Should I have spoken up?


Dear Stop It Now!,

When I was around 12 years old, my dad fondled my breasts and asked me if I played with myself and told me that he was the kind of kid who played with himself all the time. I knew at the time that what he was doing was wrong, so I went to my room and locked the door. My mom didn't have a job at the time, so my dad was our only source of income, so if he were put in jail, we would have starved. I'm 21 now and I only recently told my mom what he had done since I know it is too late to actually do anything. What should I have done as a child? We were entirely financially dependent on him, so I felt like I couldn't tell anyone or we'd end up starving without the financial support. Should I have risked it? What was I supposed to do? I'm only recently realizing how much his behavior affected me.

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Dear Brave Survivor,

I'm so sorry that you experienced sexual abuse as a child. 

Our founder, Fran Henry, knew first-hand the incredibly challenging position that a child is in when they’re being sexually abused by someone they love, trust, and depend on. She knew that the programs in place then, that encouraged kids to say “no” and tell someone would not have worked for her. That is why we say it is always an adult’s responsibility: it was not your job to keep yourself safe or to stop the abuse from happening. In short, there is no right answer for what you “should” have done, because it was not on you to make this decision. There was at least one adult (your father) who knew what happened, and he should have taken the steps to get you and himself help after this happened. And, I am so sorry that you have felt that it there was something you should have done differently, or that there was a “right answer” that you failed to choose. 

Stop It Now!’s guiding principle is that adults are responsible for keeping children safe because children cannot be depended upon to “tell” or to make such a difficult decision about what they should do when they’re being hurt. There are so many things that can get in the way: they may love the person that’s abusing them. They may be worried that by telling they’ll get this person in trouble. They may have been threatened, or think that the person who hurt them will instead turn to their younger sibling. They may fear that if they speak up no one will believe them. Or that their whole world will fall apart. Children should not be made to bear such an incredible burden.

We hear from so many people that, as children, there was no easy answer for them. You made a decision that you felt you had to, and I’m so sorry that you had to carry this weight alone for so long. This was not your fault, and you should not feel guilty about the choice you made. 

Ideally, your dad would have gotten professional help when he started to have sexual thoughts or feelings that concerned him. Ideally, your mom or another loving adult would have noticed something in the way he behaved around you that made them uncomfortable, and they would have spoken up and set clear limits – although, I do want to be clear that she was not responsible for your father’s behaviors either and it is often very difficult for people to recognize warning signs in an adult’s behaviors, even when they live together and are responsible for keeping children safe. Ideally, this never would have happened. You should never have been made to make the choice of either keeping the secret and being in pain, or talking about what happened and worrying about your family’s future and financial stability. But in reality, that is not what happened. You made the best choice you thought you could at this young age, and I commend you for your bravery then, and your courage now to speak up. 

I’m wondering, have you ever thought about talking to a counselor? Is there someone in your life whom you’re already working with? For many people who experienced sexual abuse as children, this is something that helps free them from the pain, guilt, shame and confusion that may linger even as adults. You say that you’re only now learning how much this affected you, and you deserve a place to process how your dad’s abusive behaviors in your childhood continue to affect you to this day. You deserve to heal. If you’re interested, I’ve included some our resources for Adults Who Experienced Sexual Abuse as Children that you may want to check out, as well as our page on Finding Professional Treatment and Support

And, I’m curious about the types of support you have in your life right now – like friends, or your mom even. I would encourage you, as you’re comfortable, to make sure that you lean on folks who you trust and who care about you unconditionally. Even if you’re don’t feel like speaking about all that’s going on for you right now, sometimes it’s just helpful to talk, walk, go to a movie or grab a coffee with someone who is in your corner. You’re not alone in all that you’re going through.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: November 18th, 2019