Incest,sexual child abuse is a very sensitive topic. The difference between child sexual abuse and incest is that in incest the perpetrator is family and with child sexual abuse it can be by anyone. Incestuous sexual abuse is one of the most devastating types of abuse because it causes us to develop warped perceptions and dysfunctional relationships with multiple facets of our self.
There are so many reasons that children feel they are unable to report sexual abuse, and many survivors have more than one reason for keeping it secret. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of those reasons.
· “No one will believe me”: Abusers very often threaten that if you tell, no one is going to believe you. You then face the risk of looking like you are telling lies, and perhaps even that you will get punished for not telling the truth. After all, children believe that adults believe other adults over children.
· Threats of Harm to Others: Abusers can openly threaten that if you tell, then they are going to punish you by hurting someone you love. It’s not unusual for an abuser to threaten that they will, for example, kill the family pet, or hurt a parent or sibling. This, especially to a young child, is incredibly scary – and can result in believeing you are responsible for keeping silent in order to protect others that you care about.
· Threats of further harm to yourself: Abusers can also threaten even worse punishments for you is you do tell. They can think up punishments that literally freeze survivors into silence.
· “It’s my fault”: Many abusers “groom” their victims, and over time, they can make you feel that you have been doing something wrong, and that you are guilty of what’s been happening. If this is said often enough to you, then you start to believe it. You may be told that if anyone finds out then you will be sent to a children’s home or a jail for children, and that everyone will think you are x, y, and z. Its understandable therefore, that many children don’t tell because they are frightened of being blamed for being complicit in the abuse.
· Not wanting the abuser to get into trouble: As many abusers are close to their child victims i.e. a parent, sibling, family friend, religious leader etc. then sometimes the child doesn’t want the abuser to get into trouble. They can fear the abuser being sent to prison, or being told they are not allowed to see this person again – and obviously if you feel love for that person, then silence often wins through. The idea of being responsible for the break up of their family, in particular, can be too much to bear.
· “I don’t know what to say”: Obviously a childs’ vocabulary, especially when talking about sexual acts, is not as sophisticated as that of an adult. There are very real practical barriers to telling, like not knowing what words to use, or not knowing how to bring it up in conversation. Even many adults struggle to talk about sex, especially when abusive in nature, and so how could you expect yourself as a child to be able to do this. Also, if you are very confused about what exactly has been done to you, it is almost impossible to know how to describe it.
· Bribery: Some children are bribed in order to keep a secret. For example, the abuser may promise to give you money, or may buy you nice things. These “rewards” can very much confuse your feelings towards the abuser and towards the abuse itself.
· “But I liked it”: Some survivors keep silent because of things about what’s happening that are deemed “positive”. For example, children who are very deprived of love and affection, may crave the love and affection they feel they are receiving from their abuser. Some human contact is better than no human contact. Understandably, sexual stimulation can also result in arousal, and this can be very confusing for a child to disentagle the nice feelings with the bad feelings. It can make a child feel “special” and wanted, possibly for the first time in their life.
· “I didn’t know it was wrong”: Especially if abuse began at a very early age, you may not have even been aware that this wasn’t something that didn’t happen to everyone. The abuse becomes part of your normal everyday life, and so challenging it wouldn’t even occur to you.
"Not telling" does not make you in any way responsible for the abuse that happened to you as a child. If you think about how difficult it is to talk about the abuse as an adult, just ask how you could expect yourself as a child to have be able to do that. For many children, "telling" just doesn't feel like an option.
Virtually no child is prepared for the possibility of molestation by a trusted adult. That possibility is a well kept secret even among adults. The child is entirely dependent on the abuser for whatever reality is assigned to the experience. The secrecy is both the source of fear and the promise of safety, “everything will be alright if you don’t tell”.
If the child has never been warned of the possibility of the abuse, then they have little option but to believe what they are told “Don’t tell because no-one will believe you” “I’ll kill you” “you’ll get sent away”. As well as the pressure of carrying the secret, the child may come to believe that she is responsible for keeping the whole family together.
Children may be given permission to avoid the attentions of strangers but they are required to be obedient and affectionate to any adults entrusted with their care. A child may say “I don’t like daddy bathing me” or “I hate uncle John”. Adults are unlikely to pick up on this and ask what the child means and the child may well be told off for being a nuisance, or for being rude. The child may feel that their mother, by dismissing their complaints, is condoning the abuse.
It is sometimes assumed that if a child doesn’t complain, they are in some way consenting to the abuse, or at least are not damaged by it. It should be clear that no child has equal power to say “no” to a parental figure or to anticipate the consequences of sexual involvement with an adult. It should be clear that the abuser bears sole responsibility of any sexual activity with a child.
Adults may expect children to forcibly resist abuse, to cry for help, to try to escape but the natural reaction is to feign sleep, to shut off, to cope silently. Small creatures simply do not call on force to deal with overwhelming threat and confusion. Trusted adults define a child’s reality and when there is no place to run they have no choice but to try to hide.
Adults easily forget the absolute powerlessness of the child and find it hard to believe that children would submit to sexual abuse quietly but the threat of loss of love or loss of family security may be more frightening to a child than the threat of violence.
Entrapment and Accommodation
For the reasons outlined above early intervention is unusual and therefore children who suffer continued sexual abuse must learn to accommodate that reality into their lives. To make some sense of the abuse children may grow to believe that they must have provoked or deserved the assaults. However, the anger and rage at being abused will find expression for girls most usually in self destructive behaviour which reinforces her self hate.
Delayed, Conflicting and Unconvincing Disclosure
Most ongoing sexual abuse is never disclosed, at least not outside the immediate family. If family conflict triggers disclosure it is usually only after some years of continuing abuse. If after an especially punishing family fight and a belittling showdown of authority by the father, the girl is finally driven by anger to let go of the secret, she finds she is seeking understanding and intervention at the very time she is least likely to find them. Authorities, and possibly her own
family, are alienated by the pattern of delinquency and rebelling anger. People assume that she has invented the story in retaliation against her parents attempt to achieve reasonable control.
The average adult, including mothers, teachers, doctors, social workers, judges and jurors, cannot believe that a normal, truthful child would tolerate sexual abuse without immediately reporting it. A child of any age faces an unbelieving audience when she complains of ongoing sexual abuse, but an adolescent who has already been branded as a trouble maker and an ungrateful child risks not only disbelief but humiliation and punishment as well.
Whatever a child says about sexual abuse, she is likely to reverse it. The family may be shattered, the child will be questioned, but the father may remain in the home in the meantime.
Once again the child bears the responsibility of either preserving or destroying the family. The ‘bad’ choice is tell the truth, the ‘good’ choice is to capitulate, restore the lie and save the family. Unless there is special support for the child, and immediate intervention to put responsibility on the abuser, the girl, or boy will follow the ‘normal’ course and retract her complaint.
We must believe those children who have already been abused and provide them with a safe and consistent means of escape. Work undertaken with abused children shows that if children are believed and action is taken to protect the child and to stop the abuse many of the damaging long-term effects can be reduced or removed.