I was a young adult the first time I told an authority figure that I’d been sexually abused. The response was less than ideal.
“If your childhood was so bad, why are you waiting until now to tell someone?”
The social worker who asked this question was insensitive and not particularly good at her job. Nevertheless, she had a point. I kept my sexual abuse a secret for 20 years.
Sex abusers depend on secrecy from their victims. Have you ever wondered why children don’t tell someone about the abuse?
The following are 10 reasons, along with examples from survivors of child sex abuse, that help explain why children keep the abuse a secret.
1. They didn’t know it was abuse
A child sex abuser takes time to worm their way into a child’s comfort zone. The abuser is often already in a place of trust, such as a family member, clergy, or teacher.
When the abuse begins, it’s usually with acceptable touches.
“The abuse I experienced as a child began with storytime, backrubs, and snuggles with my dad. What’s more innocent than that?” — Toni C.
2. They don’t remember the abuse
One of the most common responses to trauma is to forget it. These memories hide away until an outside event triggers the sex abuse survivor’s memory.
A reawaking of memories can happen anytime in a sex abuse survivor’s life. It also may not happen at all.
“I was 17 when a nightmare recalled the memory of sex abuse by a female babysitter that took care of me when I was 6.” — Toni C.
3. They think the abuse is their fault
An abuser will place the blame for abuse on the victim. Blaming the victim not only makes the abuser feel justified in their actions but helps keep the victim quiet. If a child feels like they’ve participated in doing something wrong, it is unlikely they will tell anyone and chance punishment.
“My abuser told me he wanted to resist, but I was just too tempting. I didn’t know what tempting meant. I thought it was something I did wrong that caused the abuse to happen.” — Anonymous
4. They are afraid to tell anyone about the abuse
Abusers use scare tactics to help keep children silent about sex abuse. They might threaten to hurt or kill the child or people the child loves.
“My father used to tell me that if I wasn’t quiet, he would abuse my sister instead. Little did I know he was telling my sister the same thing about me.” — Anonymous
5. They are ashamed of the abuse
Sex abuse victims feel ashamed of the abuse. When a victim does come forward, they are asked probing and embarrassing questions and made to endure invasive physical examinations. All of this, just adds to the burden of shame.
“When I was 13, my mom casually asked, “Do you remember that thing that happened with your dad when you were little? Are you okay?” I knew immediately what she was referring to, and it made me feel ashamed. I quickly said I was okay and changed the subject. She never asked again.” — Toni C.
6. They don’t trust anyone with their secret
Even in instances where a child would like to tell their secret, they may not have anyone they feel safe telling. In that case, the safest choice for an abused child is to be silent.
“I used to give just a little information to someone I thought I could trust. It was my way of testing them. It never turned out well, so I never told anyone my big secret.” — Toni C.
7. They don’t want to hurt their l loved ones
Most abuse happens close to or within the home. For an adult to get close to a child, they must be trusted. This means that the child has seen a friendly, possibly loving relationship between their abuser and others within their close circle.
“I wanted to tell as soon as I remembered the sex abuse. I just couldn’t bring myself to break up my family like that.” — Jaz G.
8. They think they deserve it
Sex abuse is sometimes used as a form of punishment. Children are punished by authority figures they look up to. If someone they respect tells them they deserve the punishment, they believe it.
“I used to look at other happy kids and wonder what I did to be so different from them. I thought about every bad thing I’d done and wondered if that’s what caused the sex abuse.” — Toni C.
9. They don’t have the terminology to tell
Children usually know little to nothing about sex. This might be that they are too young to understand sex. It can also be because they haven’t been educated about it.
Even with the knowledge, a child still may not realize that what they’ve experienced is sexual. They may not have the vocabulary or knowledge to express their experiences.
“I was 4 in my first memory of abuse. I had no idea what was going on. I thought it was just another weird thing adults did.” — Toni C.
10. They think no one will believe them
I saved the most important reason for last. This is a fear that most victims of abuse share. Often, their abusers are people who are trusted and loved by everyone around the child.
The abuser will often tell the child that no one will believe them. The abuse victim will doubtless see other victims coming forward in the news and the backlash of disbelief that follows.
“I tried to tell my friend’s mom that her husband had fondled me. She said that he had accidentally brushed against me. She refused to hear more about it and cut me out of my friend’s life.” — Anonymous
What can you do to help?
These are only some of the reasons kids may not tell. The important thing to remember is that all of these reasons are valid. The abuser is the one in the wrong, not the victim.
The best thing you can do for a sex abuse victim is to be present. Don’t ask why they didn’t tell. Just listen and believe them.
If I could speak to the doubting social worker of my youth today, I’d say, “There are many reasons I didn’t tell when I was a child and none of them matter. I’m telling now because my story belongs to me. I get to choose how and when to tell it.”