Sometimes we need to be reminded what is real and true. What is real and true about child sexual abuse is that children often do not tell, do not report what happened to them, do not behave in the ways we expect. If the reality is that sexual abuse happens to many more children than we realize, why is it that those children don’t tell?
The reasons are myriad and very understandable. Children don’t tell that someone is hurting them because they are afraid. When you are small, the entire world is bigger, older and more powerful than you. When you are small and an adult tells you that bad things will happen if you tell, you believe it because you know it is true — adults have the power to make bad things happen. Adults can hurt you, can hurt your family and can make it so no one believes you, and you will get in trouble. When you are small, you learn very quickly that it is adults who hold all the cards.
For some children, silence is bought in more subtle ways. When you are a child to whom no one gives time and attention, the tease of gifts or of time spent with someone making you feel special and loved (perhaps by taking you to a football game) can keep you silent and suffering. When you are a child, you will put up with a lot to get even a small fraction of the attention and affection we all need to survive.
So what about when those children grow up? Why the reluctance to come forward, to say what happened, to hold abusers accountable? The answer is simple — it is because the first question asked of an adult survivor is too often, “Why didn’t you tell?”
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse face blame and shame, questions about their motives for disclosing, assumptions that “it couldn’t really have been that bad” and the ever-present suspicion that perhaps they made it all up. When faced with the scorn of a community, it is no wonder that adult survivors of child sexual abuse keep their stories to themselves, often waiting for years to disclose what happened to them.
What is real and true is that if we want to create a community where children feel safe enough to tell and adult survivors have the support they need to heal, we must start by believing.
Essayist Catherine Wallace’s words bear repeating: “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” There are forces marshalling against our children to keep them silent when they are being victimized. So we must listen harder, more closely, to what they do say and the ways they say it. It is on us to pay closer attention. And when our children grow into adults, if they find the courage to tell, it is our responsibility as a community to listen, to believe and to find a safe space for them to heal. Theologian Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” This is what is real and true.