I was sitting in a coffee shop with a few close friends recently and the lighthearted banter suddenly turned serious when talk turned to the topic of child abuse.
I’m not really sure how we ended up talking about it but before we knew it, at least three people in the group had subtly hinted that it had happened to them. The conversation made me realise afresh that child abuse is more pervasive in our society than we care to admit.
I think if we were to have a really honest and open conversation with almost anyone in our own family or social circle — whatever class of society we belong to — we would soon realise that practically everyone we know has a personal account of being sexually abused as a child.
Take a look: My stolen childhood...
Are some of you shaking your heads and saying, no, that’s not true?
Go on, I urge you to tell your own story to someone or even to mention the fact that it happened to you and then to see what happens as a result.
Now if so many people have been sexually abused as children, isn’t it utterly appalling that we don’t talk about it? Maybe not.
In researching this blog, I spoke to a few women who were sexually abused as children (although obviously it happens to a lot of boys too) and then told some about it — what happened next was grim to say the least.
One woman told me about an older uncle who had fondled her breasts when she was a teenager. When she told her grandmother about it, she received a stiff rebuke that she must have done something to encourage this behaviour. This impacted her so dramatically that for the next few years she dressed in extremely loose fitting clothing in order to make her figure invisible.
Another woman, who was abused as a child and then as a teenager, told her aunt about the experience and was told that she walked 'too straight' and flaunted her breasts. This person has walked with hunched shoulders ever since and now, even as a 30-something woman, finds it hard to walk with a straight back.
These may be extreme cases, but the other reaction to a child telling someone about an incident like this is disbelief.
‘No, nothing happened to you, you merely imagined it’, is the response of frightened adults who don’t want to believe that children — as one of the most vulnerable groups of society — are regularly sexually abused by teachers, drivers, relatives and strangers among others.
This rejection from a family member, who is a source of emotional or financial support for a child, may feel far more dangerous than the risks of remaining silent.
Or if you want to look abroad, the Catholic Church?
The long-term impact of either of these reactions is perfectly clear — if as a child you were led to believe that what happened in these horrible situations was your fault or that what you felt simply never happened, that perception (or as psychologists may call it — cognitive dissonance) will stay with you well into adulthood.
The subtle message is essentially the same: be ashamed, it is a secret (or, it never happened), never tell anyone.
Explore: Shame, guilt and child abuse
There could be many others reasons that people don’t want to talk about these things — certainly for women a loss of reputation is a glaring concern — but I think when you do open up about it, the feeling can be a like letting go of heavy baggage you’ve been carrying around for years.
Here, I want to quote a great line from Matt Haig’s bestselling book ‘Reasons to stay alive’;
"The act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists, so does hope.”
Although Haig writes this in the context of depression, I think it works equally for child abuse as well.
Read: Groping Pakistan
Talking about an experience, however damaging, depressing or disturbing, essentially means we’re bringing it into the light and while doing that may not make it any less painful, it does remind us that we’re not alone in the situation and that there is help and understanding at hand.
But more than that, talking is the surest form of defence against that man on the motorbike who made you touch him inappropriately, that teacher in school who persistently pinched you in a way that was hurtful and uncomfortable, or the relative who held you a little too close for comfort.
Yes, I know it’s hard to read about, it’s hard to talk about…but it is so much harder to live through it.
And, if we write and talk about child abuse enough, we can ensure that many others don’t have to experience it — for ourselves too, it is never too late to begin to heal.