Sadly, victim-blaming is a huge part of every survivors narrative. Questions are asked of her and her behaviour and demeanour that are never asked of a victim of any other type of crime. Questions like:
‘What were you wearing?’
‘How much had you had to drink?’
‘Why were you there on your own?’
‘Did you lead him on?’
‘What did you expect?’
‘Boys will be boys.’
‘Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?’
‘Why didn’t you just fight him off?’
A woman’s previous sexual experience and the fact that men can’t really help themselves will be discussed in certain quarters. This puts the onus on women to accept responsibility for, not just their own behaviour, but that of men as well.
The bottom line is that victims of rape and sexual assault are blamed for what happened to them. As a result, a lot of victims blame themselves. This sort of victim-blaming is used particularly around young children to ensure that they stay quiet and don’t report the abuse because they are told that society, power, people in charge will not believe them – or will blame them for what happened to them.
Should a victim have the temerity, the audacity, and the courage to even attempt to seek some form of justice (there’s that word again!), they will find that those who take the side of their abusers will blame and bully the victim. For many (such as the members of my own immediate family), this helps them to avoid dealing with their own culpability, shame, and guilt around their own abuse of the victim. Or the fact that they allowed the abuse to continue by refusing to do anything to help the victim. Far, far, easier to blame the victim than to look in the mirror and take responsibility for how they made matters worse (or, at the very least, refused to make them better) for the victim.
Here’s the thing about sexual abuse – it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s decidedly unsexy. For those of us who have lived through sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, one of the things that can be really difficult is disclosing to a (potential) sexual partner.
When survivors enter into new romantic/intimate relationships, the twin questions of when, and how, to disclose to this person can be difficult. Until you actually disclose, you can’t be sure how the other person will react – and, of course, you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Minimizing what you’ve been through might help the other person to feel less uncomfortable, but you’ll be doing yourself a dis-service. I would suggest discussing the approach you plan on taking with someone else; a trusted friend, relative, therapist or counsellor.
It’s never going to be easy to have the discussion, it’s never going to be easy to disclose (and, if you’re like me, you’ll resent having to every single time). After disclosure (which I always think feels like a ‘warning’), the unsexiness doesn’t end. There is the difficulty that every survivor encounters when they attempt to blossom as a sexual being. For many of us, the easiest thing is to exit the scene. By that I mean be sexually available to your partner, but unable to actually take part in the event. [Edit: I talk more about this here]. For many survivors of sexual assault, reclaiming their own sexuality is one of the hardest things they will ever have to do – not least because so few people understand, or appreciate, the difficulties and complexities surrounding this reclamation. It’s decidedly unsexy.
Being a participant, rather than an observer, in your own sex-life, is the least we can expect. Getting there can, however, be decidedly unsexy.
Keats would have us believe that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. We all know how that feels. To be in the presence of the truth, knowing that what is being presented is authentic and honest and real.
The truth can be a very difficult thing to articulate. As Erik De Soir, the trauma and crisis specialist, said ‘There are certain traumas that cannot be spoken of’ because the person who was traumatised is so profoundly affected by the experience, that they either cannot, or dare not, speak of it. This is part of the reason why I write, and speak, of the uncomfortable truths that are mine: I am quite sure that my experiences, and reactions to them, are not unique to me. In this, I have been proved correct time and again: Every time I publish something, I am contacted by people – usually complete strangers – to let me know that I have written something that applied to them, and that having read my words, they no longer feel alone. That response is worth any amount of discomfort that I might feel about revealing intimate details of my life and experiences.
People, sadly, have an interesting relationship with the truth. My own family, for example, has been aware of the abuse I suffered – and at whose hands. I disclosed to family members individually, over the years; and my truth was never denied by the perpetrators, nor questioned by the other members of the family. As long as I was prepared to keep it secret. Nearly seven years ago, in therapy, I realised that the my mental health problems stemmed entirely from the abuse I had suffered as a child, and the continuing abuse from my family members.
So I removed myself from the ‘family’ and – in a quest for justice (which I wrote about here) – I started legal proceedings against the two brothers who had raped me. Since then, other members of my ‘family’ have adopted a revisionist approach to the truth. I have no insight into their motives for lying, but suspect that they are fearful of having to examine their own wilful interaction with highly abusive men. In a conversation I had with my ‘mother’ in October, she repeatedly said ‘It’s not my place to tell them’ – ‘them’ being the women in my brothers’ lives. These women know the truth of course, but refuse to accept the evidence in front of them. I was sure that the mother of the rapists confirming that I speak only the truth, would make a difference to these women, and inspire them to do something to help their own kids.
At this stage, all I can do is continue to tell the truth. Every time I am challenged by one of these abusive people, Anne Lamott’s quote (from Bird by Bird) floats into my brain:
‘You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.’
A few weeks ago, I spoke at an event. Afterwards, an older woman came up to me and called me a ‘truth teller’, and went on to say that I had chosen a hard path. She’s right; but what’s harder for me – what literally makes me sick – is denying the truth.
The SAVI – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland – report was published in 2002. It details the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of people with regard to sexual abuse in Ireland, and it makes for grim reading. Three thousand randomly-selected adults were surveyed for the report. Given the random-selection of participants, and the fact that the response rate was over 71%, it is safe to say that the findings can be extrapolated into the general population. Overall, almost one-third of women, and a quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Attempted or actual penetrative sex was experienced by 7.6 per cent of girls, and 4.2 per cent of boys. Equivalent rape or attempted rape figures in adulthood (adults were defined as those aged 17 and over) were 7.4 per cent for women and 1.5 per cent for men.
The SAVI Report is now 14 years old, and I really do think it’s time we had another. We would like to think that attitudes towards sexual assault have changed in the (almost) decade and a half since the SAVI Report was published. Changed for the better, I mean. And I, for one, would like to know what the numbers currently are in Ireland. I’d like to think that revelations about institutions have made people more confident in speaking up. I’d like to think that some people being open about their experiences has made it easier for more people to be open about their experiences. And, yeah, I include myself in that.
The most recent statistics the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has are from 2013. A quick look at those numbers tells us that 2,467 people made 22,460 appointments for counselling and support. The Rape Crisis Network answered the phone 32,026 times to people who needed to talk. Horrifyingly, 61% of survivors who reported being abused as teenagers were raped. Of all the people who reported being sexually assaulted, 91% knew the person who attacked them.
These numbers are deeply disturbing, suggesting that sexual violence is still a part of everyday life for too many women, children, and men in our society. We need a consistent, sustained campaign to teach our nation about a variety of connected issues and to combat the persistent rape culture that permits and promotes the persistent sexual abuse of vulnerable people.
The responsibility for sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape lies with the person who commits the assault, the abuser, and / or the rapist. No one else. They choose to commit this most terrible of offences.
That’s all there is to say about the issue of responsibility.
Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.
In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.
Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:
Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.
Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.
If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.
If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.
When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.
One of the most awful ‘side-effects’ of sexual abuse, for me, was the re-victimisation I was subjected to as a teenager, as a young adult, and even as an older adult. When you have been abused by several members of your immediate family, and then abused again by strangers and others, you do end up feeling a bit like public property. I wrote about that feeling when I was about sixteen, and am re-producing the text here:
I am public property
You can own me, if you like
Anyone can own me.
All you have to do is ask.
Or drop a few subtle hints.
Or pretend you really want to.
Doesn’t make much difference.
At least, not to me.
I don’t care.
I am public property.
I am public property.
Whatever I have is yours.
I have no secrets, no dreams,
No hopes, no ambitions.
They all belong to you.
You wrested them from me.
I could not fight to keep them.
I have no right to them, really.
They’re not actually mine.
I have nothing.
I am public property.
I am public property.
You’re allowed to play with me.
Use me at your own discretion.
Tear me up, wear me out.
Grind me down – you’re allowed.
I won’t protest.
I don’t protest.
I can’t protest.
I am not allowed.
I am public property.
Opinions, we have all heard, are like assholes; everyone has one. There is also the more genteel version of the ubiquity of opinions, that everyone is entitled to their own. The thing about opinions, however, is that they are not facts. Opinions, I think, should be based in fact in order to hold any credence, or be of any value, but often they are not.
When it comes to abuse, many people – from friends and relatives to some therapists, to the victims ourselves – have opinions on when and how we should ‘recover’, and when and how the aftermath is ‘allowed’ to impinge on our day-to-day lives. Some people believe that, if you were abused as a child, you should be well over the abuse by the time you are 21. There is absolutely no basis in fact for this opinion; different people recover from abuse at different paces. People also recover at different levels; meaning that they deal with the abuse at the level they can manage at any given time. Sometimes, this means not dealing with it, because they feel they couldn’t cope – at that moment – with the upset that looking at the abuse and its effects on them would bring to their lives.
Another commonly-held opinion is that everyone should be affected by abuse in the same way: That, because one person reacts in a certain way to sexual abuse, everyone should react in the same way. Again, there is no basis in fact for this. While there are a set of behaviours that manifest in a lot of people who were abused, not everyone will have the same reaction to their life events. Nor will everyone react in the same way at the same time. For example, many women who are abused and/or raped by family members choose not to deal with their abuse, or to deal with it on certain levels only, because they do not believe they could deal with the fallout if they delved fully into the complexities of the effects of the abuse on them and their relationships.
Then, there is that old chestnut about how ‘real’ sexual assault is a rare thing and a lot of women either lie or exaggerate what has happened to them. Again, there is no basis in truth for this. Thankfully, this opinion is being challenged more and more in mainstream media, and on social media with women recounting their own experiences of sexual assault. Perhaps the most shocking thing about these revelations is the opinion, held by so many sexually-assaulted women, that this type of abuse is ‘normal’ and ‘part of being a girl/woman’. See, for example, #everydaysexism (where many of the examples are, in fact, of sexual assault), and #shoutingback (where women recount their experiences of sexual assault) on Twitter.
Another old favourite among rape-apologists (male and female) is that women are somehow complicit in their own abuse. Sadly, this opinion has no basis in fact, either. It is true, however, that many women are conditioned to believe that because they engaged with a man, or didn’t engage with him; or because they stopped saying no when they were attacked; or because of what they were wearing they ‘invited’ an assault. This is a sad reflection on the attitude society has to victims, not on victims themselves.
We all hold opinions, on everything from the job the government is doing, to what colour works best where, to what makes a good book. We’re all entitled to hold whatever opinions we like, but if we expect our opinions on serious topics to be taken seriously, we need to educate ourselves on the facts surrounding these topics first.
The family is the first social environment that a child ever encounters. It is the family that tells a child what ‘normal’ is, and what ‘acceptable’ is. If ‘normal’ is tea from china cups and linen napkins, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is no TV after 5pm, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is sexual abuse, then the child accepts that, too. This is how sexual abuse survives and thrives in homes up and down the country. Children who are abused from the time they are tiny have no notion that what is happening to them is unacceptable and abnormal, in a wider societal view.
So when people – genuinely puzzled – ask an adult who was abused as a child ‘why did you never tell anyone?’ the answer has a few threads to it: First of all, the abused child has no idea that what is happening to them is not supposed to be happening to them. Abuse does not happen in isolation in a family. Families where children are sexually abused are toxic environments where there are many harmful practices; for example, neglect and abuse often go hand in hand. Put in its most simplistic terms, one parent will neglect the children while the other abuses them. Children in these families will often have no, or few friends, who are allowed to visit. There will be strict rules about having other kids home to visit as well – ‘drop-in’ visitors will not be encouraged and the child who ‘allows’ or ‘encourages’ such visits will be punished. Children who are being sexually abused will have most elements of their lives controlled and ‘managed’ by parents who need to keep the secrets of the home within the four walls of the house. So, with all the other controls exercised over the child, the abuse does not seem out of place (to the child); there is nothing remarkable about it, so they do not think to mention it.
Another reason children don’t disclose is because they don’t have the language, the vocabulary or the ability to disclose. Often, children are threatened with vague or real threats of what will befall them if they do discuss what goes on at home. These threats often include the child being told that the abuse is ‘love and no one else would understand’ or that the abuse is the child’s own fault and they will be punished by others if they tell. Shame is often used as way of keeping children quiet about the abuse they are suffering.
What happens to children within their families is ‘normal’ to them. As a society, we really need to stop allowing sexual abuse – and, indeed, any abuse – being any child’s ‘normal’.
Being a mother is hard. Not least because it is the most important job in the world, and the most important job to get right. It’s also the only job in the world that everyone else feels qualified to judge and comment on. Even if they are not, or never will be, mothers themselves.
Mothering is even more difficult when you add the additional burden and complexity of sexual abuse. If your child has been abused, how do you – as a mother – cope? Research tells us that mothers who are made aware that their children have been sexually abused often react in much the same way as people react to a bereavement (Myer, 1984; Hooper, 1992), or they react as though they have been raped or assaulted themselves (Hooper, 1992; Winograd Leonard, 2013). Of course, not every mother is as capable of putting her children first. In my own case, when I disclosed about the fact that my brothers were abusing me, my mother’s response was to make contact with the Rape Crisis Centre. They didn’t deal with people under the age of 16, so I was referred to another facility. My brothers’ propensity for raping was never addressed, however. To this day, it still hasn’t been addressed.
At the time, I was told they were sorry and it was impressed on me that I needed to forgive them. (I’ve written up a few of my thoughts on forgiveness here). I was told that they were ‘great lads’, who ‘never gave a moment’s trouble’ and that ‘boys will be boys’. All this did was tell me that the oral, digital, vaginal and anal rape they perpetrated on my body was, somehow, of no consequence, because they were ‘great lads’; and that raping me on a regular basis was not to be counted as them ‘giving any trouble’. The harm they did me was not something to get too upset about because ‘boys will be boys’, and it is nearly to be expected that they will rape their little sisters.
Later, when I told my mother that my father was abusing me, she told me she didn’t believe me. Then she got me and him in a room and told me to repeat my accusations. I did. He said it was my own fault. She said it was my own fault. She was jealous of the fact that her husband was sexually attracted to her daughter. I remember feeling sick. I remember feeling that they were sick in a very, very twisted way. I remember feeling confused, dazed, gaslit (even though I didn’t know, at the time, that’s what it was) and thoroughly, utterly abandoned. I was, somehow, cast as a Jezebel for being sexually assaulted between the ages of two and 17 by three members of my immediate family. She may not have known at the time that it was happening, but as soon as she did know, my mother took the side of her husband and her eldest two sons against me. Sadly, this kind of victim blaming by mothers is not unusual. Especially when the mother is – like mine – a narcissist. (If you have been the victim of a narcissistic mother, I highly recommend this book as a good place to start understanding that dynamic.)
Later, for a woman who was sexually abused as a child, becoming a mother is difficult. I spent the first year of my PhD studies reading about just how hard it is, and was comforted and outraged in equal measure to learn that I am not on my own in this. Not least because intimacy is such a difficult area to inhabit. How do you surrender to an act that has, all your life, been about the other person and their gratification? An act that has been about secrets and lies? An act that has been about power and shame? An act that has had nothing at all to do with love? How do you then try to convince yourself that that same act is something that you can be an active participant in? How do you then try to convince yourself that you are allowed to enjoy such an act? That enjoying such an act does not automatically make you a terrible person?
If you manage to resolve that issue within yourself – and if you have managed to escape physical damage to the extent where you are actually capable of conceiving and carrying a child, then maternity care can be fraught with difficulties. Health care providers are often (usually) unaware of the damage that child sexual abuse has on women who have survived it. They are not aware of how to care for such women. As a result, may women report being victimised again during pregnancy, labour and childbirth. These events can re-traumatise a woman who has already been so horribly traumatised.
And then, if you manage all that – if you manage to achieve a pregnancy and give birth, and have a healthy baby, what do you do after that? How hard or easy is it to breastfeed? For some women, this feels like an invasion of their bodies all over again. For others, it is hugely empowering because they feel like – finally – their body is doing what it was meant to do. They are choosing to use their breasts for the main (though not the only) purpose those breasts were designed.
Still, motherhood is fraught with extra challenges for the woman who has managed to survive sexual abuse and who is trying to raise her child/ren. We have a tendency towards over protection – but we’re aware of that, so we sometimes over-correct in order to be ‘fair’, in order not to be the over protective, overbearing mama – and that bring on anxiety attacks.
We worry about the state of our mental health, and the impact that might (will?) have on our child/ren. We worry that, somehow, we have transmitted – in our DNA or through our birth canals – the elements of being a victim on to our children. We worry that they, too, will be abused and we worry about how to warn them, how to teach them to look after themselves, how to know a perpetrator when they see one, how to escape from danger. We worry that these precious children of ours might be better off with someone else: That because of the damage done to us, that because we are so damaged, that our children would be better off with someone else. Someone whole, someone better. Because, when all is said and done, deep down somewhere, we secretly believe what our mothers told us, when they told us it was our own fault.
Hooper, CA, (1992) ‘Mothers Surviving Sexual Abuse’ Routledge; New York
Myer, M. (1984) ‘A new look at mothers of incest victims’, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 3: 47-58
Winograd Leonard, E. (2013) ‘Expecting the unattainable: Caseworker use of the “Ideal” mother stereotype against the non-offending mother for failure ot protect from child sexual abuse cases’, NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 69(2), pp. 311–356.
Love is the one non-physical thing we all need to live. Of course, the love of family and romantic love are important, but the person’s love who is most important, is our own.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am fed up reading self-help books that tell you you must love yourself in order to love someone else; live the life you deserve; live the life of your dreams; have successful relationships etc. I got sick of hearing this on self-development courses that I attended when nobody can answer the question ‘How?’
So about three years ago, I started this quest in earnest and tried to answer my own question – ‘How do you love yourself?’ (These days, I even run workshops on the subject). Of course, I am not the font of all wisdom – I don’t have an answer for every question, and I still have ‘off days’, days when I don’t feel too much love for myself. But I’m a lot better than I was – I’ve clawed my way back from feeling suicidal because I didn’t think I deserved love (so I didn’t love myself) to a place where I really do love myself.
Part of what helped me in my journey from self-loathing was having my daughters. They saw how I treated myself. They heard how I spoke to myself. They flinched when I punished myself. This self-abuse, this self-loathing was not something I wanted to pass on to them in any way, shape or form. In order to create a better future for them, I had to construct a better present for me. Not that I felt (or feel) that anyone should – or indeed can – live for anyone else, but I think that having girls to raise really trained the spotlight on me and what I was modelling for them. Being children, of course, they see through bullshit. They won’t be fobbed off if I pretend to love myself. I have to do it. It has to be the real deal.
You know the way babies are born as what child development experts call ‘ego-centric’ ? They believe that they are the centre of the universe and that the whole world revolves around them. And they’re right. Babies love themselves. They are born fully convinced that they are love, that they are loved, that they deserve to be loved by everyone who comes in contact with them; and the second they feel they may be around someone who doesn’t love them truly, madly and deeply, they react. They cry, they squirm, they look for Mum… Well, you were once a baby. You mightn’t remember it, but you were. And all that love that babies automatically, naturally, have for themselves, you had for your self, too.
Now, do you want the really good news? That love hasn’t gone away. It’s still there. It’s still inside you. That’s the good news. All we have to do is figure out how to access it. That’s the harder part.
If the love you have for yourself has gone into hiding, you need to figure out where it’s hiding, and who chased it there. I think that, as sexually abused people, we fall out of love with ourselves because we start to believe what other people – those who abused us, especially – tell us tell us about ourselves. And then we think that ‘everybody’ holds this vision of us. And if ‘everybody’ believes that, then they must be right. And we are, therefore, unlovable. We start to believe things that aren’t true about us. We allow other people’s treatment of us, and the messages they send us (verbally, non-verbally, in pictures, and in full-stereo) to influence us, and tell us a new story about who we are; less lovable than we really are. Recognising these stories, and learning how to change them, is the first step in our journeys to love ourselves.
The knowledge that a child is being abused is knowledge that must, under Irish law, be reported to the relevant authority. Once a child has revealed information pertaining to abuse, that information must be taken seriously, no matter who the abuse is alleged to be against, or what the child says happened. All allegations of child abuse – including (especially) child sexual abuse – must be taken seriously. What is done with that knowledge and what should be done with it are two different things. But I’m not going to go into great detail here about how the Irish state has failed, and continues to fail, children in the Irish state with regard to sexual abuse. Instead, I thought it would be far more productive to set down a number of signs of sexual abuse.
Children don’t always have the words to explain what has happened/is happening to them. There are, however, a number of signs apart from a verbal disclosure that a child is being sexually abused. Among them are:
Sleep difficulties – trouble getting to sleep, nightmares, bed-wetting and tiredness during the day (from being woken up/kept awake by the abuser)
‘Zoning out’ or seeming distant
Changes in eating habits – like refusing to eat, or constant eating, difficulty swallowing, an aversion to a certain type of food texture.
Mood swings – fear, anxiety, aversions to activities they previously enjoyed, rage, insecurity or withdrawal
Leaving ‘clues’ – drawings, books open at pages that discuss issues of a sexual nature, for instance
Suddenly becoming afraid of certain places or people
Refusing to undress (even taking off outer garments) at appropriate times – like when it’s time for a bath, or to go swimming
Averting their gaze from mirrors
Attempts at running away from home
If you spot one, or more, of these signs in a child or adolescent you know it may not necessarily mean they are being sexually abused. That said, however, any one of these signs indicates that there is an issue worth discussing. So discuss it. Use the knowledge you have.
Justice usually evades those of us who are abused. Even if our abusers face the full force of the law, ‘justice’ and ‘law’ are not the same thing.
If you have managed to escape from an abusive relationship – no matter who the abuser was – and if you have managed to carve out any sort of a life for yourself, then you are one of the fortunate few. If you have managed to challenge your abuser/s, you are in an even smaller minority. If you are now in a position where your healing has allowed you to decide you want justice, then I think the first thing you need to do is decide what justice looks like for you.
Justice, as you know, is very distinct from law. The law is written – my eleven-year-old daughter pointed out a few months ago – by angry, old, white men. Not only that, but it is written for angry, old, white men. If you want a man who sexually assaulted you convicted, then chances are you will be sorely disappointed. The odds are stacked against you.
Many women with whom I have spoken, and who have been through the justice system, mention their regret at engaging with the law. They have expressed disappointment at how they were treated – not (always) by individuals in the system, but by the system itself. So before you, as a victim of sexual assault, decide you want to pursue someone through the law, you might want to take some time to decide for yourself what justice looks like to you. Because the only person who has to be happy with your decision is you.
Justice, for you is about you. It’s about what you decide you want and need for yourself in order for you to be able to live the best life possible. I know when I decided to take action against my brothers (I have four brothers, but the younger two never assaulted me) for sexually abusing me – up to and including raping me digitally, orally, vaginally, anally and with objects – I did so for a fistful of reasons.
Among them were the desire to ensure that they never abused anyone else (abusers tend to keep abusing unless they are stopped). I did so because I wanted them to see the destruction and the devastation and the damage that they had inflicted on me and, by extension, on my children. And I wanted them to express their remorse for that damage.
This specific goals were too lofty, and too unattainable for me to have any chance of achieving them. I realised that I can’t make someone else be sorry; and I can’t protect entire populations from my brothers; the best I can do is gather together what’s left of my life and cobble it into the best life for myself and my children that I possibly can. There is a saying that the best revenge is living well – but I contend that, sometimes, the best revenge is merely living.
Justice, for me, is gathering what I was left with after years of abuse, and using it to the best of my ability for my good and for the good of as many people as possible. I decided years ago that my life’s purpose was to be the most useful person that I could possibly be. I use my experiences of abuse to help other people make sense of theirs. I use my experiences of abuse to let other people know they are not alone. I use my experiences of abuse to inform my academic research which will, I hope, help even more people understand and deal with the complex trauma they suffer as a result of abuse.
That’s why my book begins with a quote from Hubert Humphrey that reads:
“Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts.
It’s what you do with what you have left.”
Justice, for me, is doing the best with what I have left and using .
Incest appears to be the taboo within the taboo. Society prefers to think of rapists and sexual predators as extra-familial. We prefer to think that they are the men who wait, in dark alleys, for women to rape; we prefer to think of them as clergymen who cannot contain the impulses that an ‘unnatural’ life as a celibate dictates they must; we prefer to think of them as coaches and teachers and scout leaders who abuse and traumatise our children. We prefer to think of rapists as cruel, evil men who spike girls’ drinks on nights out in order to abuse and rape them.
We do not like to think of rapists and sexual predators as men who rape their own granddaughters, daughters and sisters. Sadly, however, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men who are blood relations to those they assault. This makes it harder for the victim to both process and reveal. If the people who are closest to you, the people who are meant to protect you, are the people who are hurting you in the most abominable ways, who are you supposed to trust? Who are you supposed to tell? How do you even find the words to describe what is happening to you?
Family is, to a large extent, a social construct. It is also held, by many, to be the bedrock of society. As such, there are certain expectations of how a family is supposed to function – or appear to function – there are certain rules and mores that are associated with family. When these rules are transgressed, as they clearly are in incest situations, the person who is abused is completely abandoned and alone; the ‘family’ which is supposed to be their safe haven and is attacking them. The society of which they are part, tells the abused person, through all manner of messages, that they are expected to behave in a certain way towards their family members including the member/s who is/are abusing them. This dreadful confusion compounds the awful situation the abused person finds herself in. Very often, the internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo and say nothing is overwhelming. As a result, only a small percentage of people actually disclose inter-familial abuse to anyone but their therapists.
People who are victims of incest often feel that they have no choice but to remain within the fold of the family and preserve appearances. They are often pressured to act ‘as though’ all is well within the unit. This, of course, does all manner of damage to the child and maintains the culture of abuse within the family. As a society with a duty to all the members of that society – and, I would argue, especially its children – we need to address this taboo within a taboo and confront incest as the most pervasive form of sexual assault.
When we are abused, we are often manipulated – usually by our abusers, but often by others – into believing that it’s our own fault. I touched on this a bit yesterday , when I spoke about gaslighting. When you think that something is your own fault, it can be difficult to reach out and ask for help. Often, we believe that, to ask for help, is to admit weakness. In fact, the opposite is true; seeking help is a sign of strength.
Seeking help is admitting that all is not well, and squaring up to the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. Seeking help is a brave thing to do – it is a sign that you have the courage to move on from where you are to where you can be. Seeking help is an act of heroism – a commitment to change, and change is always scary.
There are many different types of help – but they all start with a conversation acknowledging the need for help in the first place. Often, that conversation is with your primary health care worker, but it can equally be with a friend or partner, or a phone service like the Samaritans or a local rape crisis centre. Asking for help is the first step to getting it – and you deserve help. You deserve help to get to a place where you are living your best life. If you’re not living your best life, then you deserve the help you need to get you there.
The thing with getting help as a sexually abused person is that it’s rarely a one-off thing. Or even a one-off capsule of six or eight sessions. The trauma we suffer, as people who have survived sexual abuse, is complex trauma. Part of what this means is that therapy is never just cleanly done and dusted in a few sessions with a suitably qualified therapist. Complex trauma means that we need to deal with different elements as and when they arise; and we will need to deal with things on different levels as and when we are able to. As we learn more about ourselves and more about the situations we were forced into, we approach and deal with that information.
I would always caution people who have been sexually abused to be careful about the kind of help they seek, and accept. One size does not fit all – and very few therapists are not properly trained in working with people who have a history of sexual abuse. It’s – we’re – complicated, and we deserve to work with people who properly understand the long-term, multiple effects of sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse in particular.
If you can, take the time to find the best practitioner for you. Remember, that they work for you – you are not lucky they will see you; they are getting paid to do so, it’s their job. Good work can only be done if you have a good relationship with your therapist. That means clear boundaries (which work both ways and are respected as such), and a sense that you are valued and respected within the therapeutic relationship. I would suggest contacting and interviewing potential therapists. That’s what I did the last time I went in to therapy and I have to say it was hugely empowering. I wrote and gave a brief outline of my history and asked if the therapists I was contacting felt equipped to work with me. I asked for details of their education and accreditation. In Ireland, this is seen as a very odd thing to do, but I know that if I were hiring a building contractor, I’d want to know that they were qualified, were a member of a professional organisation, and I’d also seek references from people for whom they had already carried out similar work. In the case of therapists, that is neither appropriate nor practical, so I am not suggesting you would ask for references for your proposed therapist. But you are allowed to interview them.
Bear in mind, too, that there are several types of therapy; and what works for someone else may not work for you. Or it may not work for you now, but be precisely what you need in a year or two. CBT, DBT, Mindfulness, Jungian, Solution-focused, EMDR and all others are merely tools that are designed to help people manage their current circumstances. Pharmaceuticals can often help, too, depending on your difficulties, needs, wants, expectations and limitations. But they are only tools, and one size does not fit all. The wrong therapeutic approach, at the wrong time – or the right therapeutic approach at the wrong time – can do more harm than good. And you deserve good. You deserve the best. The first thing you have to do is ask for it, though. Ask for the help you need. You deserve it.
Gaslighting is a term that comes from the name of the film, Gaslight. In it, a man tries to convince his young wife that she is going insane by twisting her words, convincing that things she is sure are happening, aren’t and that her version of events are flawed. The term ‘gaslighting’ is used to describe psychological abuse that attempts to destroy the victims’ trust in their perceptions of reality. People who distrust their perceptions are easier to manipulate and control.
Gaslighting is something that often happens to people who are sexually assaulted over a period of time. If you think about it, abusers will rarely declare ‘I am going to abuse you now’ or ‘come here ’till I use you for my own sexual gratification and to feel powerful’. No. They are more likely to tell you that this is what love looks and feels like, that they are touching you in this way because you are ‘special’ or they might say ‘stop crying, it doesn’t hurt.’
Gaslighting is sometimes part of the grooming process; and, because victims of sexual abuse are prone to re-victimisation, we are prone to being gaslight in other relationships as well. Gaslighting can be linked to the lack of awareness of/trust in your instinct that I referred to last week, in the first of these AtoZ blogs. Below, I have listed my ‘Five Cs’ of gaslighting. If you find that these apply to a relationship you’re in, it would be worth mentioning it do your therapist.
Confusion. You feel confused and off-balance when you interact with someone. You receive puzzling responses to ordinary actions, and your reactions are labelled wrong or unreasonable.
Concerns about mental stability. You worry that you are going crazy. Someone repeatedly expresses concern that you’ll have a nervous breakdown.
Conflict about memory. You hear, “I never said that,” when you clearly remember hearing it. You frequently hear, “You’re imagining things,” or “You remember that wrong.” Memory differences can be expressed respectfully by saying, “I don’t remember saying that,” or “I don’t remember it that way.”
Confounded emotions. When you think about your situation, or recent conversations you have had with the person in question, you feel muddled. The facts do not add up; but you see that as a flaw in yourself, rather than in the situation or the other person.
Cross-examining your own perceptions. You ask others to confirm what you notice. When someone disagrees with you, you immediately assume you were wrong. Ask yourself if you remember a time when you did trust your own perceptions. If so, when did that change? If it is linked to the beginning of the relationship in question, it’s probably time to leave that relationship.
Gaslighting is a particularly insidious way of damaging someone’s psychological perception of themselves and their situation. I know I’m repeating myself, but if you the ‘Five Cs’ match characteristics of a relationship you’re in, it’s time to think about leaving that relationship. If you recognise the signs from a previous abusive situation, then I hope this will help put it into perspective for you.
Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I say ‘lately’, I mean the past eighteen months or so. I’ve been examining it from philosophical, emotional and psychological points of view with my eye on publishing a long piece in the near future.
I’m including a short piece on forgiveness in this A to Z Challenge because I have heard and read on many occasions, that forgiveness is crucial for survivors of sexual abuse. We are told that in order to ‘free’ ourselves from the pain of the abuse, we need to forgive those who molested and / or raped us. Forgiveness is sold to us as a A Good Thing. In the accepted rhetoric, forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.
The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’. We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.
But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or that it doesn’t matter any more? Can you really be expected to forgive someone who shows no remorse?
I don’t think that you have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. What we, as people who have managed to survive abuse, are looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move on and move forward and live our best lives.
Forgiving the people who damaged us in unimaginable ways doesn’t have to be part of that. Choosing not to forgive does not mean that you are wallowing in hate. Choosing not to forgive doesn’t automatically turn the person who has been hurt into a bitter, twisted individual. Choosing not to forgive may, in fact, be a hugely empowering stance. It may feel like one of the few choices you actively had in your your relationship with the person who abused you.
There are a number of erroneous beliefs – otherwise known as myths – with regard to survivors of child sexual abuse. I’m going to take a look at a handful of them here.
Myth: Male victims of abuse will ‘grow up’ to become abusers themselves.
Unfortunately, this myth is so widespread that men who are abused worry they will, in turn, abuse children. Just like everyone else, however, abused people know right from wrong, and we are aware of the concept of personal responsibility. If someone who was abused chooses to abuse another person, in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong – that is their choice, their decision, and they must be held responsible for it.
Myth: Boys are rarely abused unless they are ‘weak’ or ‘effeminate’.
This is another harmful myth, and it can serve to gag boys who don’t want to disclose their abuse for fear of being thought of as ‘less than’ real men. While it is true that more girls are sexually abused than boys, the fact that they were abused does not reflect badly on them. Abuse only reflects badly on the abuser and those who stood by and did nothing to stop the abuse from happening.
Myth: People claim to have been sexually abused because they are looking for attention and want pity.
Fewer than 2% of people of people who claim to have been sexually abused were not. It is far more likely that people who were abused deny, or never disclose the fact. Many (most?) victims of sexual abuse minimise the effects of the abuse on them.
Myth: Children are resilient and if people remember childhood abuse, they will get over it quickly.
All people – not just children – are resilient, but this should not be used as an excuse to harm children. The truth is that the damage done by childhood sexual abuse cannot be undone. Victims can be helped, they can be taught coping strategies, they can learn that the abuse was not their fault, but there is little to suggest that they ever completely ‘get over’ what happened. Much less that they do so quickly.
Myth: If there is no violence involved, then it’s not really abuse.
All abuse is violent. Just because there are no bruises or tears on the skin does not mean that abuse has not taken place. The most painful of bruises are the invisible ones. Abuse takes place when informed consent is not given. Abuse occurs when an older person asserts power over a child. Abuse occurs when a child is treated as an object, rather than a person deserving of respect.
The damage that is done to individuals who are sexually assaulted cannot be underestimated. There are a number of variables, and some people will find that they are affected in certain ways and not in others. No one, however, is only ‘mildly’ affected by sexual assault. There is research to suggest that the longer the abuse goes on for, the more the person will be affected; that intra-familial abuse (abuse by a member of the abused person’s family), and child sexual abuse affect a person to a greater degree than ‘just’ a one-off assault or an assault that takes place when a person is an adult.
It has been suggested that this is because an adult already has a sense of self; they already know themselves as a valuable person and a person of worth. They know to be outraged at the gross violation they have been subjected to. They know they did nothing wrong (even though we live in a society that loves to victim-blame and tell victims they are the root cause of their own victimisation).
What all victims and survivors of sexual assault have in common, however, is an attack on their sense of being safe. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from PTSD. Some of us suffer poor self-image, low self-esteem, and a myriad mental, psychological and emotional difficulties. We’re at a greater risk of self-harm, too. My own breasts are still scarred from attempts to try to hack them off when I was a teenager; sure that being born female was the root of all my problems and that if I could perform a double mastectomy on myself with a carving knife, men would stop sexually assaulting me.
There is often physical damage, too. Apart altogether from the immediate and obvious damage done to abused flesh, and the damage done by self-harming, girls who are abused often find (like I did) that there is damage done to their reproductive organs, which impacts on their ability to have children of their own.
Forming and keeping intimate relationships is an area fraught with difficulty for those of us who were abused. Particularly if the abuse started in childhood – because we are primed to almost expect to be abused. I wrote a bit about that in my book, Gullible Travels:
‘My family spent years and years teaching me that I was less than nothing – I was useless, worthless, good-for-nothing, lazy, ugly, stupid, fat, ridiculous, disgusting, full of notions, a waste of space. Touch was abuse. My family spent my entire childhood teaching me to hate myself. I was a model student.
As an abused child, I had a job. My job was to save myself. By saving myself, I don’t mean stopping the abuse – I just mean getting through it alive. My job was to get out of there in one piece – physically at least. My job was to stay alive. When that is your job description, knowing what’s expected of you is not difficult: You do what the person in charge tells you to do. You stop questioning. You stop listening to your own instinct because to do so could be detrimental to your health. Then, you stop recognising your own instinct. That’s when you really get in to trouble. Your instinct is there to protect you – to stop you from doing dangerous things. If you can’t even recognise your instinct in order to pay attention to it, you are in real trouble.
Your brain takes sides against itself and against you. One half tries to understand how the people upon whom you depend for everything are untrustworthy. You cannot trust the only people in the world that you are supposed to trust. But you have to. Otherwise, what will happen to you? Where will you live? What will you eat? If you run away (which you try, unsuccessfully, to do) what will happen to you then? Will you run away to something that is worse than what you’re running from? You don’t know – so you stop fighting.
The other half of your brain decides it’s better to stop trying to figure out what’s going on. Autopilot is a better option, this half thinks. It thinks that is the way to get you through safely; stop asking questions, stop fighting. Take a deep breath. And hold it. Both sides of your brain just want to get you through the horror safely. Their definitions of ‘safe’ don’t match. But if you get through this alive, you can sort that out later. Or try to. Or you can avoid it. If you get through this alive, you will have choices. If you get through this alive, you can address all the horror later. Or not.’
Of course, a huge problem with not hearing your instinct as a child is that you continue to be unable to hear it as an adult. This, then, leads to the phenomenon of revictimisation; where people who were sexually abused as children or teenagers are vulnerable to further abuse when they are adults. This, then, compounds the damage already done to them.
The damage that sexual abuse does to the victim and their family is all too often underestimated. It is long-lasting and far-reaching, a fact that is often over-looked by people who haven’t lived through abuse.
It make me marvel, as a woman living in Ireland, how Irish people bang on about the famine and post-colonialism and the damage it has done, and continues to do Irish people and the Irish psyche. This year, the Rising of 1916 is being commemorated and there is much discussion about the effect it has had on the Irish and the Irish psyche. Yet, there isn’t a single person alive who remembers either the famine or the 1916 Rising and it’s accepted as legitimate to discuss at length how they have effected Irish people; while people who were sexually abused during their own lifetimes and are profoundly effected by it, are told to be quiet and ‘get over it’. Which, of course, just adds to the damage.
There is just one cause for sexual assault: Sexual assailants. The person who is assaulted is never to blame. Never. Unfortunately, people are quick to victim blame, even when the victim is a child (like I was when I was first abused as a two year old). These people, who make excuses for sexual assailants, rapists and paedophiles, seem to think that somehow, something a victim does excuses the rapist from their actions. That simply isn’t true. A victim never causes an abuser to abuse them. (Closely linked to the issue of cause and responsibility is the issue of consent, which I wrote about a few months ago. You can read that post here.)
No matter what – no matter what a person is wearing; what they have been drinking; who paid for their drinks or their dinner; where they live; what they do for a living; if the abuser feels they have been ‘led on’; if the abuser has had consensual sex with their victim on another occasion; if the abuser is a family member – the cause of sexual abuse is abusers. Always.
There are no mitigating factors. There is no grey area. There is no question of a victim bringing it on themselves. There is no question of a victim causing their own victimisation. There is one cause and one cause only for the rape and sexual assault of women, children and men – and that cause is the rapists and sex offenders.
Different rapists may use different excuses – they were angry, upset, needed to feel powerful, needed sexual gratification, found their victim too attractive to resist – but that does not detract from the fact that they are the ones who caused the rape.
I know I’ve done little else in this post but repeat myself – and there’s a good reason for that: We still live in a society where people who are sexually assaulted are blamed for that assault, and are seen as causing the assault. This is never the case. We are never to blame for the assaults perpetrated on our bodies. The hatred men have for themselves is waged in a war on women’s bodies and women’s minds. The cause of this war is the men who wage it. not the women on whom it is waged.
One of the hardest things a victim has to do is disclose their abuse for the first time. I’m not saying it gets easier with every telling; but some people can be easier to tell than others. It can be easier, for example, to tell your doctor – in a matter-of-fact, clinical way that you have been abused – than it is to tell a new romantic interest before you get intimate with them. (In my experience, it’s better to tell them before rather than after, but more on that later.)
As a society, the first thing we need to do us understand that we have to believe the victim. Victims and survivors need to know that they will be believed or they will not disclose. That matters, hugely, not just for the possibility of their own recovery and healing, but in order to instigate action against the person who raped or abused them, and prevent it happening to someone else. Because, here’s the thing; sexual predators do not stop abusing because they wake up some day with a eureka moment, and think ‘oh that’s not a very nice thing to do, I’ll stop now’. If a behaviour is serving someone well, they have no reason to change that behaviour. So, if a sexual predator is not stopped from abusing, they will continue to do so. They will just become more devious, more adept at finding people to groom, more sneaky about the ways they use to find and silence their victims.
This is evident from the number of high-profile sex-offenders who abused many children over many years. They were not stopped because their victims didn’t disclose for fear of what would happen to them afterwards, and for fear of not being believed. In fact, many of the women who were raped by Bill Cosby were not initially believed when they came forward.
Of course, we’ve all heard that people make up false allegations about abuse and rape in order to exact revenge on a man who has upset them. This tiresome trope is all the more tiresome because false allegations make up fewer than 1.5% of rape claims that were prosecuted in the UK. Given that, I would suggest that anyone who makes allegations of rape or sexual assault be believed until it is reasonable to think that their allegations are false.
In my case, I was ‘lucky’ in that I was always believed. Along my journey, I have always been believed by doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, police, judges – anyone who mattered, really, found no reason not to believe me. In fact, most went out of their way to reassure me, and emphatically declared that they did not doubt me. This was probably aided by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse never denied it. (More about that later).
I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to have to go through being assaulted and then not believed. It’s hard enough to muster the strength to report a rape or an assault in the first place – whether that reporting is official (to the police or a healthcare professional for example) or unofficial (to a friend, partner, parent etc.) – without having to go to extreme lengths to ‘prove’ that an assault has taken place.
Contributing to the culture of disbelief is a misinformed notion of what a victim ‘should’ look like, or how a victim ‘should’ behave. If a victim presents in ways that go against these ideas – which are often promulgated by media in various forms and guises – s/he has a more difficult time being believed.
Rape and sexual assault have devastating effects on those who are hurt. They damage in ways that are seen and unseen. They take so much from the victim that cannot be replaced. The very least victims deserve is to be heard and believed.
I wasn’t planning on doing this April A to Z thing – but here I am, literally at the eleventh hour (it’s just 2300h here in Ireland), but I have a thing about synchronicity and when two of my friends on Twitter tweeted in quick succession about having taken up the mantle, I thought about it.
Then, I dismissed the notion. I’m busy. (Everyone’s busy – that’s no excuse and I know it). A few hours later, however, I realised that April is Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. I thought I might like to blog about that. Then, my friend Barbara Bos suggested the challenge on a page for writers that she manages. About two seconds after I posted a reply saying, basically ‘Great idea, I’ll think about it’, the two thoughts collided in my brain and I realised that this blog challenge is a great platform with which to raise awareness of sexual abuse. After all, it is a key theme in my book and much of my academic research.
So, here I am. Committing to twenty six posts this month, on this blog, on the subject of sexual abuse and working my way through the English alphabet as I do so. Wish me luck!
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone – male or female, young or old, able-bodied or otherwise. Likewise, sexual assault can be perpetrated by anyone; male or female (though in over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is male), young or old, able-bodied or otherwise, stranger, friend or family member. Any sexual act which takes place without consent is assault. It is never the fault of the victim and a person who is asleep, drunk, drugged or too terrified to speak cannot give consent, so any act perpetrated on their person is assault.
Rape, assault and abuse are in and of themselves acts of violence. Though the criminal may use other types of physical violence, it is not at all unusual for them to ‘just’ use threats and coercion. Indeed, when a person is the victim of repeated assaults from the same person, and has been groomed by them, additional violence is rarely needed to subdue the victim.
Abuse has a profound, long-term and detrimental effect on the victim. It takes so much from the person who is abused: Those of us who survive are aware that something precious – something that can never be given back – has been taken from us.
If you have been a victim of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, or if you are supporting someone who has, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre. If you are feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal as a result of sexual trauma, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre or your nearest branch of the Samaritans.