Someone sexually assaults a teenage girl. They steal her agency, disrespect her bodily autonomy, and disregard her ‘no.’ She asks for help. The adult she tells ignores it, diminishing her suffering, thus punishing her courage to disclose the assault. The teenage girl is left to address her pain in whatever way she can grasp.
You know this girl. I know this girl because, sadly, I am her. But, we all know this girl whether we realize it or not since teenagers account for 51% of all reported sexual abuse.
Starting March 23rd via Youtube Originals, Demi Lovato released a four-part documentary series on her struggle with drug addiction that led to a near-fatal overdose in 2018. In the second episode of the series, viewers learn Demi Lovato’s overdose took place when none of the people closest to her even knew she had relapsed. She called her dealer that night in secret. The dealer supplied her with “aftermarket pills,” which she did not realize were laced with Fentanyl. That dealer then raped her when she was not in a lucid state to give consent. And as Demi put it, he “left her for dead.”
We all love a redemption story. In the following episodes, we want to hear how Demi removed that evil person from her life, got clean, stayed clean, found peace and spiritual healing. But, recovery, especially in the face of sexual trauma, is rarely linear. In the third episode of Dancing with the Devil, Demi Lovato reveals that after leaving a week-long trauma retreat, she called the rapist drug dealer back, took drugs from him again, and had sex with him.
There are plenty of ways viewers might cast judgment on Demi for having sex with someone who raped and almost killed her, but none of them are right. Some victims interact with an abuser post-assault. There is nothing disgraceful about it. Sadly, it’s a possible rape trauma syndrome response.
During Harvey Weinstein’s trial, his defense attorneys tried to argue that the victims’ continued contact with Weinstein somehow discounted the rapes. But the prosecution brought in a forensic psychiatrist, Barbara Ziv, who testified that sexual assault victims actually “almost always” return to their assailants. In Demi’s case, she re-engages sexually with the man who raped her as a way to reclaim her agency and feel “in control of the situation.” She reflects later that having sex with him only left her in more emotional distress. A July 2020 article on Psychology Today expands upon reasons why victims might attempt to “reframe” a sexual assault as a means of coping. And experts who worked with ABC News also confirm that some sexual assault victims begin or continue a relationship with an assailant to address the lack of control they felt during the assault. According to that expert, there is no data on how often this phenomenon occurs. But we know that it happens.
In Demi Lovato’s documentary, she also shares that she was the teenage girl we all know. During her time with Disney, another worker raped her, and she had to see the abuser regularly. Back then, she also went on to have consensual sex with the rapist after the rape.
Sometimes, when we’re in pain, we seek more hurt to mask that pain before accepting that there are other or better interventions.
I’ve never struggled with substance dependency or the addictive nature of drug abuse. Yet in the past, I’ve still been vulnerable enough to return to an abuser post-assault. Another article I wrote explores some of the reasons why revictimization can occur. Interestingly, Demi Lovato and I share an aspect of our trauma history that might explain why people like us interact with our abusers. When I was a teenager, I was also sexually assaulted by someone I knew. Adults in my life subsequently forced me to interact with him regularly. That changes you. It helps you diminish what happened, teaches you to accept abusers despite their actions, and disrespects your inner being. You are being taught during your formative years that you, your experiences, and your right to your own body do not matter. And that isolated and hurting little teenage girl follows us into adulthood when we, in turn, become her ignorers. Perhaps our rationale is similar to the tree falling in a forest conundrum. If no one is around to hear the impact as the tree hits the ground, did it make a sound? If we do not admit to even ourselves that an assault happened and if we move forward as though it didn’t, do we carry the wound of violation or the burden of victimhood?
Though Demi did not state it this way, I would argue her reaction to the rape that occurred in her adulthood is somewhat a product of her mistreatment as a teenager. That’s not to say survivors have no agency in future decision-making when someone from the past has wronged them. But, there are layers of abuse and retraumatization, which means there will most likely be layers to and hiccups along with Demi’s healing.
Regarding Demi’s relapse, her case manager, Charles Cook, offers a powerful perspective I think relates to the rape response as well. When we watch someone take what seems like nonsensical actions in the wake of trauma, we say, “How could you do this? How could you put yourself in this position again?” But, as Charles Cook says, the reaction ought to be “Oh my gosh. You must have been in so much pain to put yourself in that position again.”