Honest Conversations

By Sophie Olson

Stigma.

Shame.

Silence.

Three words that epitomise a problem survivor activists face as individuals trying to break down barriers, and make a positive change to the lives of both child victims and adult survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

It’s easy for me to stand in front of strangers and say the relevant words, but when it’s to someone I know, it takes a different sort of strength. I know what it risks. I’m tired of the ignorant reactions and know the likelihood of receiving one is high.

Disclosing CSA to someone you know feels like a game of Russian Roulette. People might react well – with empathy and understanding and treat you exactly the same afterwards, or they might react by cutting you off entirely. There might be different reasons why someone chooses to do this, it could be a bit too close to the bone – perhaps they are survivors themselves who aren’t ready to face the trauma, but I believe this is rare. In my experience many survivors do the exact opposite and reach out to the person disclosing.

I believe that negative responses, including a wall of silence, stems from a place of social stigma do I want to be associated with this person? What will it say about me? What might others think of me? Will they think I’m a survivor? Or my husband is? Will they judge me, my family, my children?

In training I say we all have a part to play in tackling the issue of CSA. It is not as straightforward as listening to us speak. It is equally important to talk about the training to others, share on social media and open conversations, because CSA thrives on silence.

Try talking to friends and family outside of your training and profession. Talk about the topics heard in your training today. You will quickly get a sense of who wants to shut the conversation down. You will begin to see the problem that all survivors, both child and adult, face. 

The Flying Child Project

I’m currently focusing on our Facebook page and observing an interesting phenomenon when it’s shared locally. It gets few likes comparatively to posts on other platforms such as Twitter which surprised me initially because I know, when shared by a mutual friend for example, that many will know who I am – and that in comparison to a craft business page I once promoted, the lack of ‘likes’ or shares is very noticeable. People are more than happy to lend their voice in the form of an encouraging message about crochet jumpers, but less so about CSA activism, peer support groups or press releases. Bar one or two, tumbleweed is the word that comes to mind.

It challenges me because I start to read into the silence. It plays into old feelings of shame. I overthink – I know they know it’s me. Why is nobody commenting? What do they think of me? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this after all? Perhaps it’s easier to remain silent.

If I pass people I know on the street, one of two things might happen. This week for example, one friend was effusive: “Wow! What amazing work you’re doing, congratulations on the funding“- and knowing she is an avid Facebook user and frequent commentator, she most likely got this information from the Facebook page. As such, the absence of a ‘like’ or ‘share’ on a single post is all the more noticeable. The other (most common) response is for people to pretend they haven’t seen me. It happens a lot. Their stride falters, they get out their phone, look up at a building, turn away.

If I bring this up in conversation with people who don’t behave like this the stock response is – I’m sure they wouldn’t do that deliberately. They were probably distracted/didn’t see you/didn’t view the post/had things on their mind… but deep inside my heart I know it’s not that. It is the stigma that stops them from publicly commenting and their reactions make me feel ashamed. I begin to consider how being silent again might feel.

As part of my work I liaise with people from many different sectors and my networking sometimes crosses into my personal circle of friends and acquaintances – probably not the wisest thing to do – and after what happened last week I’m not sure I want to do that again. I reached out to an acquaintance as I believed she would be interested in helping expand the project – but I had misjudged it.

Our conversation was on WhatsApp and she was keen to hear more … until…she heard more. Radio silence. Tumbleweed. “I’m sure she’s just busy“, said a friend. But the days went on and she made no reference to her lack of response when our paths crossed at the school gate. I felt ashamed because I might have jeopardised the friendship between our respective children. She might get back to me – who knows, but if not… what does she think of me? My family? What if she doesn’t want to associate with us anymore. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I should have remained silent.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend of mine – an extremely supportive survivor-ally, and I brought up the lack of likes, shares – and radio silence observed on Facebook and waited for the – I’m sure they just don’t see it comments but to my surprise she didn’t say this. She agreed and acknowledged the stigma. She was open about how it feels to be the one to share our posts, and with her permission I’m sharing her words she posted on Instagram. The relief to hear Catherine speak and to know this isn’t paranoia – is indescribable. It’s also pretty devastating to hear because I wish more than anything that I was wrong.

I had an honest conversation yesterday with Sophie and Anna of The Flying Child about sharing my involvement here. The Flying Child is a survivor-led organisation helping break the stigma and shame associated with child sexual abuse. As someone who had a blissfully uneventful childhood, I didn’t want people to jump to “wrong conclusions” and pass judgement on my family. But by not sharing, I would have been subtly reinforcing the very stereotypes we’re trying to break. And there may be people who see my posts and can get help from the services provide, or know someone who can benefit from them.

Child sexual abuse thrives on silence. I know this from my six years at NSPCC, and now through hearing Sophie and Anna’s stories first hand. Hopefully I can play my small part in starting to erase the stigma and helping prevent children from being harmed.

I’ll save all Flying Child posts to a highlight here so if you ever need more info, you know where to look.

Catherine (Survivor-ally)

Thank you Catherine for your honesty and for being courageous enough to overcome your own feelings of discomfort and publicly support The Flying Child. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who have done this for me. Thank you for highlighting the stigma. Your words might make others reflect on the part they too can play in supporting survivors by challenging stigma.

I recognise this blog feels a bit downbeat but this discrimination is the reality for survivors. As I said, I’m challenged at the moment and I’m tired. If you are not a survivor and you can empathise with the way this might feel, the best thing you can do is to act. Share survivor sites. ‘Like’ posts and talk about child sexual abuse. Raise the conversation. If you are not a survivor and you can’t empathise, educate yourself… find some courage…and act.

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