By Sarah Kelly – Wednesday 25 November 2015. Published in the Guardian
I don’t know when the abuse started, but I told my mother when I was 12. She told the police. I told a social worker. Then I told a nurse who examined me to see if I’d been physically scarred (I had). Then I told a courtroom via a video link. And after that I didn’t tell anyone for a while. I don’t remember speaking a lot during adolescence at all.
Maybe I did. But what I do remember was making the conscious decision to stop speaking about my abuse, and how it was making me feel, because everybody around me was very uncomfortable when I did talk about it, and speaking out had lost me an entire side of the family.
A report published this week by the Children’s Commissioner for England found that, while much recent focus has been on institutional child sexual abuse, two-thirds is carried out by family, and close friends of the family, and 85% goes unreported.
This means that while 50,000 cases of child sexual abuse were recorded from April 2012 to March 2014, the actual number of abuse cases was up to 450,000. “We must now wake up to and urgently address the most common form of child sexual abuse,” said the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, “that which takes place behind the front door, within families or their trusted circles.”
The numbers show how common this crime is, but I know, from my own experience, how difficult some people find it to believe. Apparently a 12-year-old lying about this happening, in great detail, with medical evidence to back her up, is more feasible than an outgoing, witty man sexually abusing his daughter.
Abused children become accustomed to not speaking about what happened. My dad, like some kind of pantomime villain, called his abuse “our secret”. He told me not to tell anybody. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, because I had no idea what was happening. I’d always been close to my cousins but once “our secret” was out, I was told not to speak to them about it. There was a six-month period between me telling my mother about what had happened and the case actually going to trial. My family treated me differently and my friends didn’t fully understand what I was going through. I felt isolated. In the week of the trial, I wasn’t allowed to speak to my mother at all, as per trial rules. Once it was over, my family wanted to move on. So we didn’t speak about it.
I didn’t speak.
We then moved to a town 250 miles away from the city I’d always called home. In retrospect, this was a brave move by my mum, and I’m proud of her for taking it. But moving meant a “fresh start” and “leaving the past behind”.
Even the counsellor I eventually saw told me that I needed to leave the past behind. I hadn’t spent any time talking through everything that had happened, apart from cold discussions with authority figures, but it was time to move on. Don’t tell your new friends what’s happened, your teachers don’t need to know.
I didn’t speak.
But over time, I told my friends. I had to. The kid who cries at sex scenes instead of giggling shyly is not normal. They took it well, for the most part. They didn’t fully understand my trauma, but then again, neither did I.
One friend told her mum, who asked me politely, but firmly, not to speak to her daughter again, as my past was too dark and though she didn’t blame me, she didn’t want her daughter to be a “part of it all”. I explained that it was done, and there was nothing she could be part of, but her mind was made up.
I felt so frustrated and ashamed. The words “molestation” and “incest” battered my brain like unwavering bullies. It had somehow never occurred to me until then that I ought to feel ashamed. Did I sometimes doubt, despite all the evidence and memories, that I had actually been abused? Yes. Did I miss my dad’s family despite everything? Yes. But shame? What did I have to feel ashamed about? I was a victim.
After that, I was a defiant victim, or sometimes “survivor”, depending how strong I felt. I was angry that I’d been made to feel as if I shouldn’t speak about my own trauma. I was angry that my abuse was treated like a sordid secret. I was angry that, to most people, I was the inexplicably weird and sad girl who cried a lot. I wasn’t allowed to excuse or explain my misery.
As I started speaking out, others came to me. They told me that their uncles/cousins/fathers had done the same or similar things to them. They told me they weren’t sure if they had actually been sexually assaulted or if the family member was just being a little overly affectionate. I recognised the doubt and resented it. After years of shame and tears, I was finally angry.
So now I speak. Bravely, bluntly, honestly. However you want to look at it, I speak. I’m a sexual abuse survivor and I did exactly that – I survived. Even now as I write this, I’m aware that future employers and my father’s family can see my words but I refuse to bow down to fear and shame again. I speak because I know the shame and fear that victims feel. I speak because although I understand how uncomfortable my friends and family are with the knowledge of my abuse, I feel that acknowledging how common sexual abuse is matters far more than our comfort. I think it’s vital that we break the taboo of speaking out about sexual abuse, that we stop joking about it to appease our own discomfort, and listen instead.
I speak because what happened to me matters. Victims having the space and an invitation to speak matters. I speak because I refuse to continue to feel ashamed. Because it’s important that sufferers see others speaking out. I speak because 85% of people who have suffered the trauma that I have feel they can’t speak up themselves. I speak because, fortunately, I feel I can.