The Kilgrave Effect: Why people don’t report their rapists

*Parts of this post previously appeared on the Legion of Leia

Jessica Jones, a popular Marvel superhero is known not only for her physical strength but also for her psychological resilience. Years after she gains her superpowers, Jessica is psychologically manipulated by an evil villain, Kilgrave (A.K.A. Purple Man). Kilgrave uses his influence over Jessica to force her into a sexual relationship with him, as well as to force her to do things she normally would not do.

When Jessica finally frees herself from him, she is traumatized. She has nightmares about him, flashbacks, she is irritable, angry, hypervigilant, she abuses alcohol, and avoids talking about what happened to her. She presents with visible symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, for the longest time, Jessica does not want to be anywhere near Kilgrave, afraid that he will hurt or manipulate her again. It is only when she learns that Kilgrave is preying on other women that Jessica takes action to ensure that he cannot hurt anyone else.

Recent posts have shed light on the obscene amount of manipulation, sexual assault, and abuse of power in the entertainment industry. Producers, such as Harvey Weistein, and other high profile individuals have been accused of sexually assaulting actors, models, and journalists.

Over the past week #MeToo went viral. People from all over the world, mostly women endorsed having been sexually assaulted and/or harassed at some point of their lives. Many men did as well. The effect of seeing nearly every woman I know, as well as many men I know use this hashtag was both powerful and chilling. It was powerful to see the solidarity of this movement, the unwillingness to keep silent any longer about our past abuses. Yet, it was chilling too, too see how many are, have been, and to consider how many will be affected by sexual assault or harassment.

As both a psychologist and a sexual assault survivor, I’ve been asked, “why don’t people report their rapists?” I’ve learned to explain it in terms of the Kilgrave Effect – the perpetrator, be it our boss, a family member, a teacher, or a coach, is usually a person of great power and influence. Like Kilgrave, perpetrators affect their victims not only at the time of the abuse. They haunt them for years after. Sexual assault survivors often feel too ashamed, alone, and terrified to report it. However, seeing others speaking out about their experiences can give us the courage to share ours.

Another phenomenon I’ve observed over the past week is that some are being questioned about their #MeToo hashtag, i.e., they are being asked to recall their story. Some are reporting being pressured. There are two concerns about that:

  1. The person who posted #MeToo may have never previously shared anything about his or her sexual assault history and may not be ready to talk about it.
  2. For many people (especially women), there is no one sexual assault/harassment story. There are dozens.

After posting my own #MeToo hashtag, I thought about posting more, sharing more information to try to help people see that they are not alone. But which story is most relevant? One about my high school boyfriend holding me down, forcing himself on me despite my screams and protests? Or one about my own Kilgrave who alienated me from my friends and family and forced me to …

Or perhaps the cabdriver who groped me on the freeway going 80 miles/hr; or maybe the stranger who followed me and screamed at me for running away from him after he started masturbating next to me on the subway, or maybe the lead singer of a popular rock band who groped, harassed, and embarrassed me in front of my coworkers? Or maybe…

Too many to tell.

So much hurt. So much anger.

How do we heal?

If you’re a superhero, like Jessica Jones, you find a cause, a purpose – perhaps fighting for people who have been Kilgraved just like you. That is exactly what my dear friend, Jenna Busch (Legion of Leia), did. Driven by her own history of sexual assault and harassment, Busch started the Legion of Leia, an online site dedicated to geeky news and powerful female voices.

“I didn’t know I had a voice until I established the Legion of Leia,” Jenna Busch says. “I wanted to be able to give a voice to others who needed it.”

Through being able to speak out about our past, through connecting with others who might also be struggling, we can self-define our own healing journey. There is no one way to heal. There is no timeline on recovery from trauma. Whatever your healing journey is, know that you are not alone and help is available if you need it.

**If you or someone you know have been sexually assaulted or abused, visit RAINN.org to obtain resources for safety and recovery. If you or anyone you know are in crisis, please text 741741, it is free and confidential, help is available 24/7.

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Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full-time geek. A Ukrainian-born refugee, she survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her family and later, inspired by the X-Men, she wrote Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She currently works at the PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in San Diego. 

Dr. Scarlet’s books include: Superhero Therapy, Harry Potter Therapy, Therapy Quest, as well as numerous contributions to the Psych Geeks Books Series.

If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Janina Scarlet via Twitter, Facebook, via her website or via Patreon.

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