How Silence is Used as a Weapon to Control Victims of Child Sexual Abuse
Warning: This article many be upsetting or disturbing to some. It discusses a difficult topic and in order to do the topic justice, a definition of child sexual abuse has been used which some may find graphic in its detail.
This article is dedicated to my beloved mother who taught me to always speak up against injustice regardless of the personal consequences, as well as, to all the voiceless victims who have not yet found the courage to speak out. And to those who have spoken out . This is for you. You are not alone. We are with you and most important Allah Azza wa Jal is with you. Do not despair. “Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease,” Surah Ash-Sharh ayat 6. إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا – 94:6
The #metoo and #timesup movements have sparked an unprecedented global conversation about sexual abuse and sexual intimidation, as well as other sex related crimes, such as workplace sexual harassment and rape. It is a topic that for many is taboo to talk about, especially in more conservative societies. Yet it is a conversation that is well overdue and needs to be discussed, with raw candour and honesty. Silence regarding this topic, both within the environment where the abuse is taking place, or has taken place, as well, as in society makes it difficult for victims to disclose the abuse. Victims often feel isolated and alone, which has been described as another form of victimization. This article will limit itself to child sexual abuse.
The goal of this article is both to educate and advocate. Education in the form of defining child sexual abuse, as well, discussing the impact and aftermath of child sexual abuse, and the culture of silencing victims and secondary victims. As well as advocate on behalf of victims, as well as, secondary victims and to give a voice to the voiceless.
The NSPCC has defined child sexual abuse as follows:
There are 2 different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse.
Contact abuse involves touching activities where an abuser makes physical contact with a child, including penetration. It includes:
- sexual touching of any part of the body whether the child’s wearing clothes or not
- rape or penetration by putting an object or body part inside a child’s mouth, vagina or anus
- forcing or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
- making a child take their clothes off, touch someone else’s genitals or masturbate.
- encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
- not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
- meeting a child following sexual grooming with the intent of abusing them
- online abuse including making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
- allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse images
- showing pornography to a child
- sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status (child exploitation).
Before I continue I wish to share that my mother was the victim of child sexual abuse from the ages of 5 through to 12. Her abuse was so horrific she became blind unable to bear what was happening to her. At the time no medical cause could be found for her blindness and on her first airplane journey from her native Trinidad and Tobago to New York City, she began to see. They considered it a miracle. Much later as an adult it was determined that she had suffered from “Psychogenic blindness… a type of dissociative sensory loss which is characterized by unilateral or bilateral loss of vision/poor vision in the absence of any organic cause,” (Dutta , Poudel, Thapa, & Pokhrel 2013). To put this is layman’s terms, what she saw happening to her became so painful and difficult for her to handle her brain coped by blinding her so that she would not see her abuse, and what could not be seen, was then not happening to her. She recalled that once the plane hit turbulence she became so frightened she began to see again.
Due to her disassociation from what was happening to her she suppressed the memories of the abuse until therapy years later made those memories hidden deep within the attic of her subconscious come flooding back with a brutal yet liberating force. Once again her body reacted in a physical manner and she developed epilepsy so severe she often had 30-40 seizures a day and her heart stopped on many occasions. Despite all of this, once the truth of what had happened to her came back to her she spoke out. She spoke loud, and she refused to be silenced. It was her bravery to finally break the silence that led the family to the discovery that not only had she been victimized by her abuser but almost every single girl and boy child spanning two generations that lived under his care had been sexually, physically, psychologically and emotionally abused by him. We speak of at least a two dozen if not more victims directly impacted by his brutality, depravity and evil, not to mention the secondary victims whose lives became impacted indirectly and after the fact. I am counted among one of the secondary victims.
Take another moment to reflect and contemplate. Child sexual abuse creates many victims. The primary victim is the child themselves and they bear the brunt of the trauma. But we do not live on an island. We are connected, and as social beings who interact with one another our connections are an integral part of the human experience. Trauma often impacts generations of people whether they know it or not. It is the so-called ripple effect. Such has been the case of the abuse which occurred in my family. We as a family and as individuals are still processing the trauma, and many new traumas have occurred as a result of the initial abuse. The initial act of violence ripples, spanning years, and across generations. For more information regarding the ripple effect and its impact on secondary victims please see “Ripple Effects” of Sexual Assault. It has become the aim of this author to contribute to the breaking of the cycle of trauma and liberate the next generation InShaaAllah.
To understand the full scope of what we are dealing with we need to understand the number of children who are victims of child sexual abuse. The World Health Organization, in a 2004, “estimates that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence during 2002,”(WHO, 2004). “Sexual abuse statistics vary between countries and reports, but are consistently alarming: Research indicates that up to 36% of girls and 29% of boys have suffered child sexual abuse; up to 46% girls and 20% boys have experienced sexual coercion, “ (The 57th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights).
Take another moment to pause and allow those numbers to sink in. In the year 2002 alone an estimate 223 million children under the age of 18 had experienced some form of sexual abuse. This is a staggering figure. We speak of a number greater than the entire population of the United States of America.
Victims of sexual abuse often face an uphill battle. Their abusers many times use emotional abuse in the form of intimidation, threats of violence against them and their loved ones, as well as numerous other despicable tactics to keep their victims silent. Fear, guilt and shame keep many victims from speaking out. And far too often those who do speak out find themselves blamed and shamed by those they are relying on to protect them such as family members. This negative reaction often exasperates the victims feelings of guilt, hopelessness and in the process denying them justice. “Higher levels of unsupportive behaviour by family members has been found to be more likely for sexual assault victims than for victims of non-sexual assaults (Davis, Taylor, & Bench, 1995; Davis & Brickman, 1996).” Being believed, is the first step in ending the abuse and beginning the healing process.
Recently as I was sharing the story of my own families sexual abuse history someone commented that my great grandmother who was aware of the abuse must have felt a great deal of guilt, shame and unhappiness. Personally, I had little sympathy for her but this statement made me reconsider my position. My great grandmother was herself a secondary victim, as well as, a facilitator of the abuse through her silence. But why did she remain silent? Common sense dictates that we should respond by protecting the child. Ensuring the abuse is stopped and the child is given a safe environment in which to heal and grow. But why does this so often not happen?
The organization 1in6 offers the following explanations in their article entitled: “Why do adults fail to protect children from sexual abuse?”
- Overwhelming feelings (like fear, anger, or shame) caused by just thinking about the sexual abuse of children.
- Confusion caused by incorrect stereotypes about what kinds of people sexually use and abuse children.
- Physical, emotional, and financial dependency on an individual or group that would be lost (for oneself and the family) if such concerns are raised
- Self doubts of various kinds (e.g., “I’m paranoid.” “What if I’m wrong?” “It’s none of my business.”).
- Fears of various consequences (e.g., of acknowledging betrayal by a trusted and respected person, of being wrong, of being right).”
The reasons why abuse is ignored, covered up and/or allowed to continue are many and complex, however, in the end when adults who are aware of ongoing sexual abuse allow it to continue, they are choosing the path of least resistance. It is the path that allows the status quo to continue without disruption, or so we allow ourselves to believe.
Another reason given for adults who do not stop abuse is; denial. In the case of my great grandmother, the alternative would require her to recognize her own failure as a parent/ grandmother and guardian of these children. This is the underlying psychological reason, based on conversations she had with family members. In addition, for many women there is also the more ‘practical’ reason, financial dependence. She depended on her husband financially. He controlled the money. And some family members have suggested that he bought her silence without asking but simply by her choosing to ignore. Her silence was in fact a form of denial. The Mayo Clinic has stated, “If you’re in denial, you’re trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that’s happening in your life.” They continue “In some cases, initial short-term denial can be a good thing, giving you time to adjust to a painful or stressful issue. It might also be a precursor to making some sort of change in your life. But denial has a dark side.”
Not only are non-predatory adults who are aware of the abuse silenced but so are the victims. Victims of sexual abuse are most likely to be abused by someone they know and trust, such as a family member, (rainn.org, 2017). It is this relationship of trust that some perpetrators of sexual crimes use to gain access to their victims. And it is this relationship of trust that those perpetrators use to continue the abuse. In addition, because the perpetrator is often a trusted person it makes it more difficult for the victims to speak out. Many victims agonize over approaching their family regarding the abuse. Sadly, far too often when they do, they are either not believed or blamed for the abuse. It has been found that in particular, a mother’s support is vital to disclosure of abuse by the victim and when that support is lacking, some victims recant their disclosure, (Rakovec-Felser & Vidovič, 2016).
Victims of child sexual abuse are often victimized further after disclosing the abuse due to the lack of support. This lack of support often allows for the abuse to continue and for the victims to remain silent victims even after disclosure. It is almost like being punished for speaking the truth. Surely, we as Muslims can’t stand for this sort of double victimization. I