Dounce of Prevention
By Reba J. McMellon, M.S., LPC
Whether the perpetrator of abuse is a family member, a member of the clergy, a teacher or a stranger, publicly coming forward can take years and sometimes decades. People often wonder why report the crime after so much time has passed.
If a child is in the second grade and is being sexually abused, they can’t get in their car, move away, get an apartment and thus find safety. Second graders have very little power over their lives. They have to go to school every day and blend in academically, learn all sorts of basic math skills, eat breakfast, play on a sports team, interact like a normal child. If the abuse is ongoing, they learn to compartmentalize the trauma so they can go on to the next day, the next year and on with some semblance of a life. Sometimes the trauma of sexual abuse gets buried so deeply it doesn’t surface for decades.
This can be the case no matter how old the person is when the abuse happens. Memories sometimes are repressed completely until triggered later in life. Others don’t completely forget what happened but minimize it and put a lot of energy into not dealing with the damage.
When working with adult survivors of sexual abuse, it is quite common to have women come for counseling in their early 30s, after the birth of their first child.
The experience of pregnancy is one in which the body has been taken over by something one is not completely in charge of. The experience of giving birth is sometimes traumatizing. Having an innocent child of your own changes perspective and sometimes triggers memories. It is common for new mothers come to counseling with excessive worry and fear that something bad was going to happen to their child.
This prompts the survivors to uncover the trauma and walk through it.
It is rare someone wakes up and decides to publicly report sexual abuse and exploitation out of the blue. More often, it is after working with a counselor or spiritual director for a long period of time to build skills, confidence and understanding that it was not their fault. More often than not, it takes years to realize it was life-altering abuse.
Male survivors of sexual abuse often seek counseling after a long history of unstable relationships, promiscuity or the inability to be intimate. Men often come to counseling well into adulthood with a lot of life behind them, before disclosing childhood sexual abuse.
Counselors don’t always encourage the survivor to disclose their abuse publicly. When there is imminent danger to others, reporting the perpetrator is encouraged. If the abuser still has access to children, disclosing the crime publicly serves the greater good and empowers the survivors.
Publicly reporting childhood sexual abuse and exploitation should not be confused with sharing the trauma with trusted friends and family members. Keeping the abuse a complete secret perpetuates the shame and damage.
It takes a strong stable person to be able to speak out with confidence and tell publicly what happened to them. It can be retraumatizing. The public will question the legitimacy of the report and agencies will investigate whether the “story” is credible. Bear in mind, we are talking about intimate and horrifying facts.
The public can unwittingly say incredibly insensitive things such as, “those people just want attention.” It would take a severe personality disorder to humiliate themselves and others for attention. There is a small percentage of individuals who falsely report. It is not difficult to diagnose such a person through the interview process, when the interviewer is appropriately trained.
Statistics consistently show that one in three females are sexually abused before the age of 18. One in five males are sexually abused before age 18. These numbers haven’t gone up or down drastically in the 35 years I have studied child sexual abuse. What we can change is how we respond to reports of abuse whether it’s decades later or immediate.
The healing that can result by breaking the silence of sexual abuse is encouraging. I’ve often said a person cannot recover from what they haven’t uncovered. Wonderful strides have been made in our society when it comes to responding to allegations of sexual abuse.
If you’re tempted to wonder what difference reporting abuse makes now, after all these years, please know it makes all the difference in the world. It leads to healing, safety and hope for the future.
The Lord is close to the broken hearted, He saves those whose spirit is crushed. Psalm 34:19
(Reba McMellon, M.S. is a licensed professional counselor with 35 years of experience. She worked in the field of child sexual abuse and adult survivors of sexual abuse for over 25 years. She can be reached through The Mississippi Catholic or firstname.lastname@example.org.)