The number of adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse has been highlighted more and more in the media. Many victims come forward years, if not decades, afterwards to disclose their experiences.
We’ve heard people make comments asking why victims stay silent. “Why did they not say anything at the time?” Some may believe that if it had been “that bad” they would have disclosed earlier. It’s important that we understand why victims of childhood sexual abuse stay silent, so that we can understand and support them.
Based on our experience of working with victims of childhood sexual abuse, we’ve included some of the more common reasons why they may stay silent:
Many victims are threatened by their abusers. They may have been threatened with physical or further sexual violence, or threats may have been made towards people the victim cares about. The abuser may even threaten to harm much-loved family pets. Ultimately, it’s a way of controlling the victim and protecting the abuser so that they can continue to perpetrate the abuse.
2. The fear of not being believed
Another way that abusers keep their victims silent is by telling them that no one will believe them if they disclose the abuse. Imagine the fear that a child may feel; thinking that their family will reject them if they dare say anything.
Unfortunately, many children disclose and are not believed. Even later in life as adults, victims have disclosed to family members only to be dismissed or have their experiences minimised. The risk of being rejected is very real and therefore it can feel too great for some to take that chance.
Shame is an extremely common feeling in victims of childhood sexual abuse. They may feel that the abuse was their fault; that they somehow “led the abuser on”. In fact, the abuser may have told the victim that they played a part in being abused as another way of controlling them.
Children may also experience involuntary physiological responses during abuse. For example, male children may experience erections when touched. As adults, they may reflect that this was a sign that they “enjoyed” what happened. The reality is that these were involuntary responses and do not mean they enjoyed the abuse at all. However, abusers may use this against victims and try to convince them that they did enjoy it.
Whatever the reasons for the feelings of shame, these can paralyze victims into remaining silent.
4. Protecting the abuser
This may sound ridiculous to some. After all, why would a victim protect their abuser?
Contrary to what many people might believe, the majority of abusers are someone known to the victim, for example, they might be family members or family friends. This can therefore make it harder for victims to come forward as they may have an emotional connection to the abuser.
Imagine the confusion for a child whose, say, father is perpetrating their abuse. They may dearly love their father, but question the things he does. What should they do? It can bring up lots of conflicting emotions which may continue into adulthood.
5. Not knowing it’s abuse
By virtue of being a child, they may not understand that what’s happening is actually abuse. Children look to adults as their role models; they trust them. An abuser may tell a child “this is what adults and children do”. Why would a child disbelieve this? Especially if it comes from an adult they know, respect, and care about.
As time goes on, the child may come to realise that what’s happening is not right. However, they then have other potential feelings to deal with such as believing they are somehow to blame, shame, and/or the fear of not being believed if they want to disclose to someone. So, silence may seem the only option.
The truth is, childhood sexual abuse is NEVER the child’s fault.If you’re reading this as an adult who experienced childhood sexual abuse, it was NOT your fault.
Who to contact
It can feel extremely lonely and isolating if you’re unable to talk to someone about your experiences. Counselling is a safe, confidential, non-judgmental space where you can do this. It can empower you to move out from the shadow of the abuse, and live your life more meaningfully in the here and now.
If you’re looking to seek support then please contact us. We’re here to help.