The Mythical Damsel in Distress and her Partner: Trauma

The Mythical Damsel in Distress and her Partner: Trauma

By Glenn Lipson, PhD

Professor, California School of Professional Psychology

The intersection of psychology and criminal justice is synergistic for our understanding of behavior. A topic drawing more attention is the behavior of the alleged victims of inappropriate conduct. The behavior of the survivors sometimes baffles those attempting to understand what has occurred.  The expectations that law enforcement or counselors may have that abuse victims will appear emotional if they have been traumatized and wanting a perpetrator pursued is not always the case.

The doctrine of innocent until proven guilty may result in the type of questioning of survivors that may be intrusive or harmful to an individual in a state of shock. Although legally these behaviors are called counterintuitive, intuition has very little to do with the biases we have about how victims should present themselves. We often want to see the stereotypical damsel in distress who is ready to be rescued by those who are sworn to that responsibility. Thus, it is important for us to recognize that different individuals respond differently to trauma. Some individuals become tearful and distraught, others withdrawn and distant, and others may be angry, some may refuse to participate in an investigation depending on how they were approached. When the victim doesn’t meet the damsel in distress stereotype and if their story changes they may find themselves placed under the bright light and on the hot seat. They feel they are now being seen a suspect when they are the ones who been violated.

Let’s remember these three points:

  1. Memories of the trauma may be inconsistent and with gaps. When individual feel both safe and calm, more details may come to mind. This does not mean that someone is making up a story. This is the type of the unfolding of the narrative often occurs.
  2. Not everyone who has experienced a trauma wants to share it with either law enforcement or a counselor. Trust needs to be established for a survivor to feel safe and then they may eventually reveal what is painful and seemingly unspeakable.
  3. The confrontation in an interview about both inconsistencies and contradictory information may result in some victims not wanting to participate any further in treatment or an investigation.

Forensic psychologists often inform juries about the different types of responses victims might have. For example, a domestic violence victim may at first defended their partner for any number of reasons. The organization End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) has a suggestion for both law enforcement and social service agencies that when a woman or man suggest they have been assaulted “Start by Believing”. Truth has its own way of revealing itself when we allow the information to emerge not shaped by our beliefs and expectations of what we should hear. Leading with compassion instead of skepticism often assist others in processing their experience.  Knowing that many men and women become victims of violence, it is helpful to remember that one of the best approaches involves both listening and believing what you’re hearing is possible.

Victims will be more likely to effectively face their trauma and see justice done if we all eliminate this flawed preconception of victims as the proverbial damsel in distress.

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Dr. Lipson is an internationally recognized expert in forensic psychology and will be presenting on this blog’s topic with a member of the San Diego District Attorney’s at the End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) National conference this spring.