Recently there have been more stories in the media about sexual assault or other sexual crimes in which institutional betrayal has played a large role (for example: Jerry Sandusky sexual abuses, various college campus sexual assaults, rampant sexual assaults against women in the military, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and Larry Nassar’s sexual abuses). Institutional betrayal is when an institution fails to protect or provide support to those who depend on it after a sexual assault has occurred (while there are other types of institutional betrayal, this blog post will focus on sexual assault). Like for instance when college administrators dismiss or contribute to a hostile environment for a woman who has reported sexual assault by another student. Another horrifying example is the recent Larry Nassar scandal in which it has now been verified that many of his victims reported being sexually assaulted but were dismissed and Larry Nassar’s crimes were covered up. Furthermore, people in positions of power in USA gymnastics and Michigan State University apparently knew of the rumors about Larry Nassar and did not intervene. USA gymnastics and Michigan State University’s actions are classic examples of institutional betrayal.
A traumatic event like a sexual assault is bad enough. And institutional betrayal can make the traumatic event and its consequences even more difficult to heal from. Institutional betrayal can retraumatize a survivor by the denial or even attacks by those in positions of power. Research has shown that the chance of developing PTSD can be reduced if a survivor has a supportive environment in which they can “debrief” or process their experience shortly after. Therefore, behaviors involved in institutional betrayal can also put survivors at a greater risk of developing PTSD by denying them a supportive environment or blatantly creating a hostile environment. Institutional betrayal has also been found to increase the chances of depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and dissociative like symptoms. Many clients who I have seen with PTSD have even described the institutional betrayal as more painful and harmful than the traumatic event itself.
Survivors in which institutional betrayal was a component of their traumatic experience will need additional support and healing. Those involved in legal proceedings regarding their sexual assault and resulting institutional betrayal will also need continuing care until there is resolution. It is imperative that survivors receive adequate and appropriate care that addresses the impact of institutional betrayal, especially during legal proceedings as the legal proceedings themselves can be retraumatizing and extremely difficult. Reach out to a therapist who is familiar with the impact of institutional betrayal to help you heal from your experience.