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Confronting the shame of sexual abuse

Published: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS

The treachery of sexual abuse is in the shame it instils in the victims. Here is a crime unique in its ability to cause more guilt in the victim than perpetrator. And because sexual abuse of any nature: incest, rape, molestation are shamed-filled violations of intimacy, both factors contribute to the silence we sustain.

The Encyclopaedia of Psychology describes sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Most victims and perpetrators know each other.” 

It says, “Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder. While efforts to treat sex offenders remain unpromising, psychological interventions for survivors—especially group therapy—appears effective.”

I’ve learned the shame is not only that of the abused and that silence is promoted by those who are proximate to the crime, also.

In an interesting conversation, I had a first-hand opportunity to observe the reactions of two siblings to the alleged crime of incest/molestation/ rape. In a candid moment, one sister declared that though she speaks with her mother, she’s still praying to be able to forgive her. 

Immediately upon her statement, the younger of the two became extremely agitated, rose up from her seat and stepped away, and with her back turned, declared with mixed anger, anxiety, and defensiveness, “Mommy did the best she could have done for us.”

“That’s easy for you to say because you did not have to go through what I did,” said the elder sister who seemed bent on telling me her story.

What I think made it worse for the younger sister was the fact that they had only just met me in a social gathering. We three had ended up together because we wanted more air and moved almost simultaneously to an area and 

began chatting.

The elder sister told me their stepfather sexually abused her and that she thought her mother knew but said and did nothing. By age 13, having gone through the abuse for almost five years she felt she could no longer deal with it. She was quietly embarrassed around her schoolmates and felt as a misfit.

She also felt more certain about the inappropriateness and decided to approach her mother for an intervention. That did not go well. She was labelled as ungrateful for accusing her stepfather after all he had done to ensure she had a “good” home.

She said, as far as she knows, her mother never confronted the adult male but instead pressured her to “shut up” and shamed her, throwing words and belittling her for any and everything, thereafter. 

As she shared her story, she reassured herself that she had found a relationship with God and that he was healing her anger. She has never had a professional intervention. You can well imagine that she’s a broken spirit.

Meanwhile, her younger sister is now by the road, out of earshot, and she whispered, “I think he get her, too, but she denies it and never wants to talk or hear me talk about it.”

Midway through the “confessional” the younger of the two had stormed off with a string of sentences thrown back at us. I did not hear everything but some of what was clear went like this:- 

“You always have to be talking about things nobody eh want to hear… blaming Mammie for trying to doing her best with us… Why you just can’t keep your stories to yourself… nobody never prove anything you ever said was true…You should really learn when and where to open your mouth and try and stop bad-mouthing Mammie…”

Quite a lot of times sexual abuse is committed when children cannot articulate their feelings, when they are still unsure what they should feel, and are told by the trusted offending (mostly) adult that it’s okay to do the act once they keep it to themselves. 

It’s mostly in adulthood that people open up about childhood sexual abuse, by which time some have recovered and are able to live a better-adjusted life, while others carry psychological and psychiatric detriments of varying intensity.

A lot of the emotions are realised retrospectively as the child becomes adult with a better understanding of right and wrong and is emboldened to speak out. And often, the shame experienced by other family members causes rifts among relatives and the survivor. But that shame really belongs to the perpetrator.

That vulnerability of the child is still the best reason for T&Ts to create proper childhood interventions policies/ programmes, if we are to begin healing our injured population.

Psychology Today says, “The trauma that results from sexual abuse is a syndrome that affects not just the victim and their family, but all of our society. Because sexual abuse, molestation and rape are such shame-filled concepts, our culture tends to suppress information about them.” (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/somatic-psychology/ 201303/trauma-childhood-sexual-abuse).

• Caroline C Ravello is a strategic communications and media practitioner with over 30 years of proficiency. She holds an MA in Mass Communications and is pursuing the MSc in Public Health (MPH) from the UWI. She has been living/thriving with mental health issues for over 35 years.