‘Where are you going?’ my neighbour asked whilst entering her house as I was leaving mine. I was going to meet fellow survivors of child sexual abuse at an event. They, like me, had shoved aside their anonymity to share their most painful experiences in news clips, published articles, speeches – anything to break the silence that paedophiles depend on to offend. However, I avoided this opportunity to shine a light on this taboo topic and instead said that I was going to meet friends.
Because disclosing that you’re a survivor of child sexual abuse carries risk, risk of being shunned, stereotyped and stigmatised. I’ve told trusted friends about my childhood experiences only for them to scarper, dusting me in shame in their wake. It’s important to me to be on speaking terms with my neighbours, so I kept silent.
In my experience, adult survivors of child sexual abuse are seen as weak, over-sensitive, unstable and damaged. These stereotypes are used against us to undermine and discredit our experiences. For example, my decision to report the abuse I suffered to the police was met with ‘why are you so affected by it?’ And I was then subsequently called a ‘gold digger,’ a stereotype used to discredit those of us who seek legal retribution.
Because of these stereotypes, I hide evidence of my activism whilst job hunting and I don’t disclose to work colleagues. I’ve met several survivors who’ve suffered discrimination at work after speaking out.
I’ve also met a survivor who decided not to have children because he believed the very prevalent but false myth that we will go on to sexually abuse children ourselves.
I’ve never had counselling, or a mental health diagnosis and I don’t dissociate. Yet I’ve been so pathologised by those who are simply unable to see past what was done to me 45 years ago, that even my love for travelling has been ascribed to the abuse I suffered.
We are silenced as children, and also as adultsRhiannon-Faye McDonald
On mentioning an abusive ex-boyfriend, I’ve seen confusion, disappointment even, when asked ‘have you ever had a good relationship?’ and I answer ‘yes.’ Because another stereotype is that we are unable to form good, loving relationships despite most survivors I know having exactly that.
Another stereotype is that we are hypersexualised. When engaging in casual sexual relationships, I’ve been incorrectly diagnosed with sex addiction and told that ‘I’m looking for love.’ How patronising.
I’ve also been told that I shouldn’t sit on a jury in child sexual abuse cases. Rather than my expertise being valued, it seems that I’m not trusted to be rational or fair despite somebody once disclosing to me and I didn’t believe them.
There are many other reasons why adult survivors of child sexual abuse don’t speak out. For example shame, or fear of the perpetrator. But many are silenced by the stereotypes that society as a whole slaps on us. We are silenced as children, and also as adults.
There are an estimated 11 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the UK. Can you imagine the impact it would have on us and to the safety of children if we were all able to openly share our experiences? Celebrities help dispel stereotypes and shatter the silence when they disclose, but sadly, I can name more celebrity perpetrators of child sexual abuse than victims.
Sometimes I feel it’s not appropriate to disclose. For example, if discussing first French kisses at an animated dinner party, I wouldn’t spoil the atmosphere with ‘aged 5 with my grandfather.’ However, most of the time I resent being silent for fear of being treated unfairly or making someone uncomfortable.
And that’s why I love meeting other survivors of child sexual abuse. I can be myself; no secrets, no judgement, no having to explain why I didn’t tell anyone and didn’t say ‘no.’
Hence I treasured time in the cafe with the other survivors after our event, proud to be amongst such strong, brave individuals fighting for change, so far removed from our assigned stereotypes. And we laughed so much, debunking another stereotype that we are always sad.
So I hadn’t lied to my neighbour. As we swopped support and generated empowerment, I realised that I really had gone to meet my friends.