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Dear Second Wound, I am a survivor of sexual Abuse. Why wasn’t I believed?

Walking along field path

Dear Survivors,

You 100% deserve to be believed.

Though it’s nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics on false reporting of sexual abuse, we do know that it’s rare. If we look at sexual assault reports made to law enforcement, research tells us that false reports make up about only 2 to 6 percent of cases. It’s probably safe to assume the number is at least this low in sexual abuse cases.

Let’s be realistic. Survivors have very little reason to lie. As one survivor pointed out, “A small child couldn’t make that stuff up”. So then…why are so many survivors doubted, questioned, and outright disbelieved? Even when we ARE believed, why is our trauma so often minimized, brushed under the rug as if it doesn’t matter to anyone but us?

There are many reasons that explain the heartbreak of disbelief and minimization. I’ve done my best to explain them here.

Ignorance about how children behave
Many people assume that a child who is being sexually abused will naturally speak up and say something to a parent or other adult. Also, they think they would have known. It seems logical to believe that kids under this type of stress will show obvious signs of unhappiness or other signs of distress.

But it’s not that simple.

As the documentary Leaving Neverland demonstrates, pedophiles not only groom children to believe that the abuse is good and right, they frequently scare their victims into believing they will pay a scary price if they tell. Even if adults suspect something is wrong and ask children directly about abuse, victims will often deny it out of shame and a very real fear of retribution.

In many cases, signs of abuse are apparent but they go undetected or abuse is not discovered to be the cause. When I was being abused, my teachers repeatedly expressed concerns about my behaviors to my parents. I had frequent stomach aches, cried in school, and stayed home sick a lot. My parents apparently did not associate these symptoms with the excessive power my brother exerted over me at home or even the ways he touched me inappropriately in their plain view. Sexual abuse was probably not on their minds, at least on a conscious level.

Those children who DO speak up are often dismissed or ignored. It’s common for signs of abuse to be brushed off by adults who do not have the knowledge or emotional strength to see them for what they are, and so they fail to address them appropriately.

Perhaps you actually DID say something to an adult as a child but you were not taken seriously. Or, like many survivors, your family simply refused to believe you.

The belief that people they know could be capable of abuse
“He’s a good person” is a devastating phrase many survivors are confronted with when they bravely disclose their trauma to loved ones.

Family members often cannot imagine that a person who seems so wonderful to them could do something so wrong. Ignorance about the behaviors of sexual predators is partly to blame. It’s common for abusers to be adept at manipulating and charming the people in their circle, allowing them to appear generous, caring and kind while they also possess a much darker side.

Grooming is not only used to win the trust of victims. Many abusers also groom families, communities and in the case of well-known figures like Bill Cosby (known to the world as “America’s dad”), even the general public. Cosby’s victims were dismissed for years and years, in part because it seemed absurd that such a lovable family man could be capable of such terrible acts.

Even those loved ones who do believe victims can sometimes manage to separate the crime from the abuser, insisting that “he has changed” or “she would never do it again”. Once these offenders are slotted into the “good guy” category, they can’t be a threat, right? Their crimes are forgotten and victims are pressured to “move on” and “forgive”, even when the abuser has shown no real evidence of meaningful responsibility or change.

Dependence on the abuser
A parent or loved one who is financially and/or emotionally dependent on the perpetrator may see no way out. Facing the truth about the abuse would mean giving up their security in these areas. Realistically some people would truly have no way to get by, especially if the perpetrator has committed financial abuse by seizing control of access to funds–a common tactic of domestic abusers.

Emotionally dependent family members may be manipulated by the abuser to the point they are unable to imagine that he or she is capable of committing sexual abuse. Or worse. They turn a blind eye and even blame the victim so they can maintain their relationship with the abuser.

Dependence on the community and/or family system
When claims of abuse are made within a community or family system that creates a dependence of its members and threatens rejection for failing to stick to a certain group think, this dependence is a real obstacle in loved ones’ ability or willingness to believe survivors.

Fear
It’s not uncommon for perpetrators to employ rageful, frightening and even vengeful behaviors when confronted. In these cases, fear of the abuser’s reactions is real and can be a strong deterrent to addressing–or even believing–a victim’s claims.

Guilt and Shame
Family members may feel overwhelming guilt and shame for putting the child in a situation that led to abuse and/or overlooking signs that something was wrong. Rather than living with the intolerable feeling that they hold some responsibility, they might instead tell themselves that: the survivor is lying, the victim was complicit in the abuse, or that whatever happened was not that big a deal. Unfortunately, these beliefs and attitudes only compound survivors’ emotional pain.

Denial
All these lines of thinking serve the purpose of supporting an individual’s denial, a powerful defense mechanism which allows us to avoid facing realities that are too difficult and emotionally painful to accept.

Sadly, it’s common for sexual abuse to persist across family systems (made worse by dismissing and disbelieving victims). Victims of abuse who have not adequately addressed their own trauma may be drawn to inappropriate partners, and/or be unconsciously compelled to put their own children in situations where sexual abuse is a danger.

Simply put, family members who are in denial about their own trauma are frequently ill-equipped to cope with the reality of abuse in the family.

No excuses
There are all kinds of reasons why parents and other loved ones disbelieve survivors and I believe they are important and helpful for us to understand.

But let me be clear. None of these reasons makes disbelief or minimization okay on any level. There are no excuses or explanations that justify the failure to believe a child’s cries for help or a survivor’s disclosure after the fact.

Most of all, survivors need to know that–while disbelief is unfair and devastating on a deeply personal level–it is not a reflection on us or our worth. Survivors deserve to be believed, full stop.


If you have been a victim of sexual abuse or assault and need help in any of the following areas, you can contact the RAINN hotline to speak or chat online with a trained staff member:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

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