This powerful quote is one of a few used by The Flying Child Project during our initial presentations. It was interesting to watch professionals during the project launch. I didn’t know what to expect and I was surprised when I first saw visible signs of connection. Faces softened. Arms uncrossed. Body language shifted from impenetrable professional to vulnerable human being.
At first, my co-speaker and I felt as if we were holding our breath, not because of nerves or because we felt re-traumatised by the process, but because we were both desperate for the audience to just get it. To understand exactly why we were there. Not as a curiosity, or freak show. Not to tell our sad and tragic stories. Far from it, we were there as survivors. Ones who’d made it through the trials and pitfalls of recovery. Ones who’d seen darkness but, through a combination of luck and specialist support, had managed to reach the light. Not only were we bringing our own experiences into the room, but we were standing in solidarity with a spirit army of other survivors from around the world. Other survivors had contributed and their voices, with their permission, were brought to the attention of staff who needed to hear them, via presentations, film and groupwork.
We were there as advocates for the children. The ones who can’t speak up for themselves. Children who, without specialist support are unlikely to speak out for many years.
“Not me and not my child.”
We would rather not think about child sexual abuse. We might accept that it happens, but we prefer to believe it doesn’t apply to us. It is more comfortable to believe that abuse of children happens elsewhere: to other people, not to people like us, or to people we know.
This is understandable. It’s challenging to engage with the horror of it. CSA is horrific. It’s unnatural. It threatens the safe world in which we want to live.
Not engaging with the topic compounds shame that the survivors already feel. How can we speak up when we sense, from childhood, society’s unwillingness to listen to stories like ours? When we speak, we’re shamed. Victim blaming is appalling but it happens all the time – to adult victims of sexual assault and to people who were abused as children.
There is a lot of work to be done. People don’t engage with this subject very well. Social media is a good indicator of this reluctance. On Facebook, when people post about the work of The Flying Child, it never gets much response. It’s not a radio silence, and there are a few great comments, but the large majority stay silent. A post about trees being cut down by the local council on the other hand, causes total uproar. Eloquent messages are fired by outraged individuals asking; what can we do about this? Who should we contact? Shame on the ones responsible! A post about an injured bird or hedgehog will evoke a similarly collective emotional response. Personally I agree that the trees should be saved, and that an injured bird is sad, and I think taking action on these matters is admirable and important but I care a lot more about the risk posed to children, in every community, by predators who will be only too aware of society’s preference to look the other way. The ones who will be noticing the lack of response, and not feeling any shame at all.
“Not me and not my child.”
The lack of response, messages, likes or emoji faces, in comparison, is a telling reflection of the negative responses survivors face day to day. Why the silence? Where is the indignation? The rage? The militant call to action? There will be many reasons I expect. Some people reading will be victims themselves but unwilling to engage because if they are silent about their experiences (which let’s face it, most are), then what can they possibly say? Others will be abusers. The majority will be ‘normal’, good people who prefer to believe not me and not my child and simply look the other way and patiently wait for the post to pass by before jumping on the next, more palatable bandwagon.
Prejudice is another reason for the silence. This is a phenomenon not specific to CSA. We see it in discussion about domestic violence and rape. Some would agree the narrative has changed slightly in regards to racism or misogyny, but only when it fits society’s expectations. Sarah Everard’s story has sparked an important national reaction – and conversation, but what about Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Blessing Olusegun? Why is society less outraged about their murders? What about Bernadette Walker? – murdered by the man she called ‘dad’ after years of sexual abuse. Are their deaths less worthy of debate, discussion and incensed fury because of the colour of their skin? Or the nature of the relationship between victim and predator?
This is not good enough. There can be a paradigm shift when we stop playing by the rules set by stigma and expectation. The statistics tell us that children continue to be sexually abused, many in their own homes, behind closed doors, in ‘normal’ families.
It strikes me that dissociation around child sex abuse is a wider collective experience too – as a culture we find it very difficult to engage with something so devastating and so threatening to the our understanding of the world as a kind and safe place .Viv Gordon
Surely we have a collective responsibility to engage with this topic – for the sake of these children, and of the survivors too: doing their best to cope with the aftermath of trauma. Their coping mechanisms frequently misunderstood or judged by others – not because people are deliberately unkind (although sometimes they are)- but because they are simply uneducated about CSA and its ramifications- because nobody talks about it.
“Not me and not my child.”