I recently read an article in the Irish Mail on Sunday about Joe Devine, who told his wife about his childhood experience of sexual abuse 35 years after it had occurred. He spoke about how he was sexually abused while attending St Augustine’s special needs school and how he feared that his now wife, would not have agreed to marry him if he spoke out earlier.
It is unfortunate that Joe is not alone in his silence. Although more and more cases of childhood sexual abuse are being reported daily, childhood sexual abuse still remains the most under reported crime across the globe with many victims bringing their experience of sexual abuse with them to the grave.
Who Are the Abusers?
According to Darkness to Light (www.d2l.org) about 90% of children who experience childhood sexual abuse know their abuser and of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17. It is these very relationships that adds to the difficulty for victims to speak out.
It is also widely recognised that children who are being abused often love and trust the person that is abusing them. The abused child will have undergone a grooming process leaving them confused about exactly what is happening and who is to blame.
The Lasting Impacts of Grooming.
In our book ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we talk extensively about the process of grooming. We firmly believe that if you are not aware of how grooming happens, you will never be in a position to keep your child safe.
Grooming occurs in stages and most often happens slowly allowing the abuser to build trust with everyone involved in the child’s life. The most damaging stage of grooming a child, occurs when the abuser gets the child to touch his/her genitals. The act of touching the abuser’s genitals changes everything for the child. It can leave the child believing that not only have they participated in the act, but they may even feel they were responsible for instigating what happened. This leaves the child confused as to whether or not what is happening is abuse. The process of ‘grooming’ will now shape the thoughts and future behaviors of that child.
10 Reasons Not To Tell!
- The victim may not understand that what is happening is abuse.
Because grooming occurs over a period of time and the abuse can build slowly. A child can often feel that what is happening is normal. They don’t like it, but they don’t feel they have a choice and so feel they have to do what they are told. As they become adults depending on what they used to cope with the abuse they most often can push the memories to the back of their minds and convince themselves it is over now so forget it.
- Fear of the abuser.
It is often the case that the abuser threatens the child or another family member. They may threaten that they will get hurt or be removed from their home if they speak out or that no one will believe them. This belief and the fear of the abuser carries into adulthood unless it is interrupted or challenged.
- Fear of not being believed and worrying about what people would think of them.
Through the process of demeaning the child, constant taunting and name calling, along with the child feeling dirty and ashamed for the abuse, victims can really struggle to believe they are innocent. Developing a number of social anxieties due to the long-term impacts of trauma can also make telling someone next to impossible.
- Feelings of confusion, guilt, shame and responsibility.
Again because of the grooming process the child often takes on the responsibility for the abuse. Developing strong beliefs around personal involvement/collusion or engagement in the act of abuse itself. This is most likely lead to the adult survivor feeling that telling someone would be more like a confession than reporting of a crime and so they remain silent.
- Feelings for the abuser.
As most abuse is carried out by someone the child knows, trusts, and in a lot of cases is dependent on they will be very reluctant to speak out. All children love their parents regardless of how they act. In abuse cases it is often misguided loyalty that can prevent the victim from speaking out. Fear of tearing the family apart, of the family member being physically hurt or sent to prison are all contributing factors that can prevent even the strongest child/adult from speaking out.
- Trust Issues.
One of the most damaging impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the struggle victims have in placing their trust in anyone. When the abuser is someone that you were supposed to trust, abuse by that person leaves a lot of confusion and a constant struggle not only to trust others, but more damaging is the inability to trust themselves. This is an area that requires a lot of work to rebuild but can be done gently and over time.
- Fear of the consequences.
The fear of who will be impacted by disclosure is usually the biggest concern for victims of childhood sexual abuse. The awareness that the non-abusing parents, siblings, friends etc will all suffer when the abuse is disclosed can prevent victims from ever coming out and telling their story. It is not uncommon for victims to hold their truth until a parent dies so as to lessen the pain they feel they will be inflicting on those they love. The saddest thing is that once the victim remains silent they also take on the responsibility for something they had nothing to do with.
- Not having the language to explain what is happening.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse very often lack the capacity to express, understand or build normal ways of expressing their emotions. This can leave victims fearful that even if they decided to tell someone about their abuse, they wouldn’t know how to explain it or even may struggle with gathering full memories. This is due to the manner in which trauma affects the brains development and how memories of abuse are stored in fragments. Understanding that this is perfectly normal and is a result of the abuse will help victims overcome these difficulties and be better able to express their feelings appropriately.
- Believing the abuse is temporary and will stop soon.
Often victims of abuse convince themselves that what is happening is temporary even if it carries on for many years. Their need to believe that what is happening will be over soon is a coping mechanism that they develop to survive the immediate abuse. This is why educating your children around the impacts of abuse if vital.
- The victim may believe they are being punished for being bad. They may also believe it will stop if they are good.
Victims often believe that there is something inherently wrong with them and that is the reason for the abuse. They may act out, struggle to control their anger and rage which is a direct result of the abuse they are or have suffered. They can take on the negative image of themselves that has been instilled by their abuser, that they are bad and need to be punished. Also, if like me you grew up in the shadow of the catholic church you may have convinced yourself that because God himself didn’t save you that you deserve what you got.
As an adult it doesn’t become any easier to speak out. Years of pain, buried memories, anger, and mistrust can make the process of speaking out extremely fearful and painful. I feel it is also important to mention that to tell someone about your abuse does not, and should not, require you to speak publicly about your abuser. Telling someone about your abuse is about You and how best to heal from the abuse you suffered. Breaking the silence may help you gain an understanding of how your life has been impacted and influenced by the abuse you suffered leaving you free to learn a new way forward that is guilt, shame and pain free.
Paula- 28th January 2018