Shame On You

“His shame, not yours,” we are told. It’s never that simple though. Of course we all understand this on an intellectual level but on a visceral level it’s a different matter entirely.

Shame is viscous. It sticks to the skin like treacle and it’s hard to shake off.

I watch my dog, who shakes her body many times a day to rid her coat of dirt, to wake herself up, perhaps to feel grounded and connected to the earth. It’s a shake that starts at the head, sending waves through the rest of her body and I think how wonderful it would be if survivors of sexual violence could do the same and shake off the shame and body memories that cling with such a cruel determination.

Losing that shame was a process for me. It’s mostly gone now but there are times where it raises its ugly head and I feel it once more but I have techniques I can use to help with this. I have an excellent relationship with a therapist who I can call upon. Talking about it and tracing it back to source can help me to get back on track. I remind myself why I’m doing the activism. That it’s important. That people might feel less alone when they read my words.

Survivors are struggling in silence. Many are too ashamed to break their silence, some are frightened of being judged for their negative coping mechanisms.

I do this work because someone might really need to hear what I have to say.

I do this because I want to influence change.

Publishing the website feels exhilarating but those old, sticky feelings of shame start to creep back. I’m sharing it with people that I know and asking them to share it further. I want this to reach as many as possible, but in doing so, I’m outing myself as a survivor of child sexual abuse – and that’s hard.

I’ve done this once before – a few years ago I posted on a local Facebook group asking for donations of tea and coffee for a survivor group I was part of. I hesitated before pressing ‘post’ after all, this group featured (mostly) friendly discussions about parking and cats, how would something like this be received? I was surprised by the replies. Some messaged me privately and a few disclosed their own experiences of abuse. I realised the power of speaking out.

There are many activists like me with the same drive to spark some sort of meaningful change and I’m lucky to have a couple of them working with me on The Flying Child Project, but speaking out publicly comes with an element of risk. We risk people turning away, we risk judgement. I first spoke up at the age of 18, to a boyfriend, who fumbled his response, with no idea of what to say and the conversation ended quickly. This wasn’t his fault, his clumsy response was a result of the culture of silence. If we don’t talk about sexual violence then how can we teach our children how to talk about it and how can we ourselves, listen to those who disclose and react appropriately?

People turn away. Many survivors have had experiences of speaking out and losing friends or family members who simply can’t hear what we have to say. There are exceptions. I’ve had unexpected support from unexpected places – there was my local Salvation Army who gave me indefinite use of their hall once a week, for a survivor group I was part of. A local pub and community hall at the end of my street also came up trumps. I’ve had much support from many friends and acquaintances but sadly this isn’t always the case. This was the only church out of all the churches in my local area. The pub and the hall were the only venues out of the many I contacted.

I was supported by some friends but I lost others.

A survivor of abuse has to get used to the way some people look at them when they know. I have had to get used to that.
I would describe it as a mixture of curiosity, fear, uncertainty or they might look away. Some people are nervous around survivors. They’re not sure how to speak to us or what to say.

“It’s extraordinary” announced one friend, after reading my book manuscript but she didn’t look at me. I realised that she was unable to look at me. This was a world she didn’t want to be privy to. Perhaps she didn’t believe my story. Conversations dried up and arrangements to meet were cancelled, consistently, until I realised I’d been shunned. I felt stupid I hadn’t realised sooner but it’s hard to believe it when it happens to you. Shunning is undramatic. It’s cold. It’s silent. It’s brutal and it happens to many survivors. I understand now that mine is not an unusual experience.

Despite being slow on the uptake, I recognise shunning as it happened to me once before when I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital twelve years ago. After speaking out and telling a friend about the abuse I was met with anger and hurt.
Why didn’t you tell me before? she asked. We tell each other everything, and I couldn’t explain why because I couldn’t, at that point, articulate why I was silent. I still hadn’t found a way to tell my story. It was a part of me shut down with fear and shame. Her response validated this shame. I shut down again, making a promise to myself to be stronger. Not to break again. Not to let my guard down and I didn’t speak up again for many years.

Now I’m stronger. I think these responses are unacceptable. Turning away may make people feel better but it doesn’t mean that abuse of children doesn’t exist just because you put your fingers in your ears and sing “la la la”. I’ve noticed that these friends who turned away and couldn’t meet my eye were the most vocally anti-racist when Black Lives Matter gained momentum last year. They post on social media about their willingness to “have tough conversations.” They are the ones who are “listening and ready to learn.” I find the hypocricy of this hard to stomach.

How is it that society can be enraged by one type of abuse of a fellow human being but turn away from another type? Who gets to decide that sexual abuse of children is so unsavoury, so unpalatable, that it’s best we don’t talk about it at all?

The statistics vary but it is clear a huge proportion of society are suffering and the majority suffer silently, most likely crippled by shame and stigma. When the silence surrounding CSA is so profound, it sends a message that survivors must suffer the consequences of trauma alone.

What survivors really want is change. We need people to stop turning away. It must become socially unacceptable to do so.

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

“Child abuse and neglect in the UK today” (Radford et al, 2011)

If things carry on as they are, survivors remain stuck in a vicious cycle of silence, shame and stigma that does little to help the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in society today.

By bearing witness to others’ stories we allow the taboo to be broken, we encourage more people to lose shame and speak out, and we create an environment that’s more aware; one in which it is harder for the perpetrator to hide.

By bearing witness, we act on preventing child sexual abuse.

“Individuals bearing witness cannot do the work of social movements, but they can break a corrosive and demoralising silence.”

Ellen Willis

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