Child sexual abuse is a secret not worth keeping

Editor’s note: this post contains graphic sexual content and may be offensive to some readers. In fact, it should be offensive to all readers.

When I saw students taking to the streets to protest the firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, I felt a wave of outrage. Actually, just rage.

How could those football fans conjure that much passion to defend their coach when no one had enough passion for the well being of young boys to pick up a phone? I get school spirit — football is a big deal at University of Michigan — but if the accusations came from their son, their brother, them, would they believe the most important thing is sports?

The grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football defensive coordinator, goes on for 23 sickening pages, alleging a pattern of sexual abuse of young boys that spanned more than a decade.

These all remain unproven charges, Sandusky has not been convicted of anything. And yet, as more accusers have come forward, the narrative adds up to years of abuse of numerous children while no one stepped in.

I wish I were surprised. But sadly, I get it.

Child sexual abuse is the dirty little secret many people live with. The National Resource Council estimates Americans who have been sexually abused could be from a low of 20-24 percent to a high of 54-62 percent.  The number is hard to pin down in part because so many cases are never reported to the police.

Like mine.

I was sexually abused by a babysitter when I was in elementary school. I never told my parents, though I learned years later they knew.

It might be hard to understand why an abused kid wouldn’t go to parents or a teacher or the police — if your home was robbed, you probably wouldn’t hide that out of shame.

But sexual abuse is twisted and complicated.

I can’t speak for all victims so I’ll refrain from using the royal “we” or the depersonalizing second-person “you.” This is just about me.

I felt sex was naughty and verboten, so going to my parents felt like confessing I’d done something wrong. My abuser compounded that with the typical pleas to keep our secret, which made me feel special because I was in on something the grown ups didn’t know.

Sex is complicated territory for an adult in a romantic relationship. Compound that by being far too young to comprehend what’s happening, why your body feels the way it does and why this other person wants you to do certain things. Give one of the people the advantages of age and power to manipulate the other, and fear of getting caught to fuel twisting the narrative, and I became a child who felt she had something to hide.

Even as I’m writing this, I’m doubting I’ll have the nerve to publish it — what will people think? I’ve been sitting on this draft for months.

Years ago, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter. In our training, we learned about one of the many hurdles victims face in coming forward — it’s hard for people to hear what’s happened, so they’ll often discount the accusations. They’ll attack the accuser, call her a liar. To believe her raises too many questions.

Likewise, in cases of child sexual abuse:

  • What if you suspected something for years and didn’t act? What does that say about you?
  • What if you didn’t suspect anything? Does that mean you’re a bad judge of character? Does it mean you might have misplaced trust with others in your life?
  • What if you’re wrong? What if it turns out to be the overactive imagination of a child, and you’ve accused a friend or family member of something dreadful — it’s so rarely a case of an eye witness, so the adult has a decision to make about making that big an allegation based on a child’s account. How many crazy, fanciful things have you heard kids say?
  • What if you’d rather not know? If learning about abuse means you have to ask questions about taboo issues, and picture things you’d rather not, will your squeamishness keep you from going there?

Jason Berry, an investigative reporter who’s covered the child molestation charges against the Catholic church, wrote in the Atlantic:

as horrific as that image is of a coach sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in a shower, it is one of those ugly truths that people do not like to confront. The idea that something like that needs to be made public, or become part of a police report, it unsettles people. It just jars them. I’ve read hundreds of depositions in cases involving the church and priests. It’s amazing how many times the syntax and language becomes tortured and gnarled when bishops and monsignors in positions of authority try to explain why they didn’t do anything.

Suffering sexual abuse as a child was one of the defining experiences of my life. It made me mistrusting and fearful of people and made it hard for me to have healthy, trusting romantic relationships.

I’m grateful to have had some good counselors help me work through my baggage, which has made my experience more like an old sports injury. It doesn’t always hurt, but it flairs up occasionally, like when I had to endure years of people making casual jokes about Catholic priests abusing altar boys.

I imagine it’s difficult to understand why something that happened three decades ago still matters. To go back to the old injury example, a scar or a limp can stay with you for a lifetime. After suffering sexual abuse, I couldn’t be the same innocent, trusting child I was before. I felt different from my peers, betrayed by grown ups and ashamed of my own body. My earliest impressions of physical intimacy are marred by feelings like fear and confusion. Everything from my first kiss to my first serious relationship were colored by the abuse, dampening my joy at important landmarks.

According to the American Psychological Association:

Children and adolescents who have been sexually abused can suffer a range of psychological and behavioral problems, from mild to severe, in both the short and long term. These problems typically include depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, sexual dysfunction, withdrawal, and acting out. Depending on the severity of the incident, victims of sexual abuse may also develop fear and anxiety regarding the opposite sex or sexual issues and may display inappropriate sexual behavior. However, the strongest indication that a child has been sexually abused is inappropriate sexual knowledge, sexual interest, and sexual acting out by that child.

Adults who were sexually abused as children commonly experience depression. Additionally, high levels of anxiety in these adults can result in self-destructive behaviors, such as alcoholism or drug abuse, anxiety attacks, situation-specific anxiety disorders, and insomnia. Many victims also encounter problems in their adult relationships and in their adult sexual functioning.

If you have a strong childhood memory — say, your grandmother’s pie or your favorite family vacation — you know how intensely those experiences can come back if you see, hear or smell something that triggers it. Reading all these stories about Penn State stirred up my abuse memories. My hurt roared to life and took shape as fury about football fans’ reactions.

I imagined being one of those abused boys who told his story for the grand jury and questioning whether I’d done the right thing to come forward, watching the riots on campus and feeling that maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.

Since I can’t reach out to hug those victims and tell them they’re not the ones who should be ashamed, this post is the best I can do.

To any abuse survivor, at Penn State or elsewhere, you aren’t alone. Lots of us have walked in your shoes.

My deepest hope is that all of this Penn State coverage will give another child the courage to talk to his parents or motivate an adult with suspicions to step in before it’s too late, and that those who suffered at the hands of an abuser will get help.

Melissa Dribben of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently wrote that Penn State is inspiring people to reach out:

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reported that in November, after the scandal broke, its online hot line providing confidential support for victims had the busiest month since it started in 2006. The average of 2,500 sessions a month jumped to 3,100.

Jeff Herman, a lawyer in Miami who represents victims of sexual abuse, said his website, which ordinarily receives 5,000 hits a month, got 15,000 in November.

Rick Reilly wrote a powerful story on talking to athletes who suffered childhood sexual abuse about their experience. NHL All-Star Theo Fleury and former Red Wing, Flame and Bruin Sheldon Kennedy know what’s really at stake here.

Reilly wrote:

This is not about Joe Paterno.

If these boys really were molested, groped and raped by a middle-aged ex-Penn State football coach, then whatever misjudgment Paterno made will be a single lit match compared to the bonfire these boys will walk in for years to come.

Many of them won’t be able to trust. Won’t be able to love. Won’t be able to feel — nor trust or love themselves.

Don’t feel sorry for Paterno. He’s had his life. Feel sorry for these boys, because they may never get one.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

Oprah’s resource for sexual abuse survivors and supporters

Warning signs a child might be sexually abused from


Categories: health and well being, home and family, lifestyle

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1 reply

  1. Thanks for this important article Colleen. As someone who both experienced sexual abuse in my childhood, and has supported many adult survivors of abuse in my herbal practice, I very much appreciate your outrage at the response to the accusations of this coach. I came of age when ‘false memory syndrome’ was the pop psychology phenomenon of the moment, and deeply questioned my own memories (before allowing anyone else to question them.) It took years of somatic (body-centered) work to trust that the abuse was real in order to begin to more fully heal from it.

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