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.

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Why didn’t you say anything before?

Why didn’t you say anything before? Were the words said when I disclosed. I didn’t know how to respond to that. The things I wanted to say spun inside my head and stuck in my throat but I couldn’t say them. I swallowed my words and looked at the floor instead.

Why didn’t you…?… you could have… you should have…

The events of that disclosure day unfolded violently, like a bomb exploding and glass embedding itself in our hearts. It was one of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever had to do. I tried to say why I hadn’t, I really did but I was mute with shame, regret and fear.

My fault was how I interpreted these responses. It’s my fault.

I was probably in shock too. Disclosure might be shocking for the recipient but it’s far worse for the one saying the terrible words we hoped we might never have to actually say – no more hoping that someone would just notice, ‘get it’ instead. It felt like peeling the skin from my bones, exposing the essence of me to the world. It hurt. I wanted to run away and hide. I wished I’d never said anything at all.

It was impossible to explain why I hadn’t because where would I begin? How could I describe my inability to retrieve the correct words and to speak them aloud? I didn’t say much after I disclosed. I couldn’t answer their questions and some of them made me feel so unsafe I wanted to die. I stayed silent and scrutinised their faces and body language. I was looking for any nuance of behaviour for a sign they didn’t believe me.

I waited to be cast out of the family and shunned for saying these terrible words.

Why didn’t you say anything before?

Now I have my words and if I could go back in time and do it all over again I would say,

I did.

I had been non-verbally disclosing since childhood but nobody was listening. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say.

Swim Against the Tide

One reason I love doing this work is the variety of people we come into contact with. Since piloting The Flying Child Project in September last year we have delivered training to approximately 400 people including teachers, school staff, admin staff, Masters students, practice educators, consultants, nurses, doctors, matrons and Psychology students. Today we presented to Social Work undergraduates.

The information we give to Social Work students is quite different to the information we deliver to medical staff or teachers simply because they could work in a multitude of different locations and situations, supporting a diverse range of individuals including those in prisons, schools, hospitals, care homes and family settings; they will work with the homeless, and with people struggling with mental health or addiction. As we know, many survivors of sexual violence may need support later in life. Some will end up in crisis and they risk their trauma responses being misunderstood, as ours were. We took the students on a journey and allowed them to step into our shoes as we shared our own experiences, including the impact of trauma on motherhood, postnatal depression, mental health, relationships and discussed intergenerational trauma. We had a lot to say, as did the survivors who had shared their experiences with us on social media.

With their permission, we were able to bring in many quotes from survivors of CSA- the aim being to reduce the chance of ‘othering’ the public speakers and of our stories evoking sympathy but being disregarded as unusual, or a one-off.

As well as encouraging the students to always consider trauma in the work they do, we helped them to understand why it’s not always easy for the survivor to speak out, and pointed out that people display signs of trauma in different ways. We said they mustn’t be afraid of asking the question, “what happened to you”, and discussed the power and importance of human connection and relationship.

There was an interesting question and answer session and we were able to touch upon social justice and the problems survivors face when reporting. Our focus was intrafamilial abuse, as research suggests that over 90 percent of children are abused by someone they know (Radford 2011), but we included quotes from male and female survivors who were abused by non-family members.

My biggest wish is for people to leave our talks with an insight that they may not have had before, and for our stories and the survivor quotes to give them food for thought as they move forward and start their professional journey. Above all, I hope they feel inspired to do their bit to swim against the tide and break the culture of silence surrounding CSA.

Hiding… in plain slight?

Content: Child abuse. Child sexual abuse.

I look back now and I wonder – how? How was this not seen, this depth of sadness, by others in my family? Why could they not sense the burden I was carrying? It was so terribly heavy.

Continue reading “Hiding… in plain slight?”

“Not me and not my child”

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.”

BBC Radio4 documentary:

Listen to Sophie Olson’s story…

A Falling Tree Production: produced by Redzi Bernard and Phoebe Mcindoe.

What is your armour made of?

This piece was homework, set by the very lovely Saša in the weekly writing group I attend. It’s one of my favourite times of the week. Saša (you can find her here, and over on instagram @sasawrites) and I have known each other for a few years and it’s a very safe place for me to speak. I can speak freely and be myself in ways I can’t in real life. She posed the question: “what is your armour made from?” and it made me reflect. Do I wear any armour? Yes I do, but it’s a different suit of armour to the one I wore during the years I stayed silent. It began to change, as I found a way to speak and tell my story…

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Nobody Knows

Statistics that tell us the prevalence of CSA, are vague – depending on which researching body or charity you refer to. One says 1 in 4. Another leading charity says 1 in 5. I’ve also read 1 in 6, 1 in 8 and 1 in 20. Nobody knows. It is a hidden crime. The 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 7.5% of adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 years (3.1 million people).

According to NAPAC: cases of child abuse remain hidden; around one in seven adults who called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood’s (NAPAC’s) helpline had not told anyone about their abuse before.

It is estimated that only one in eight victims of sexual abuse come to the attention of statutory authorities (Children’s Commissioner 2015).

Sometimes I study these statistics as I want something tangible to bring into my presentations, and I tie my brain up in knots. There is no single definitive answer it seems. Nobody knows the true extent of how many children are sexually abused.

A singer called Brenda Rattray contacted me this week, asking if I could share the release of her new song ‘Nobody Knows’.
She describes it as ‘a song for the voiceless.’ I think it will speak to many survivors: it is beautiful, raw and honest.

Why a child (or adult) survivor might not disclose abuse (and how to word a question in a way that may promote disclosure)

By Sophie Olson

This blog post stems from an email to lady who asked a question on a tweet. The tweet emphasised the need to ask a child again, if you think they may be being abused but they deny they are. She asked how these questions could have been worded to encourage disclosure. I sent her a couple of first-hand accounts from survivors of CSA along with my own. This is my (edited) reply.

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Silence is…

*Trigger Warning* This writing contains depictions of sexual violence and self-injury that some may find upsetting.

I use poetry as a way to release trauma. It may not be any good from a literary point of view, but that was never the point. It is visceral, cathartic and from the heart. I write (and speak) a lot about silence because I was silent for so many years about everything that happened to me.

Writing was key to my recovery from sexual violence I experienced as a child. In therapy when I couldn’t speak, I wrote instead. Now I attend a weekly writing group which I love, and much of my blog content is inspired by these sessions. I encourage anyone struggling to express their trauma to give writing a go. Writing doesn’t have to mean paper and pen; much of my writing is done in the Notes app of my Iphone!

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New Shoots

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to suicide that could be distressing.

For some, life reaches a point where it derails you completely. It is the moment where you feel that death is preferable. Some refer to this as ‘Rock Bottom’ and when I reached mine, it may not have felt like it at the time, but it was the day that I began again. I was 30, and as the first third of my life came to an end, so did the walls I’d built around myself. My persona, my mask, and my pretence began to rot and decay, along with my twenties and I was scared. I feared there was nothing underneath, that I’d just disintegrate and dissolve to nothing.

I didn’t.

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“The Poo” (Guest post by Willow Thomas)

This month’s guest post is by Willow Thomas. It is a powerful analogy of ‘the life of many survivors of family abuse.’ Willow’s focus is on Australia, but as a survivor living in the U.K. it certainly resonates with me, and I’m pretty sure survivors around the world will relate too, regardless of their culture, upbringing or religion.


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When the drugs don’t work… what then?

It is common for the survivor of child sexual abuse to struggle with their mental health. Many will find themselves in the psychiatric system. At first it can feel like a huge relief. We are told we feel the way we do because we suffer from X, Y and Z. We are told to take medication and we do, because it comes with the hope of recovery. For some, medication provides relief. They may take the prescribed dose for the recommended time and feel better, able to continue with their lives, untroubled by past trauma. But what do we do when we feel we’re not recovering from child sexual abuse? How do we cope with the bitter realisation that we feel exactly the same about what happened to us when we reach our forties, fifties and beyond? We begin to wonder; is true recovery even really possible? We hear a lot of talk about ‘recovery’ from trauma, but the truth is I didn’t believe recovery was possible – or maybe it was possible for others and there was something wrong with me. The years went by, along with the hope that anything would change for the better.

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The Power of Speaking Out

I was questioned recently as to the point in my activism work and why I had chosen to tell people what happened to me. It was a good question and one I fully expect to be asked again. It made me think. What is the point of all this; the blog, The Flying Child Project, the activism? How is this work perceived by others? Does it even work? Does speaking out achieve anything other than raising pity?

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Thief: part 2 (guest post- a partner’s perspective)

In a recent blog post Thief, I talk about abuse being a thief of many things and the sense of loss that a survivor may feel. Child sexual abuse has a ripple effect on many aspects of the survivor’s life. The impact can be felt by the survivor’s own loved ones but it’s not something we find easy to talk about – for many reasons. My partner and I didn’t discuss these issues for many years; he felt guilty not knowing what to say or do for the best, and I was reluctant to talk about it with him. We both buried our heads in the sand and pretended there wasn’t an issue, but inevitably this took a toll on our relationship.

This guest post is written from the point of view of a partner of someone who is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

Continue reading “Thief: part 2 (guest post- a partner’s perspective)”
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