What Keeps Us from Talking about Sexual Abuse

There are many reasons why it’s difficult to speak about child sexual abuse, especially as it affects our own lives or the lives of those we care about. In most societies child sexual abuse is a taboo topic, making it difficult for most people to talk about it openly. Other obstacles include doubting our own perceptions, being afraid to accuse someone falsely, and being unable or unwilling to go through the pain that can stem from acknowledging that someone we care about is being abused or is abusing.

Below are descriptions of some common barriers that can get in the way of our speaking up when we have concerns about abuse.

Fear of false accusation

No one wants to damage another person by falsely accusing them of abusing a child. Sexual abuse can be hard to prove because there are rarely witnesses. Many people think that unless they can prove abuse has taken place, they don’t have the right to speak up about behaviors or observations that concern them. It’s important to act responsibly, but saying nothing because you think you don’t have enough proof can expose a child to danger.

People want to feel assured that there’s reason for concern before they speak up or take action. If you’re concerned about child sexual abuse, ask yourself what exactly you’re seeing that makes you uncomfortable or suspicious. You may be thinking that all you have is a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. But if you look a little harder you’ll probably see that your feelings are connected to a particular behavior, interaction or event that actually took place. Perhaps it’s the way someone wrestled with a child, or a sexual comment that someone made. It can be helpful to keep a list of behaviors that you find disturbing.

If you’re not sure, get help to assess if these behaviors indicate a risk of sexual abuse. Figuring out if the behaviors that worry you are significant is hard to do by yourself. Speaking with others who know the people you’re concerned about, learning the behavioral warning signs of abuse, and calling the toll-free, confidential Stop It Now! Helpline (1.888.PREVENT) are all ways to help in evaluating whether there is a risk of abuse.

Feeling alone in your concern

It can take enormous courage and determination to stand up when no one else shares your concerns. Thinking that no one will believe you or take you seriously can be enough to discourage people from voicing concerns that someone they know is abusing or being abused. Some people try speaking up, but when others ignore or dismiss what they have to say, they can become too intimidated to bring the subject up again.

Being the only one in your circle of family and friends who is worried about abuse is a difficult and lonely place to be. If you’re in this situation, think about why people might not believe you when you tell them that you’re worried about abuse.

Perhaps they don’t believe you because…

  • You may be detecting things that others are not aware of.
  • You may have more knowledge and understanding of the risks and warning signs of abuse.
  • The people you talk to may be caught in denial; they may be unwilling or unable to face the painful possibility that someone they care about could be abusing or is being abused.
  • If a child has disclosed that they are being abused, adults might not believe the child unless they understand that children rarely lie about sexual abuse, especially when games or activities involve adult-like behaviors.

When no one shares your concern, consider these 4 steps:

1. Be a teacher

Show them information about behavioral warning signs of abuse, so that they can see for themselves why certain behaviors could indicate a problem.

2. Share written observations

Write down what you are seeing or hearing that concerns you and share this list with the others. Use our Journal Page as a format.

3. Be persistent

Keep in mind that speaking to others about sexual abuse usually requires more than a single conversation. You may have to bring the subject up several times in order to give others time to digest what you are saying and to accept the possibility that someone they care about could be at risk.

4. Don’t stop looking for an ally

Chances are that there is someone who will believe you – someone who may have been affected by sexual abuse or who understands how hidden abuse can be. It’s possible to find allies by turning to trustworthy friends or professionals who understand the complexity of child sexual abuse.

Facing the stigma and shame

The way we are perceived by others means a lot to us. Our reputations can affect our jobs, families, relationships, and standings in our communities. Most people don’t understand that adults who are good parents and grandparents, long time friends and reliable neighbors may be struggling with abusive behavior. The fear of being shamed may tempt us to try to manage the problem of child sexual abuse within our families. But if we don’t reach out for outside help, such as from skilled therapists or supportive friends, we can hurt everyone’s chances for a successful recovery.

Insisting that our family members remain silent is harmful. Having to keep silent increases each person’s feelings of isolation, and places a burden of secrecy on them that can become damaging over time.

Find friends and professionals who are supportive, rather than judgmental or accusing. Identify organizations or agencies that can provide each family member with the support they need for healing.