One of the hardest things I’ve done is publicly share my testimony of healing from sexual abuse. The shame and fear were overpowering. This was despite the fact that my abuser had been dead for nearly 25 years, and I was a happy, fulfilled wife, mother and Christian.
One thought drove me forward in my determination to speak the unspeakable. I did it for those who cannot find their voices. I did it because no one had done it for me. Having come so far toward peace with myself and God, I determined to go back into the dark maze and bring others out to the light. For those who have not been there, that may sound overly dramatic. But I mostly write for them. I also write in the hope that those who have not experienced sexual abuse will care enough to try to understand.
Why do victims stay silent?
1. Shame. Publicly admitting I had been sexually abused felt very much like being stripped naked in front of a crowd. And some of them were my friends! I have yet to meet a sexual abuse survivor who did not feel humiliation over the abuse. Many are so acutely traumatized that they literally cannot remember the details of the encounter. Shame is one of the fundamental reasons that victims need counseling—someone to come alongside them and balance their overpowering feelings with the voice of reason. Most victims confuse guilt (“I have done something bad”) with shame (“I am bad”). According to the Bible, guilt can be removed by confession and repentance; guilt is a message of hope from God, promising healing and freedom through the cross. Shame, on the other hand, feels like guilt, but can never be shaken by confession or repentance. Unresolved, it sends victims into powerful mood swings and feeds addictions, compulsive behaviors and other vain attempts to find refuge from pain in something other than Christ. Telling people about what I had been through empowered me and ultimately drained away the last of the shame. Today I am no longer ashamed, no longer a victim. Telling my story helped finally break me free from the shame and to guide others out of that same darkness.
2. Self-blame. Nearly every victim of sexual abuse blames himself or herself. Because they usually have trust relationships with their abusers, or are in positions under their power, most victims do not fight ferociously against their attackers. Shock and disbelief blend with fear of exposure, danger, and humiliation. Predators often shrewdly maximize the resultant self-blame to maintain control of their victims afterward. “You shouldn’t have worn that dress” works on children and adults alike. And yes, even children tend to blame themselves for adults’ behavior in preying upon them. As a young child, I remember reasoning that since my abuser couldn’t get spanked, the punishment surely would fall on me instead. But for those who consider themselves “old enough to know better,” the self-blame may be even more intense. Overpowered by their own self-accusation, they fear that if they tell anyone, the criticism and attacks of others will be even worse. If they participated willingly in the situation in any way (such as feeling flattered or submitting to kisses), it may be exponentially tougher for them to recognize that they do not bear responsibility for other acts done against their will.
3. Control. There are some sexual predators who prey on random victims. However, most predators rely on an ongoing relationship with their victims as their best method of keeping them silent. In his book The Serpents Among Us, Patrick Crough traces the stages of the typical sexual predator’s approach. It begins with establishing trust and ends with maintaining control. The majority of predators invest considerable time and energy in cultivating the trust of the victim, and if necessary, the victim’s support network (parents, teachers, friends, etc.). Trust is an essential ingredient in eventual control. This is why predators love to hide in respectable professions such as coaching, teaching, counseling or ministry. Respectability and power give them a shortcut to gaining trust. And in order to maintain their cover, it is vital that the predator develop and maintain control of the victim, both to continue the abuse and to continue to find pleasure in it.
Predators purposefully build and carefully maintain control of their victims. Gifts, favoritism, and intense emotional bonding are some of the most common methods. They may call victims affectionate names like “my little one” to emphasize both their power over and close relationship with the victims. “I love you so much…you are closer than a daughter to me…If you tell on me, my life will be over.” Words like these are especially powerful for young people who have grown up thirsting for love and tenderness. In order to maintain control predators are experts at identifying vulnerable young people, and in giving their victims the affirmation or affection they crave. They also often use fear of humiliation or physical harm. “I have a gun and you know I’m not afraid to use it…I will show everyone those pictures I took of you…Your job is on the line…You would destroy our family if you told anyone…No one would ever believe you anyway.” This is why most predators establish close friendships with their victims and victims’ families—to maintain control. They gather data and build trust with the victim’s support network, while simultaneously alienating the victim from that network. Even if someone leaks information that calls the relationship into question, predators are typically charismatic, passionate and convincing in their own self-defense. Victims, on the other hand, are usually hesitant, embarrassed and quick to back down. Most people are hesitant to level life-destroying charges against a trusted friend or respected authority figure with “no hard evidence.” Since sexual abusers typically do their deeds in secret, and lie vehemently if confronted, the only “evidence” that usually exists is the testimony of the victim.
4. Survival. As hard as it is for others to understand, some victims feel they simply cannot survive exposure of their most humiliating experiences. They are convinced that the least painful course to pursue is denial—pretending it didn’t happen. Predators often add spiritual abuse to their other crimes. It is one of their most effective tools. They may pressure victims into promising not to tell (thereby making them “liars” if they tell anyone), or urge victims to show loving Christian spirit by “forgiving and forgetting.” Usually they hold before their victims the specter of how “un-loving” it would be to hurt the predator’s reputation and destroy their family by telling. Victims may believe that their eternal life is at risk if they tell. Immersed in the pain of their own experiences, victims often do not realize that predators will have many other victims if the situation remains secret, and that it is not an act of love to help a person conceal criminal behavior, thereby fostering its growth.
Victims of acutely traumatic abuse tend to dissociate from experiences they wish were not reality. Ironically, the more acute their suffering, the more likely victims are to try to pick themselves up and pretend nothing happened. Even if no physical threat is posed, victims often fear for their social survival. Made in the image of God, we’re wired for relationship. Especially for young people, social death can be the worst kind of death to die. Because they are often well-liked, popular, and charismatic, perpetrators seem to hold the victim’s social standing in the palm of their hands. They use this as a tool to threaten victims into submission.
Relationships with others are designed to teach us about relationship with God. The greatest damage caused by abuse (of any kind) is spiritual devastation—the inability to connect with God. Abuse warps our understanding of God. This is especially true of sexual abuse, because it strikes deeply at the root of who we are—sexual beings. Depending on a victim’s personal emotional response (and on the details of how their abuser twisted their view of love), God may feel cruel, indifferent, or faraway. Until they face and heal from their abuse, most survivors battle, often vainly, to believe in God’s love and helping power.
Victims of abuse need first to connect with God through prayer and Bible study, and realize that God is not who they may feel He is. Second, they need to get help from others who can reflect God’s love to them. Books and resources can also be very helpful.
Living a lie is a poor imitation of freedom. It is a diversionary tactic of the father of lies, calculated to separate us from God. Only telling—and living—in truth enables us to truly leave the past behind and discover healing and freedom. I often tell people in counseling, “The only way out is through.” Those who have suffered abuse of any kind must experience the promise of God: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). That binding up is a process, not a single event. But the promise is sure.
Facing past abuse is a difficult first step toward healing, but it is well worth it. Trust me. I know.