Why would those who have been sexually assaulted by someone close to them stay in touch with their abuser?
The question has come up in the weeks since it was revealed that the actress and director Asia Argento arranged to pay off the actor Jimmy Bennett last year, after he accused her of sexually assaulting him in 2013, when he was 17 and she was 37. They remained in contact, though not in a relationship, in the years leading up to and in the time after the alleged assault. Ms. Argento had known Mr. Bennett since he was a child, when they first worked together.
Ms. Argento herself entered into a relationship with Harvey Weinstein after she says he sexually assaulted her, when she was 21 years old and he was in his 40s. Despite that encounter, which she said caused “horrible trauma,” they were involved for years afterward, which included consensual sex.
“The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” she said.
Both Ms. Argento and Mr. Bennett faced questions about the truth of their claims because they waited to disclose the abuse or because they continued the relationships.
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These questions are “very common,” and there are many reasons that people stay, said Qudsia Raja, who is the policy director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
• “When you’re in a relationship, you’re invested,” Ms. Raja said. “You end up justifying it.” People often don’t recognize or name assault, sometimes not till many years later, she said. Lisa Aronson Fontes, a researcher and the author of the 2015 book “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship,” agreed: “Many victims do not interpret what is happening as sexual violence.”
• Sometimes sexual violence in a relationship is just a component of a group of problems. Sexual abusers victimize their partners in other ways, too, Ms. Fontes said, including physically, psychologically or economically. The sexual abuse of a partner, by definition, she said, includes psychological abuse, because the abusers make their needs or desires superior. “All these forms of abuse create great fear in the victim and wear her down, making it harder for her to think clearly,” Ms. Fontes said.
• And some people fear they won’t be helped or believed. “Men are believed more in the legal system than women,” Ms. Fontes said. Gender aside, when the abuser has more power or social standing, that can be used to invalidate the survivor’s account.
In 2015 the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention reported that about 18 percent of women and 8 percent of men had experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner.
The majority of people who contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline about abuse by a partner are between the ages of 16 and 24, Ms. Raja said.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a section on its website called Setting Boundaries, filed under Healthy Relationships. It answers questions about consent and communication in intimate relationships. “Personal boundaries shouldn’t feel like castle walls during a siege,” the website says.
‘I had so much self-doubt’
Caragh Poh, 30, of New York, said she struggled with feelings of shame, confusion and self-doubt after she was drugged and raped by a man she was dating. She shared details of the relationship in a July essay for The Cut entitled “The Kinds of Monsters I Used to Date.”
“I knew I woke up twice in the middle of the night to him having sex with me, and that I was only awake for a moment each time,” Ms. Poh told The New York Times last week. “I knew I felt off in the morning. I knew I found residue from a crushed pill on the counter. But I had so much self-doubt.”
“I stayed because I really had trouble believing it happened,” she said.
Ms. Poh asked herself questions that drove the seed of doubt deeper: “What if I was just so tired and that’s why I barely woke while he was on top of me? What if I felt off because I was dehydrated even though I only had two drinks?”
“The feeling of ‘What if I’m wrong?’ made me panic more than ‘What if I’m right?’” she said. “So I chose to believe that he didn’t put anything in my drink. It was easier to believe him.”
Ms. Poh said she was fortunate because she was able to leave the relationship without fear of recourse, acknowledging that many do not have such a luxury.
Measuring the consequences: jobs, family, safety
Those in the legal system may also ask these common questions of people trying to leave unsafe relationships.
People have trouble “giving credence” to behavior that happens in private, Ms. Fontes said. “Abusers may be great at presenting a front as a kind person.”
Ms. Raja said the complexity of the issue is sometimes lost in a courtroom. She has seen petitions for protective orders rejected because the judge said that if the abuse was serious, the accuser would have spoken up earlier.
But a person “who does not leave her sexually abusive partner because of fear may be accurately assessing the risks in her situation,” Ms. Fontes said. “She needs to be given clearer access to resources to help her exit safely, and hold her abuser accountable.”
Ms. Fontes also stressed that putting the onus on the victim to extract themselves misses the point. “It is perhaps more important to ask why some men choose to sexually abuse their partners, again and again,” she said.
Ms. Poh said her silence after being assaulted was in part because she feared being discredited: “We see and hear women being doubted over and over again. I didn’t want to have to defend my memories because they were weakened. If someone wanted to accuse me of lying, I had nothing I could use as proof. It wasn’t like I was attacked on the street with bruises to show for it. It was just so much easier to ignore it.”
In retrospect, she said that she wished she had gone to the hospital and gotten a drug test the morning after the assault.
If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available. Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call 1-800-799-7233.