Unspeakable Things

By Sophie Olson

I was the victim of a crime, an abhorrent act that was done to me, and to many others like me, yet when we speak about the acts of depravity that were inflicted on us, some people turn away from us.


This crime is sometimes referred to as ‘unspeakable’.

This isn’t strictly true, at least not from survivors point of view – many of whom want to talk about it but sense that others don’t want to hear about it.

Survivors need to make sense of it.

We want validation from others that it wasn’t our fault. We need to know that there’s not something inherently wrong with us for being the chosen victim.

But it is an unspeakable crime. No one speaks and survivors rarely get this validation. The deafening silence perpetuates the belief that we’re in the minority. That we were unlucky to cross paths with a predator. That we were unfortunate to have been born into the house of a paedophile. Or to have attended a school, church or football club where one hid in plain sight.

Because survivors can’t speak about these terrible crimes, other victims of the same crime hear the same deafening silence. They think they’re the anomaly, the freak, the unlucky one. They wonder if they are unfortunate and begin to fear that yes, perhaps they are, making them feel ashamed. It’s hard to be the odd one out. Who wants to be the the misfit? Isn’t life all about fitting in?

Research suggests that as many as one in four people have suffered some form of abuse in childhood.

One in four.

That is a lot of unlucky people isn’t it? That is a multitude of anomalies, unfortunates and misfits.

Even if this research is an overestimation, alternative research suggests one in five. Another well respected study suggests one in six. If you prefer to listen to the lowest end of the scale it’s one in twenty. That’s still at least one in an average class of thirty children.

Whichever research you choose to believe, There are a lot of stories that will remain unspoken because child sexual abuse is an unspeakable subject.

It is not the survivor’s responsibility to change this. Speaking out is a personal decision and there are many reasons why someone may decide they can’t, but it’s important for the ones who want to speak to be able to do so, without feeling shamed or judged by a society that listens with a sharp intake of breath. Mouths that twist in disgust. Cold shoulders. Backs turned. Eyes avoided.

“Do you really think you should be talking about such private things?

“It’s too much. I really don’t think I can bear to think about this. “

Why is it only crimes that involve sexual violence that evoke this reaction from others? We don’t experience these negative responses if our bike is stolen or our bag is snatched whilst walking on the street. We can speak freely about these crimes without people telling us to ‘stop living in the past’ or a similarly dismissive response. We are given permission to be upset. Our anger is validated when the people we tell are outraged on our behalf.

I have spoken out about child sexual abuse and in doing so I have lost friends and family along the way. But this says more about them than me, and because I can, I’ll keep talking.

I’ll keep talking even when friends cross the road to avoid saying hello.

I’ll keep talking even when acquaintances message me on Facebook to tell me they are unfriending me because they didn’t know what I did for a job. Yes this did actually happen and, whilst reprehensible, in a weird way I respect the person’s honesty. At least she told me why she was shunning me.

I’ll keep talking even when those closest to me react with indifference or accuse me of being unable to move on.

I’ll speak, even if it means I no longer ‘fit in.’ I’m not really worried about that.

I will never stop speaking because why should I? It was the silence that enabled this crime to take place in the first place.

I was left alone with a man despite him having a reputation of not being safe around children.

Despite people’s intuition telling them ‘there was something about him they didn’t trust.’

They kept these thoughts to themselves. They buried their heads in the sand. They looked the other way. They ignored their instincts. They did nothing.

Because no one likes to think about, let alone speak about the abuse of children.

Because it’s an unspeakable topic.

It’s preferable to bury your head and cross your fingers that it will never happen to your child, your student, a member of your church, family or swimming club. It’s more comfortable to stay silent than to speak about CSA because what would it say about you if you brought up the topic? What if people make the wrong assumptions about you? About your family? What if people think you’re a victim yourself? Or worse, a perpetrator? What if they think your children are at risk? What good will talking about it do anyway?

Its easier not to disturb the equilibrium.

It’s easier to stay silent.

The silence wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t so desperately lonely for the survivor. It is so unjust to feel you can’t speak. Many survivors like me struggle with their mental health as a result of the abuse. I remember feeling so frustrated to be unable to give context to my depression, addiction or self destructive coping mechanisms. When my family discussed which side of the family this mental illness may have originated it felt so horribly unfair. I knew it originated from abuse but I couldn’t say it.

I stayed silent, because it’s an unspeakable subject.

When I spoke out, some people were fantastic and offered me nothing but encouragement and support, but a few looked at me in horror – as if I had two heads. Or they couldn’t look me in the eye. Or they pitied me, or called me ‘so brave.’ Once I was told by a family member that it explained why I was ‘so screwed up.’ All inappropriate and negative responses – again commonly received by survivors, because no one ever seems to know how to react, or what to say.

Because it’s an unspeakable topic.

The pivotal moment of change for me was when I joined a survivor group. Being part of a small group of survivors, all speaking out about their abuse was validating. It was empowering to add my voice to theirs. We began with a whisper, eyes lowered, head bowed and because we could speak, our stories lost their hold over us and over the weeks we began to blossom – into the people we were meant to be. We spoke our stories with no shame. With conviction. With the knowledge that they’d be believed and we’d be supported. We would encourage each other to take our new found voices into our own families – or even report the crime – and then next week we’d meet again and commiserate with one another, back to square one; retelling accounts of bad reactions from family or friends. Outside of the four walls of the support group, it seemed like we were only allowed to be the people we were meant to be if we didn’t speak about abuse.

Because it is an unspeakable topic.

So how do we turn this subject from unspeakable to ‘speakable’? One way is to make survivors visible. The downside of so many being unable to speak out, apart from it protecting perpetrators, is that survivors remain invisible. This perpetuates the belief that CSA happens to other people, not to people we know. The reality is that you meet survivors all the time, everyday, everywhere you go. They are the person at the supermarket checkout. The teacher who spends all day with your child. They are your elderly neighbour next door. They may even be your sister, or your father. You just don’t know it because they don’t tell you.

Because it’s an unspeakable topic.

Campaigns that address this invisibility of survivors are important. Loudfence is a visible display of support and solidarity with those affected by abuse. Ribbons tied on fences represent the voices of those affected by abuse, and those who wish to speak out in defence and support of those abused.

Cutting Out is an arts activism project that asks survivors and allies to reach out across all the barriers that keep us isolated and silent’. The aim is to create an installation of 11 million dolls – a visual representation of appalling number of people abused in childhood.

The Flying Child project supports school safeguarding sessions. We add a lived experience context to the more impersonal regulations and case studies offered. We are survivors standing in front of audiences, talking about our past experiences to instil a reality to a relatively abstract concept for people who haven’t had these same experiences.

Paper dolls and ribbons. They’re not unspeakable. We can talk about these. We can act as an ally and cut out our own doll. Share it on social media; or go and see for ourselves the ribbons attached to churches and cathedrals. Standing up in front of others is a little more daunting and isn’t for everyone, but I’m fortunate enough to be in a place where I can finally do it.

Simply by talking about CSA, sharing the campaigns on social media and by being more open about this topic, you’ll be sending a message to these silent survivors. You’re reassuring them that you’re not going to judge or turn away. You’re letting them know you stand in solidarity. Survivors will feel less alone, less ashamed and more encouraged to speak out. When survivors reach out for help, they can begin to untangle their own twisted web of trauma, perhaps live less chaotic lives, be the person they were on their way to be, before they fell victim to an abhorrent crime.

2 thoughts on “Unspeakable Things”

  1. I too lost “friends” when I published my book detailing my CSA. Thank you for discussing this side effect for telling a survivor story. I was not prepared for it when it happened. Thank you for this brilliant piece.

    1. I’m sorry you lost people too. It needs to be talked about I think. Like you, I didn’t expect these reactions from people I trusted. It’s very difficult. Survivors experience loss in so many different ways. Thank you for reading

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