Give it back! Breaking through the shame of sexual abuse

When Jimmy Savile was uncovered as a prolific sex offender, commander Peter Spindler of the Metropolitan police said Savile used his fame and celebrity status to "hide in plain sight", adding that he had "groomed the nation".


A positive effect of the coverage of Savile’s crimes has been to give other victims of sexual abuse the courage to seek support. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) said it usually receives 200 to 300 calls a week - in the three weeks following the Savile revelations they received 2,500. Peter Saunders from NAPAC said: "We've seen an unprecedented deluge of callers, people making contact with us, survivors of abuse telling us about stuff that's happened to them, mostly a long time ago”. (Source: BBC News website: 24/10/2012).

Many people were surprised at the number of people coming forward for help so many years later - so why do victims of such a serious crime keep this traumatic event a secret for so long?

Shame is the big issue with abuse

It is often shame that keeps victims hiding the abuse and secrets, which keeps them isolated and lonely - often accompanied by feelings that they are somehow to blame for what happened to them. Ironically, the way out of shame is to talk about it with trustworthy people, the very thing many people find so difficult.

People who have experienced abuse may internally feel that they have become “tarnished” and in some way now unacceptable due to their abuse, and fear others will feel also see this in them.

One of the issues is the silence that often surrounds abuse. Most people would admit that abuse goes on, but no one wants to admit it happens here in this situation or community and especially not in this family. This is too terrifying for people to think about. This is why sex offenders are often demonised in the media and compared to monsters. People feel safer thinking about abusers this way and makes them think they will be able to spot them - giving them power in the situation. Thinking that an abuser could be a normal person - someone they know and like - makes people feel frightened and powerless.

How widespread is sexual abuse?

The figures are very upsetting. “Child abuse and neglect in the UK today” (Radford et al, 2011) is a major piece of NSPCC research issued in 2011. The findings of this report show the continuing pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the UK:

  • Nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) experienced sexual abuse (including contact and non-contact), by an adult or by a peer during childhood.
  • One in six children aged 11-17 (16.5%) has experienced sexual abuse.
    Almost one in 10 children aged 11-17 (9.4%) have experienced sexual abuse in the past year (2011).
  • Teenage girls aged between 15 and 17 years reported the highest past year rates of sexual abuse.
    (Source: Radford, Lorraine, Corral, Susana, Bradley, Christine, Fisher, Helen, Bassett, Claire, Howat, Nick and Collishaw, Stephan (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC).

Other surveys also confirm the high occurrence of sexual abuse in the UK :

A study in 2000 (Cawson: NSPCC) also exposes that sexual abuse continues to be extremely prevalent in the UK with 11% of boys under 16 and 21% of girls under 16 experiencing sexual abuse in childhood. 

Abuse outside the UK

Sadly, it is not a problem that is just confined to the UK and the West. The Bangkok-based international child protection campaign group (ECPAT - End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) has said that marriage contracts found all over the Middle East and South Asia can be a cloak for child abuse. Child rape is also used as a “weapon of war” in areas of conflict including in 2010 in the Congo. In October 2010 more than 1,000 teachers were sacked in Kenya for sexually abusing girls; most of the victims were aged between 12 and 15. (Source: BBC News website 7th October 2010)

Abuse remains a secret to adulthood

Sadly, however, the shame and silence around abuse often continue into adulthood. The 2011 survey revealed more than one in three children aged 11-17 (34%) who experienced contact sexual abuse by an adult did not tell anyone else about it. (Source: Child abuse and neglect in the UK today (Radford et al, 2011) 

This means that people suffer in silence for years with hugely damaging results in their adult life.

But abuse does not just impact the victim him or herself, the legacy of untreated sexual abuse in our society is devastating:

  • A Survey in 1994 (Porter) of clients in a detoxification unit showed that 90% of women and 37% of men had experienced child sexual abuse before the age of 16.
  • 60% of people who deliberately self-harm reported abuse in childhood (Favazza and Conterio 1998).
  • Adults who experience child sexual abuse are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide (Felitti and Adna, American Journal of Preventative Medicine 1998).
  • 40% of women in mental health services have been sexually abused (Working in Partnership, Department of Health 1994).
  • In 1992 a report by CHAR (Campaign for Homeless People) found that over 40% of homeless girls were fleeing from sexual abuse.
  • 30-70% of women prisoners have been sexually abused (Survey by HM Inspectorate of Prisons 1997).

Other repercussions on victims today may be less dramatic but personally just as devastating - from depression and loneliness to addictive behaviours, and also the tendency can be to find an abusive partner and so the cycle of abuse continues.

Shame is so damaging

It is often this silence around the abuse that can have such a devastating impact on the mental health and welfare of a victim of abuse. Victims in essence can carry the shame that does not belong to them but to the abuser. Penny Parks - a counsellor and author - says “The aggressor projects the blame and guilt onto the child and the child accepts that projection as truth. It is like life imprisonment for a crime that someone else has committed.” (Source: ‘Rescuing The Inner Child’ – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series Published 1990, page 43)

The shame can outwork itself in a person with painful behaviour patterns that impact mental and emotional health.

Behaviours characterised by shame can include:

  • Feeling like “something is wrong with me” - everything is coloured by shame. 
  • Fear of rejection. 
  • Isolated and lonely - fearful when someone wants to have a close relationship.
  • Fearful of intimacy - wanting a relationship but pushing people away.
  • Defensive when criticised.
  • Entering into people-pleasing behaviour patterns - not aware of how to get own needs met.
  • Punishing self with negative and destructive self-talk - or physical harm.
  • Feeling over-responsible for everyone and everything that happens.
  • Aggressive or abusive behaviour.

(Source: Adapted and put into my own words from an idea in “Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse”, Heitritter and Vought, Bethany House Publishers, published 1989)

Supporting victims of abuse 

So how can we be supportive of people who have been abused - perhaps that may even include ourselves - and start to be free of the shame that causes so much mental distress and put the shame back on the abuser?

One of the main reasons that victims carry so much shame may be because they can often look back at the situation as adults and feel they could have or should have done something differently to prevent it from happening. 

Victims can tend to forget as children or young people they had very little power. They imagine that the choices they had as children are the same as the ones available now. Survivors also make choices because it was then in their best interest to do so at that time. They later can feel (and this is often inferred by the abuser as well) that this means they somehow colluded in the abuse. This intensifies the shame and mental trauma. In order to start being free of this it is critical to understand that abuse is largely about power and intention.

...don’t give up until you get the support you deserve.

The way out of shame

To help relieve shame in your own mind (or the person you are supporting), it is important to clarify right from the start of the abuse the intention of the child or young person and the abuser’s intention. It is vital to remember this even though there may have been exchanges. This could have been of sweets, affection or money but as a child or young person - sexual involvement or gratification was never that child’s original intent in the relationship.

Some questions you might like to consider could be:

  • Critically - who had the real power in that situation?
  • Who originally initiated things?
  • What was your fundamental motive as a child when you met this person?
  • What was the abuser’s primary motive?
  • Who was leading?
  • Who was being led?
  • Did you do things just to “get it over” with?
  • If this person gave you affection did you get much attention elsewhere in your life?
  • If you accepted sweets or money did you really understand what was happening? And what the price would have to be for you?
  • If you could have told someone, who really would have helped you?

It is important to note that, even if your answers do not make you feel absolved of shame, abuse can make you feel things and act in ways alien to you; this does not make you responsible for another's actions or change who you really are.

It is also critical to understand abuse and shame exist in an environment of secrecy and the way out of shame (that includes any shame!) is totalk about it. Sharing these “secrets” in a trustworthy supportive environment frees the burden of carrying it alone and helps put the shame back on the correct person - the abuser  - and the journey of mental and emotional recovery can really begin. This sharing could be in a recovery group, with a counsellor, through close friends or a combination of these.

Ellen Bass and Laura David wrote a breakthrough book called “Courage To Heal” and beautifully capture how powerful breaking free from shame and silence can be: “Shame exists in an environment of secrecy. When you begin to freely speak the truth about your life, your sense of shame will diminish…Secrets destroy people and they destroy them unnecessarily. It’s like being reborn when you shed the secret because you have no more fear”. 

(Source: Courage To Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura David - Cedar 1988, page 108)

Freeing yourself from shame can be a long arduous process. Isolating yourself can be a natural response to so much pain – however, loneliness can bring even more suffering. Time after time I have worked with survivors of abuse who say that just speaking out with a counsellor or being in a support group with other survivors has helped them so much. This might not be right for you, but do consider joining a self-help group or community group that can provide the companions you need in your journey into recovery.

Finally - don’t give up! Growth and healing does take a huge amount of time and effort, but help relationships and good friends are out there - don’t give up until you get the support you deserve.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Ealing, London, W5 2RS
Written by Into The Light
Ealing, London, W5 2RS

Into the Light is a London based not for profit project (all profits are reinvested for our users) founded in 1993 for men and women and all genders who have experienced child sexual abuse and for those that support them. We are a Registered Community Interest Company (Company No 8738759). Into The...

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