Obstacles Against Discussing Child Sexual Abuse

First things first: I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. I would rather write this post from the safety of abstracted distance (e.g. as a citizen concerned with an important topic), but ultimately I need to be forthright in spite of my trepidation over any interpersonal awkwardness that may result. Indeed, the issue at hand is the difficulty our society has in discussing it, as well as the role of that phenomenon in perpetuating abuse.

Over the summer, a Wesleyan student of mine asked me to contribute a track to the “Songs for Something” compilation album, for which all the songs would be issue-oriented and would raise funds for a relevant charity (click here to check out the album). It would have been very easy to just pick a track from one of my various topical projects, send him a file, and get on with it. However, when it came down to it, the song “Fuzzy” essentially begged to be recorded. With that came a sense of responsibility to stand behind it – I have certainly flirted with referencing these experiences in music (yes, sleuths among you, “Know Thyself” can be seen through this context), but usually with a greater degree of abstraction.

I am extremely fortunate that I have a support structure (and, I suppose, some kind of inner resources that I don’t entirely understand) strong enough to have transcended my experiences and wound up in a position of relative strength and stability in my life – not everyone is this fortunate, and even for me, it’s a difficult subject. There is an irony to the fact that experiences like that hit a young person in the most vulnerable places, yet to talk about these experiences requires a surplus of self-protective strength in order to not only navigate the inherent emotional difficulty of discussing personal trauma but also brace for the likelihood of being challenged, misunderstood or otherwise invalidated.

My thoughts about including “Fuzzy” in this compilation began as an inner debate over my willingness to be open and vulnerable in this way. Once it became internally clear that it was the right thing to do, my thoughts shifted. Why, I wondered (and still wonder), should it even be a question? Why should I doubt how something like that would be received? Or, more to the point, what are the issues that make child sexual abuse such a difficult subject to openly discuss? So here are some thoughts on that.

- It’s uncomfortable

People can readily acknowledge child abuse as a bad thing for which abusers should be punished, but have a hard time going beyond that. People have a hard time talking about sexuality in a straightforward and healthy manner. Put the two together and add a layer of sadness and a layer of ickiness and the factors I’ll discuss below, and it’s fairly straightforward that we have a long way to go before feeling comfortable discussing something as uncomfortable as child sexual abuse becomes the rule and not the exception.

- It’s sometimes an inexact science

I began writing this even before the term “legitimate rape” was introduced into America’s linguistic lexicon. Most people have a sense of what is “legitimate” child sexual abuse and what is safe, healthy behavior, with a fairly large and context-dependent gray area in between. If a well-intentioned person messes up, does that count? If actions are misconstrued but a kid still gets hurt as a result, does that count? Where is the line distinguishing between “abuse” and “damaging inappropriate behavior?” How do we factor in different mores about bodies and sexuality from one family or culture to another?

Meanwhile, with any type of trauma, there is a “sliding scale” whereby a whole host of factors dictate the impact on the victim. These include the timing, the resources available for recovery, the victim’s overall environment and less quantifiable aspects of how that person is wired. However, the tendency is to overlook these factors and focus on the severity of the traumatic event itself, and even if you accept the sketchy premise that someone can legitimately be the arbiter of someone else’s “entitlement” to hurt, somehow this calculus tends to work against the victim either way. If we deem the trauma to be less severe, then it’s hard to understand why a survivor is impacted in a significant or ongoing way. If we deem the trauma itself to have been worse, but the survivor seems to be holding it together, then maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. I don’t see this logic being applied so much in other types of traumatic situations* (car accidents, muggings, etc.), but I suppose it makes sense for it to be a more appealing line of thought for a type of trauma in which there is a direct correlation to someone else’s culpability.

* I left combat veterans with PTSD off this list because of the whole host of other messed-up ways that people in this population are misunderstood and mistreated, and that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

- Victims are stigmatized

This one doesn’t need much explanation. Women who were sexually abused as children are viewed by some as “damaged goods.” Because PTSD is not well-understood, being “triggered” by seemingly innocuous stimuli that provoke traumatic memories may simply seem from the outside like weird, offputting behavior. Men in that situation can likewise be seen as less manly, or (depending on the abuse) can have their experiences minimized if viewed through the filter of archetypal fantasies about young men and older women. Not everyone is sufficiently enlightened see these victims as heroic survivors. It can get more insidious as well in that many perpetrators were themselves abused, leading the logic to come back around in some people’s minds and make every victim an object of suspicion.

- Perpetrators aren’t necessarily 100% bad people

Sure, it is important to protect ourselves and our children from the degenerate rapist prepared to leap out of the bushes with a lead pipe. That said, comparatively recent events like the Jerry Sandusky and Catholic Church scandals have brought greater public awareness to the prevalence of abuse perpetrated by people who the victims know and trust. Kids can be abused by relatives, friends’ relatives, neighbors, clergy, coaches, teachers, babysitters and so on – it’s distressing to think that no particular status or role makes a person inherently immune to suspicion and it’s frankly easier to just dismiss that distress from our consciousness than to approach the world with trepidation.

And here’s where it gets even more complicated – many of these people do good in the world aside from being abusers. They may genuinely be contributors to society, providers for their families and even sources of inspiration to others. More complicated still is that they may continue to serve those roles for the very people who are victims of their abuse – a sexually abusive coach may still be imparting wisdom about how to be a better athlete, providing great competitive opportunities and so on.

It’s not my place here to moralize about the extent to which being a perpetrator of sexual violence negates the good work one does for one’s family or community. However, it is extremely important to understand how this contradiction clouds the landscape of understanding. So, for example, it would be easy for me to say that Jerry Sandusky’s crimes make him a vile person and outweigh anything good he accomplished through the Second Mile charity – easy for me to say because I was not impacted directly by that charity. What if they (or, more confusingly, he personally) had helped me or my family or my community in a way for which I felt grateful and indebted? If in that situation I throw him under the bus, then what kind of ambivalence must I now live with over my improved life circumstances? The closer the relationship, the more complicated this becomes. The more complicated this becomes, the greater the temptation is to assume that abuse could not have occurred. It’s a complicated and often ugly cycle.

- Memory can be cloudy

When I look at the work I’ve done to heal, I can best describe my traumatic memories as resembling an envelope containing a document at which I’d rather not look. Virtually anyone can relate to that. You know that when you open the envelope, there will be a number of unpleasant things to deal with, and there isn’t any literal “need” to open it urgently (e.g. it isn’t an eviction notice), so you put it off. Maybe once in a while you spy, out of the corner of your eye, the corner of the room that contains the pile of papers in which that envelope sits . . . and you quickly and naturally find another place to look and something else to do. Eventually when you have adequate space to deal with the contents of the document and feel emotionally prepared, you take a deep breath and open it . . . or maybe you just leave it sealed, unconsciously calculating that the consequences of doing so are less daunting than directly addressing what’s inside. Everyone I know reacts similarly, at least sometimes, to some hanging-over-the-head unpleasant chore or obligation or phone call or what have you. It’s not that you literally forget that you have to call your whiny aunt, but neither is it that you consciously decide not to. Some kind of internal self-regulation mechanism puts it aside until either you feel ready to deal with it or she calls you herself and circumstances thus force you to either deal with it or meet with greater friction by not doing so.

I suppose if you are a person who addresses every issue or obligation in full at the precise moment it arises, and surround yourself entirely with people who do the same, then it is reasonable for you to be suspicious of the basic notion of recovered memories. Most of us, however, experience a variation on this phenomenon when dealing with relatively benign things in our lives. When we’re talking about a gut-wrenchingly traumatic experience, those inner mechanisms can become stronger and more nuanced. We consciously perceive as much as we can handle consciously perceiving, and beyond that find places to store the rest. If there is (as there is for most people) reason to fear external backlash in addition to the inherent emotional stress of the traumatic memory, then there is that much less incentive to lay it all out on the table. Largely for reasons I will get into below, however, society holds sexual trauma survivors to a standard of “keeping the story straight” beyond what we expect of politicians or journalists or doctors. Remembering something today that was not remembered last month is seen as further reason to doubt a survivor’s credibility, since after all, how can you “forget” something real? Yet if we’re talking about something as harmless as writing an overdue thank-you note, we can all relate.

- Sometimes accusations are wrong

It would be irresponsible to completely dismiss this one. Sometimes people make stuff up out of vindictiveness towards an alleged, falsely-accused perpetrator. Sometimes people mis-remember or are even coached into doing so by mental health professionals who are not competent or reputable (akin to quack doctors who threaten to give the majority of ethical and skilled medical professionals a bad name). I have a close friend who was falsely accused years ago (the accuser soon thereafter recanted the story) and the emotional and professional damage to him were substantial – it is to his credit that he has remained an active advocate for troubled youth in spite of these scars.

Now, of course, any allegation of anything could be disputed, smoking gun or not. For an allegation of child sexual abuse, there is at least one person (the perpetrator) with a vested interest in disputing it, and probably many more who would prefer for any number of reasons that the can of worms be shut as expediently as possible. Trying to cast doubt on an allegation is a tool employed by everyone from defense lawyers to teenagers whose parents suspect them of playing hooky. If you want to cast doubt, what better way than if the accusation comes from a child? If the child’s accusation is of something that would be far easier and more convenient for people not to believe, that makes it even easier. If there is no forensic evidence linking you to the crime, easier still. If a time gap exists between the incident and the revelation, the defense case just keeps mounting. As impediments to a victim’s credibility, all of this is daunting enough, but if you add to it a general societal skepticism about the validity of child sexual abuse accusations, that’s quite often the final nail in the coffin.

Most importantly, know this: there are many perpetrators out there who are well aware of this phenomenon and take advantage of this societal “loophole” wherever possible, preying on victims’ totally legitimate fear that they will not be believed and that things will be easier if they keep their mouths shut. This can be conveyed subtly and unconscious manner, it can be part of a threat or it can simply be a matter-of-fact statement within a veil of faux-normalcy. This happens often and is an extremely effective tool; thinking otherwise is a naïve delusion. Really, if I am accused of something I actually did but which can’t be easily proven, of course my first impulse is to deny it. If I “fess up,” it’s because my morality demands I do so. Do you think it makes sense to expect that a sexual predator will hold him or herself to that moral standard?

While there is no reliable way to precisely quantify the prevalence of invalid child sexual abuse accusations, it is rarer than most people seem to think. In the studies I have examined, the percentages are in the low single-digits, and that includes accusations instigated by adults (for reasons including revenge and leverage in custody battles). The notion that bogus accusations are common is not tangibly supported by anything I have encountered, save for the materials produced by a small but vocal group of activists committed to fighting “false memories.” Again, I don’t claim this to be a total non-issue, but when I look around, I see a society more concerned with protecting a small number of adults from accusations than with the vast number of children who ARE abused and say nothing because they don’t think they will be believed or get help. And if that doesn’t make you want to throw up, then let me borrow your barf bag.

- What if I get accused next?

This may be the elephant in the room. For many people upon hearing of an accusation of abuse, the first assumption is to presume innocence and feel sympathy for the perpetrator, imagining the damage to his or her career, reputation, family and so on. I find this interesting in that this is not the first reaction to the majority of crimes. It’s not as if people are immune to false accusations of murder, tax fraud, malpractice, embezzlement or any number of other things.

In my observation it is that many innocent adults are terrified of being falsely accused of sexual abuse. There are a few possible explanations for this, including some that I presumably haven’t come up with. One is what I call the “plane crash phenomenon.” The odds of dying in a plane crash are lower than of dying doing any number of things we do casually and often, but the idea is easy to imagine and so horrific that it sparks a different type of fear than the more statistically dangerous act of getting in one’s car.  So while for most of us it’s hard to imagine being accused of murder, it’s comparatively easy to imagine a young person either misconstruing our actions or simply slinging an accusation for which there is no forensic evidence to use as a defense and it’s easy to imagine the resulting damage to our lives. It’s much more likely that we will, for example, be victims of identity theft, but that fear is somehow less primal.

On a more subtle level, no responsible person wants to feel “guilty” of a crime of neglect. That is, nobody wants to be the person who failed to notice a “red flag” and thus was a distant and unwitting accomplice to something bad. Maybe you saw something uncomfortable with your kid’s coach, but figured it was all just part of the game. Maybe you saw something uncomfortable go down between your nephew and your brother, but it wasn’t your place to say anything. Maybe you noticed that your student’s energy changed, but you figured it was probably just moodiness and you didn’t want to cause a stir over probably nothing. Maybe you had no idea at all, but you still drove a kid you love to a place that you later discovered to have been unsafe.

I’m not big into regretting things over which we have no control (e.g. you happen to drive down this road and not that road and you have an accident). But it gets stickier when we choose the path of least resistance, thinking the outcome will be inconsequential, and it turns out not to be. How would it feel to find out that 10 years ago you failed to correctly identify a cry for help? And that that person, for whom you care deeply, has suffered tremendously? Really bad. Thinking about this can certainly spur a change and lead to greater proactivity, but it is also rather common for the opposite to happen. That is, by creating emotional distance from the issue, we can comfort ourselves with vague thoughts that it doesn’t happen THAT often, and kids make up all kinds of crazy things and that it’s not our place to butt into other people’s business and so on and so forth . . .

- So now what the heck am I supposed to do?

If I could answer that question more definitively, I’d be writing a manifesto and not a reflective blog post. But there is one thing that is fairly straightforward, and that is that creating a more open discussion about child sexual abuse is not just about a utopian desire for people to let go of their hang-ups. An environment in which this is openly discussed is an absolutely essential component to reducing the risk to children.

And on a basic level, if there are children you care about, LISTEN TO THEM. Even if something bad has already happened, the presence of a safe adult who takes the child seriously and is forceful about taking protective steps is incalculably important. Conversely, being ignored or dismissed will quickly and decisively send the message that the kid is in it for him or herself and hopelessly at the mercy of malevolent forces. Your response to a situation really can make that much of a difference.

If a child tells you that he feels uncomfortable when his uncle touches him, pay attention! Maybe this kid told you 5 minutes ago that there are pirates living under his bed, and maybe you’ve seen this same uncle be touchy-feely before and it has always seemed harmless enough, and maybe you owe the guy some money and you don’t want to piss him off. Maybe you even calculate that there’s only a small chance that there’s anything bad happening or that you can do anything about it, and therefore the odds of there being a “real” problem don’t match up to the likely upheaval of following up. After all, you can’t afford to pay him back, you’d sure miss his wife and her cooking if you became persona non grata in their home, and there are any number of other people who might be mad at you, and besides, it’s probably nothing. Any one of these things can reasonably lead us to inaction, but they don’t have to. This is the well-being of a child we are talking about!

I’m not saying that this topic shouldn’t make you uncomfortable – it SHOULD! The issue is whether that leads to avoidance or whether it leads to a healthy confrontation of the issues at hand, both societally and on a case-by-case basis. The cost of avoidance is enormous, and the cost of dealing with it is a pittance by comparison. If you followed the Jerry Sandusky revelations and trials, one can only imagine how many emotionally devastated people there are who now perceive that they could or should have done something. It is also worth noting that the chain of events leading to the eventual investigations and revelations began with the actions of a horrified, vigilant parent. And most importantly, take that devastation and multiply it exponentially and then you can get a glimpse of the impact on the victims.

I wouldn’t write all of this if I didn’t have hope. When I look at the strength, courage and commitment of the many fellow survivors in my life (literally none of whom I realized were survivors until I already knew them) I do feel optimistic that this script can be rewritten as we as a society move forward. This is not an easy issue to tackle, but it starts with having the conversation. Even in seemingly tiny ways, each of us can do something to help stimulate that conversation.

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  1. paula norton

     /  October 3, 2012

    hey noah, thank you for writing this and for sharing in such an honest and riveting way. xo

  2. Mo Sila

     /  October 4, 2012

    Beautifully written, important information given in a heartfelt way. It matters to me when a survovir speaks his truth. It affects the whole world. Thank you for your brilliant courage.

  3. Debrah

     /  October 4, 2012

    I recently wrestled with what to do about a suspicion/gut feeling regarding a child and her father. I tried to avoid the issue by telling myself that others who were closer to the situation and were better acquainted with the people involved had chosen to do nothing. Perhaps I was making a big deal out of nothing, had a overly-active imagination, etc. Perhaps opening my mouth would make a bad situation worse. It took a few months but eventually I realized that, as you point out, if I remained quiet and later found out I should not have done so I would have a hard time living with myself. I chose to leave an anonymous tip on the local police hotline, and I sincerely hope it was taken seriously.

  4. Eleanor Nettleton

     /  December 16, 2012

    Dear Noah. I came to this through your post shared on FB about the dec.14th shootings. Ths is a confused survivor I have been invalidated and experienced much of what you have written.No child ought to be left out in the cold to figure it all out!
    On another note the yellow on black of your blog is very hard for old eyes to read!
    Thanks Eleanor

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