Why people carry the secret of childhood sexual abuse into adulthood.
As the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland so powerfully demonstrated, many adults have yet to tell anyone that they were sexually abused as a child — not their partners, not their friends, not their family members, not even their therapists. Many therapists are familiar with the reasons why children do not come forward to report child sexual abuse, but many don’t understand why adults continue to carry this secret, sometimes to their graves. There are many reasons why some adults continue to keep silent when it comes to being a victim of child sexual abuse.
Many former victims of child sexual abuse are confused as to whether they were, in fact, sexually abused. This can be due to a lack of understanding as to what constitutes sexual abuse, because many people are misinformed as to what child sexual abuse actually is. For example, many people think of childhood sexual abuse is an adult having intercourse with a child — penetration of a penis inside a vagina or in the case of male on male sexual abuse, a male penetrating the child’s anus. But most childhood sexual abuse does not involve intercourse. Also, many people think of childhood sexual abuse as being an adult molesting a child. But childhood sexual abuse also includes an older child molesting a younger child. Child sexual abuse includes any contact between an adult and a child or an older child and a younger child for the purposes of sexual stimulation that results in sexual gratification for the older person. This can range from non-touching offences, such as exhibitionism and showing child pornography, to fondling and oral sex, to penetration and child prostitution.
As the young men in Leaving Neverland explained, they did not realise that they had been sexually abused until they were in their thirties. Instead, they considered what allegedly occurred between themselves and Michael Jackson as a love affair in which they consented to all the activities that occurred. This kind of thinking is common for former victims of child sexual abuse. It wasn’t until one of the young men had a child of his own that he came to realise what had happened to him. When he thought of someone doing to his son what had been done to him, it suddenly dawned on him that he had been abused. “I’d kill anyone who did that to my son. Why didn’t I feel anything when I thought about what Michael did to me?” the young man shared. This lack of awareness and the inability to connect with and have empathy for themselves as a child is not uncommon in former victims of child sexual abuse.
Another issue that may add to the confusion is the issue of receiving pleasure. Although there is often physical pain involved with child sexual abuse, that isn’t always the case. For some victims, there is no physical pain at all. And victims have often reported experiencing some physical pleasure, even with the most violent and sadistic types of sexual abuse. This confuses victims, causing them to believe that perhaps they gave consent or may have even instigated the sexual involvement. The reasoning goes like this, “If my body responded (through a pleasurable sensation, an orgasm, an erection) it must mean that I wanted it.”
It is very important to understand that experiencing physical pleasure does not signify consent. Our bodies are created to respond to physical touch, no matter who is doing the touching. And many victims of abuse were so deprived of affection that they spontaneously accept and respond to any physical attention, no matter what its source.
Another reason why many question whether they were really abused is that they may not have a clear memory of what happened. They may have only vague memories or no memories at all, just a strong suspicion based on their feelings and perhaps their symptoms. It’s difficult to believe your feelings when you have no or very few actual memories. Some people will even doubt the memories they do have, fearing that “I’m just imagining” or “I’m making this up.”
One reason why someone may have no memories or vague memories is the common practice of victims to dissociate. Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, and actions, and sense of who he or she is. This is a normal phenomenon that everyone has experienced. Examples of mild, normal dissociation include daydreaming, “highway hypnosis,” or getting lost in a book or movie, all of which involve losing touch with an awareness of one’s immediate surroundings.
During traumatic experiences such as crime, victimisation, abuse, accidents, and other disasters, dissociation can help a person tolerate something that might otherwise be too difficult to bear. In situations like these, the person may dissociate the memory from the place, circumstances, and feelings caused by the overwhelming event, mentally escaping from the fear, pain, and horror of the event.
When faced with an overwhelming situation from which there is no physical escape, a child may learn to “go away” in her head. Children typically use this ability as a defence against physical and emotional pain or fear of that pain. For example, when a child is being sexually abused, in order to protect herself from the repeated invasion of her deepest inner self she may turn off the connection between her mind and her body creating the sensation of “leaving one’s body.” This common defence mechanism helps the victim to survive the assault by numbing herself or otherwise separating herself from the trauma occurring to the body. In this way, although the child’s body is being violated, the child does not have to actually “feel” what is happening to her. Many victims have described this situation as “being up on the ceiling, looking down on my own body” as the abuse occurred. It is as though the abuse is not happening to them as a person but just to their body.
While dissociation helps the victim to survive the violation, it can make it difficult to later remember the details of the experience. This can create problems when it comes to a victim coming to terms with whether or not they were actually abused. If you were not in your body when the abuse occurred, it will naturally affect your memory. You won’t “remember” the physical sensations of what the abuser did to your body or what you were made to do to the abuser’s body. This can cause you to doubt your memory and add to the tendency to deny what occurred.
Sometimes the reason victims don’t have clear memories of the abuse is that they were drugged or plied with alcohol by the abuser. It's rather common for perpetrators to sedate their victims with alcohol or drugs as a way of gaining control over them and of ensuring that they will not tell anyone about the abuse. Victims who were sedated often describe their memories as “fuzzy” or have only short “snapshots” of memories that they may have a difficult time making sense of.
Some victims of child sexual abuse deny that they were abused, others deny that it caused them any harm, while still others deny that they need help. There are many reasons for denial. One of the most significant is that victims don’t want to face the pain, fear, and shame that comes with admitting that they were sexually abused.
Like dissociation, denial is a defence mechanism designed to prevent us from facing things that are too painful to face at the time. It can even allow us to block out or “forget” intense pain caused by emotional or physical trauma such as childhood sexual abuse. But denial can also prevent us from facing the truth and can continue way past the time when it served a positive function.
“I knew for a long time before admitting it in here that I was abused by my grandfather. But I just couldn’t face it. It was just too painful to admit to myself that someone I loved so much and someone who had been so kind to me could also do such vile things to me. And so I pretended it never happened.”
Another reason some people deny that they were sexually abused is that it forces them to admit that they became abusive themselves as a consequence of having been abused. If a former victim went on to abuse other children he may have an investment in believing that children are never really “forced or manipulated” into sex with an adult or older child. He may convince himself that children do so willingly and that they get pleasure from the abuse. This kind of denial often keeps former victims from admitting that they themselves were abused.
There are many legitimate reasons that former victims are afraid to tell someone they were sexually abused, even as adults. These include:
Their perpetrator threatened them. It is common for child molesters to threaten to kill their victims if they tell or to kill family members or pets. Even though being afraid of their perpetrator after becoming an adult may not make any logical sense, it is very common for former victims to continue to fear their abuser.
They are afraid they will not be believed. This fear is especially potent when a former victim has had the experience of not being believed in the past. And often, the belief that they will not be believed often comes from the perpetrator telling them things like, “No one will believe you if you do tell."
They are afraid of the consequences once the secret is out, such as family disruption or violence. Some former victims fear that if they tell a family member about being abused, that person will become enraged and perhaps become violent toward the perpetrator.
Any time someone is victimised, he or she will feel shame because they feel helpless, and this feeling of helplessness causes the victim to feel humiliated. There is also the shame that comes when a child’s body is invaded in such an intimate way by an adult. Add to this the shame associated with being involved with something that the child knows is taboo. Sometimes a child also feels shame when her body “betrays” her by responding to the touch of the perpetrator.
This overwhelming feeling of shame often causes a former victim to feel compelled to keep the secret of the abuse because he or she feels so bad, dirty, damaged, or corrupted. The feeling of shame can be one of the most powerful deterrents to a victim disclosing having been abused.
“I didn’t tell anyone when my drama teacher started abusing me because I felt so humiliated that I didn’t want anyone else to know about it. I felt disgusting, the lowest of the low. I guess most of all I felt so much shame about the things he did to me and made me do to him that I didn’t feel I deserved to be helped.”
Self-blame is another major reason why victims keep their secret. Victims tend to blame themselves for the abuse they suffered, especially when it is a parent who sexually abused them. Children want to feel loved and accepted by their parents and because of this, they will make up all kinds of excuses for a parent’s behaviour, even if that behaviour is abusive. Most often children blame themselves for “causing” their parent to abuse them. Why? Because children naturally tend to be egocentric — that is, they assume that they themselves are the cause of everything. Needing to protect their attachment to their parents magnifies this tendency.
Perpetrators take advantage of a child’s tendency to blame themselves by telling the child it was their fault. They shouldn’t have sat in his lap the way they did. They shouldn’t have looked at him the way they did. They shouldn’t have dressed the way they did.
We as humans have a need to maintain a sense of control over our lives, even when we have lost control, as in the case of child sexual abuse. As a way of maintaining a false sense of control, many victims will blame themselves for their abuse. This occurs both in children at the time of their abuse as well as with adults who are still struggling with admitting they were abused in childhood. The unconscious reasoning goes like this: “If I continue to believe it was my own fault, that I brought this on myself, I can still be in control. I don’t have to face the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that comes with being victimised. I can maintain my sense of dignity and avoid feeling humiliated.”
Sometimes victims blame themselves for the abuse because they hold the perpetrator in such high esteem. They couldn’t imagine that this respected person would do such a thing to them unless they had somehow encouraged it in some way. This was the situation with a boy called Gabriel. Coming from a devout Catholic family, Gabriel became an altar boy when he was 9 years old. Like the rest of the parishioners, Gabriel adored the priest. That is why it was particularly shocking to Gabriel when one day the priest asked him to stay after mass and then sexually molested him.
Gabriel could not comprehend what the priest had done. He knew that what had happened was a sin and that priests were not supposed to be sexual. So in order to make sense of what had happened, he simply blamed himself. Somehow, he decided, he must have seduced the priest. He even believed that since he had begun to masturbate a few months earlier, the priest must have known about this and was punishing him or teaching him a lesson.
Finally, another reason victims tend to blame themselves is our culture’s tendency to blame the victim. “Victim” has become a dirty word in our culture, where victims are often blamed and even shamed. There are even spiritual beliefs that hold that if something bad happens to you it is because of your own negative thoughts or attitudes. Cultural influences like this serve to blame victims rather than encourage a self-compassionate acknowledgment of suffering. Former victims of sexual abuse as members of this culture accept this view, often without question.
A Need to Protect the Perpetrator
As evidenced by the behaviour and thinking of the two young men in the Leaving Neverland documentary, some former victims still care about the perpetrator and want to protect him or her. In addition, as part of the grooming process, perpetrators work to separate the child or adolescent from their parents and their peers, typically fostering in the child a sense that he or she is special to the offender and giving a kind of attention or love to the child that he or she needs. Sometimes, the initial relationship of trust between a child and an adult or older child transforms so gradually into one of sexual exploitation that the child barely notices it. Between the time when the attention a child is receiving seems to be something positive in the child’s life and the moment when the sexual abuse begins, something significant has occurred. But the child may not be sure what it was and often remains confused about the person who has been significant to him but has now begun to abuse him. They can be plagued with questions such as: “Does he really love me?” and “Could I have caused these things to happen?”
For many former victims, it is only after months or even years of therapy before they develop enough trust in someone to tell their secret. Unfortunately, for various reasons, many former victims never make it to a therapist, even as adults.
If you are one of the many people who continue to carry the secret of childhood sexual abuse, it is vital that you break your silence. Even though it is difficult to reach the point where you can finally tell someone, this dark secret can make you sick, emotionally, psychologically, even physically. It can eat at you from inside, draining you of vital energy and good health.
The secret of child sexual abuse is especially shaming. It can make you feel like there is something seriously wrong with you; that you are inferior or worthless. You want to hide for fear of your secret being exposed. You don’t want to look other people in the eye for fear that they will discover who you really are and what you have done. You don’t want people to get too close for fear of them finding out your dark secret. And to make matters worse, carrying around this secret isolates you from other people. It makes you feel different from others. It makes you feel alone.
There is already a tremendous amount of darkness connected to child sexual abuse: the clandestine, sinister way it is accomplished, the manipulation and dishonesty surrounding it, the lies and deception used to keep it a secret, the darkness and pain surrounding the violation of a child’s most intimate parts of his or her body, and the violation of the child’s integrity. Keeping the abuse a secret adds darkness to an already dark and sinister act.
When you don’t share the secret of child sexual abuse, you don’t have the opportunity to receive the support, understanding, and healing that you so need and deserve. You continue to feel alone and to blame yourself. You continue to be overwhelmed with fear and shame.
By Beverly Engel L.M.F.T. (adapted)
Posted March 6, 2019 in Psychology Today