and trust of all the adults around, the child may (rightly) sense the power imbalance. They may know that they will not be believed if they tell someone about their experiences. They may also fear that fighting back physically will lead to even more abuse or violence. Becoming passive and resigning themselves to the abuse can become the only way to alleviate the emotional distress that comes with resistance.

The problem with this is that the “learned helplessness” that results from those experiences can become counter-productive. As adults, the victims of childhood sexual abuse often continue to believe that “nothing can be done” to hold their abuser accountable – but new awareness of this issue has changed the legal landscape for the better.

If you were the victim of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, there is help available.