One question I get from people who have no experience with sex abuse victims is “Why didn’t they tell anyone?” or “Why are they only talking about this now?”
For those of us who work with adults who were sexually abused when they were children, it is no longer surprising or confusing to hear adults talk about their childhood abuse for the first time. As a result of the trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse, very little child sexual abuse ever gets reported (maybe as many as 90% of sex abuse cases go un-reported). It can take years or even decades for victims to come forward and tell what happened to them. Maybe they tell people that they had been abused, but they don’t give details and they don’t really talk about it.
There are many reasons why victims do not talk about their abuse. The shame they felt as children may grow inside, walling them up. They may fear that no one will believe them and that disbelief will re-traumatize them. Kathryn Westcott & Tom de Castella recently explained why these cases take so long to come to light in their BBC News Magazine article The Decades-Long Shadow of Abuse. Malcolm Gladwell also had an excellent article in the New Yorker on these same issues, In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away With It.
I’ve seen this phenomenon of delayed disclosure in my own work with abuse victims. So many times, I’ve listened to women or men in their 30s or 40s tell me, through tears, how they were raped and abused when still a child – 11, 12, 13, sometimes younger. Astonishingly, when they finish, they apologize for their tears, for struggling, for leaving out most of the details. They explain that it was the first time they ever told anyone what actually happened. It’s like a dam of shame and embarrassment that kept them silent for decades finally breaks.
As dramatic as that kind of conversation is, it is really a good moment, because that is when healing can finally begin – when that person sees that it is OK to come forward and talk about what happened and know the sky won’t fall. That is the moment when an abuse victim starts to become an abuse survivor because they know they have been heard and treated with respect and can put down their burden of shame.