The Art of Secrecy in Sexual Violence

Jan 10 · 11 min read

Like all bad things left unsaid, uncovered, unacknowledged, unchallenged or even actively suppressed, they are allowed to fester like a dirty wound — and sexual violence is no exception. While all problems have a beginning, not all problems have an end — at least not one that’s in sight — and there are always reasons why things continue to happen. When it comes to sexual violence, silence plays a leading role in making sure that the abuse goes on and carries on, but it’s something that extends well beyond just children.

At the root of the issue is a twisted power structure whereby age, sex, gender, and disability, among other factors, get us singled out as targets and dragged into victimhood. Why? Because it’s when we’re vulnerable, defenceless, small[er], weak[er] — in other words, abusable — that we’re not expected to stand a chance. And it’s this that abusers hone in on.

In every single chapter of every sexual abuse story, silence reveals itself a consequence of that power imbalance. But it, too, has its own purpose and its own consequences. Enforcing these are three distinct characters silence plays in sexual violence.

Character 1: Protector

When silence acts as protector in sexual violence, its benefits can be very one-sided. On the one hand, it protects the abuser when they silence us through threats, intimidation, coercion and manipulation, causing us fear of reprisals or a feeling of helplessness. “He used to tell me to be quiet and if I tell I’d never see my family again. ‘If you tell police they’d take you away’, he said to me,” recounted one abuse survivor.

This silencing, which is exerted over us to subjugate us, is used as a weapon to pin us down into compliance and voicelessness, serving to protect the status quo of the situation and allowing the abuser to stay in control and the abuse to continue. If asked why this compliance happens, the simple and sad truth is because, with abusers typically being more powerful than their victim, it can.

“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

— Maya Angelou, poet and author

Angelou was mute for nearly five years after finding out her rapist, who was found guilty in trial, was murdered after avoiding a jail sentence.

On the other hand, silence as a protector isn’t just the evil people expect; this role depends on one’s perspective, how we conceive silence, manifest or impose it, and how we are subjected to it, including by ourselves. For those of us who’ve suffered sexual abuse, our silence can be the result of feelings of confusion, shame, pain, denial, and a sense of helplessness — and hopelessness. But it can also be the result of something we have no control over: when our brain goes into autodrive, as if in a sort of survival mode, and blocks out our experience.

This is an instinctive, primal reaction to a deeply overwhelming, incomprehensible ordeal that keeps it locked away from our everyday awareness so we don’t have to face it. This is called dissociation, which is common among abuse survivors, and it’s no surprise that many of us can take many years to finally speak about our sexual abuse. As one counsellor describes it: “Your ability to survive is enhanced as the ability to feel is diminished”. In these cases silence is, sadly but inevitably, our coping mechanism.

And then there’s silence as a protector of reputations, as a public relations blessing for religious institutions, government agencies, powerful individuals, and charities alike, all of which prefer to save face rather than admit to their failings in public. These have historically resorted to silence — and gone to great lengths to preserve it — as an automatic course of action in response to internal sexual abuse complaints.

It even happens in the places we least expect. At the United Nations, for instance, the bastion of human rights, whistleblowers who reported wrongdoing in separate cases have had their contract terminated or were placed on administrative leave. The inter-governmental organisation, which has been criticised for its “culture of fear” and for “blaming the whistleblower”, also chose to conduct an investigation in 2014 on how details on sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were leaked rather than focus on the information itself or why it was leaked.

“[T]those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”

— Judith Lewis Herman, Psychiatrist

In this case, the staff member who passed the information to the press, Miranda Brown, hasn’t worked since. According to another former UN employee, Brown “is a living example of what happens if you report misconduct [at the UN].” But these are the cases that have been made public. Then there are the cases that haven’t made the light of day, yet…

And then there’s the question of why people behave and react the way they do in the face of sexual violence. Cue the interpreter.

Character 2: Interpreter

Silence as an interpreter tries to make sense of why different forms of silence in sexual abuse exist in the first place. Silence here can’t directly ask anything, but its presence can beg many questions. For instance, why do societies enforce silence by making sexual violence a taboo? Why are people not consistently outspoken against it in all instances? Why do some people remain silent even after the truth comes out? Why do people think that because it didn’t happen to them, it’s not their problem? And what can be done to break these silences?

To start with, why do most of us not tell anyone about our experience with sexual abuse? While there’s never a single answer, they can include feeling shame about what happened; feeling helpless as we think we won’t be believed or will be punished or attacked somehow; expecting that it will get swept under the rug and never spoken of again because those who already know have said nothing; or we’ll be blamed for provoking the abuse or we’ll question if we are actually to blame. Our silence in these cases clearly speaks volumes. And it’s when the options we think we have all lead to a dead end that we retreat into silent suffering.

“My silence was my protection. It was my protection from having to face the unthinkable. To speak the unspeakable. And questioning myself: why did I not speak out as a child? The child understands that perfectly, but as you move to adulthood you realise that those who have not suffered these crimes cannot understand why you didn’t speak out. So we have to explain that to the world. Explain why sometimes, silence is our protector, temporarily. But ultimately we need to break the silence to free us and crucially to protect others by shining a spotlight on this man-made cancer in our midst.”

— Pete Saunders, survivor and founder of National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC)

But there are bigger things at work. It’s not just what people think, but why they think it. Most of us are products of our culture, and whether we know it or not — and whether we like it or not — things like patriarchy, misogyny, paternalism, religions; and the social norms, expectations, pressures and stigmas that come with them, all play a big role in how people respond to sexual violence.

Women and girls in particular are subject to society’s double standards for male sexuality that often blame them for the sexual violence they suffer, situating them, in a twisted and inconceivable way, as complicit in their own abuse. The same social norms, which also prescribe set masculinities, might also account for why reporting rates are proportionally lower for male survivors of sexual abuse. And in some cases, sexual violence isn’t even recognised as a problem because we don’t know what to recognise as abusive.

Yet, when we finally break the silence and we speak about our experiences, society’s approach to sexual violence and its treatment of us reveals itself as vastly skewed and confused. We might be greeted with sympathy, kindness and frustration, but we’ll also face attempts to silence, discredit or censor us through unconstructive and judgemental questions about why we didn’t report things sooner, and claims of it being too late now, and even the abuse itself being dismissed.

“I wish [we] women didn’t have to rip our pasts open and show you everything and let you ogle our pain for you to believe us.”

―Lindy West, writer and comedian

Nothing says this more clearly than rules laid down in law which condition whether our stories are even heard and acknowledged, and whether they make us want to speak in the first place. This is the case with limitation periods, which place a time limit on initiating legal action against our abusers. But just because it’s law, it doesn’t make it right; and increasingly in the case of child sexual abuse, more people are arguing that complaints should never be time-barred, as it denies us the chance to pursue justice and accountability once we are ready to do so.

“Sexual abuse is […] made even worse the moment you force us to keep such a long silence.”

―Vicki Bernadet, Survivor

Though when a case does go forward, giving evidence can push us back and make silence seem more inviting. The fear of cross-examination; being forced to relive the experience in such a formal and intimidating situation; and even perhaps having to come face to face again with our abuser; or being questioned about our own sexual history, as if maybe it all came down to a simple misunderstanding.

Convincing those willing to listen is, indeed, an obstacle in itself, and it’s one that sometimes comes reinforced with elements beyond our control. No thanks to the patriarchal powers that be, women who say they’ve suffered sexual violence continue to be met with scepticism, raised eyebrows, and sometimes even questions about why we’ve even come forward, as if the reasons aren’t clear enough, as if we need to justify ourselves so as not to come off as liars, delusional, bitter, or vindictive — or worst of all, an inconvenience.

Behind the women among us there are male survivors, too, who face a different stigma, but which is equally grounded in a patriarchy which, precisely because we’re male, doesn’t give us permission to be victims or survivors; it threatens to castrate our image if we dare to come forward.

“There was a teacher [who] found me on a few occasions crying. Sometimes she found me with blood on my face or coming down my legs. And she went to the headteacher and said something’s not right. I don’t think she suspected sex; I think she thought it was physical violence. […] And the headteacher said to her ‘no, he needs to toughen up. He needs to be a tougher kid’.”

— James Rhodes, pianist and author

But the problem of credibility is bigger than people know. Behind the adults there are many more children who, on account of their age, society is even less inclined to believe or respect. This is the case at all levels of society, including when it comes to pursuing justice. Around the world, almost a quarter of countries restrict children from giving testimony, including by imposing a minimum age or by attaching limited weight to testimonies when they’re provided by children.

In fact, it’s not unusual for judges to disregard them, using the young age of some children as a justification. This [mal]practice is based on the widely held assumption that children’s testimonies are unreliable, despite the fact that they’re not always obtained using child-friendly practices, such as through drawing and play which show regard for how children remember things and express memories. In any case, the assumption is wrong. Studies show that children as young as three years old are capable of recounting — in their own way, which we should strive to understand — traumatic experiences in great detail, with only a minor margin of error.

The only thing that disregarding children’s accounts of abuse leads to is making children suffer their experience and trauma in silence, which does nothing to break the silence already endemic in sexual violence; it only fortifies it.

But to help break it, here comes the loudest of all the silence characters.

Character 3: Silence Breaker

The Silence Breaker is a character that makes its entrance during the plot twist, from which a superhero rises to remind us that the story doesn’t have to end so badly. Its cue? When silence envelops what we ought to be saying. And why do they exist? Because they have to, because not nearly enough of them do.

The Silence Breakers are the courageous ones who shatter the silence regardless of fear, the consequences or the personal cost. They expose evil silence for what it is and they decide they won’t be silenced by their abusers, their employers, society, or themselves. They are the survivors, the activists, the whistleblowers and the journalists and, importantly, they can be you too.

All too often, people continue to stay silent in the face of wrongdoing. When it comes to sexual violence, it’s easy for you to distance yourself if it hasn’t happened to you directly; but this question goes well beyond sexual violence and covers every injustice. In saying or thinking it’s not your problem is to misunderstand your own power and responsibility, and to ignore the very human need for compassion and solidarity.

“Our humanity is made out of stories or, in the absence of words and narratives, out of imagination: that which I did not literally feel, because it happened to you and not to me, I can imagine as though it were me, or care about it though it was not me. Thus we are connected, thus we are not separate.”

— Rebecca Solnit, writer

This doesn’t mean everyone has to topple or reform a corrupt institution — let’s be realistic. But it does mean that once you let go of the fears, assumptions and excuses that keep you from doing anything in the face of injustice, is when you are free to focus on our actions.

And it’s precisely actions that Silence Breakers have in common; actions to follow through their anger, empathy, strong sense of justice, and the desire to make the powerful and untouchable more accountable for their wrongdoing. These are people who place humankind’s interests above their own, and speak out for those who can’t or when others aren’t willing to.

But you shouldn’t think you have to fulfil any particular role in order to know you’re playing your part and having an impact; there’s no one role, nor one single activity. All you have to do is honour the actions of Silence Breakers by following their example. To put it very simply, all they’ve done in the face of injustice is acknowledge what ought to be done, and do it. The rest is often out of your hands, and that’s fine. But it’s, nonetheless, about making your society more accountable. And you won’t be in it alone. As was recently uttered with great resonance: “Bravery is contagious”.

So look to those who’ve spoken before you, and speak out too. Break the silence. Be a Silence Breaker. And listen out for the others behind you…

This article originally featured in the magazine What Lies Beneath, which is free to download here:

And Beyond

Exploring bold ideas on big issues which - whether we know it or not - affect children and young people.


Written by


And Beyond

Exploring bold ideas on big issues which - whether we know it or not - affect children and young people.