Disclosure of child sexual abuse is experienced as a potential threat to the ability to lead a normal life, research has found.
The study into difficulties of first disclosure for adult survivors, published in Science Direct, found that CSA affects self-representation in ways that become significant barriers to disclosure.
“An important and unexpected implication of our findings is that society’s focus on informing people about CSA to facilitate disclosure, might instead, work as a barrier,” said the report. “Thus, it is crucial to explore this potential effect further when developing future interventions to facilitate early disclosure of CSA.”
Child sexual abuse represents a risk to a child’s existence and development, and research points to it as a major problem which can cause considerable health challenges.
Extensive research has demonstrated the pervasive, negative effects of CSA on individual development and life functioning, both in the short and long-term. The consequences are known to be even more damaging when the perpetrator is a primary caregiver, as this has the potential for extensively disrupting the child’s course of development, since the child’s most important support for coping with stress is the source of distress.
Negative experiences in childhood are strongly associated with poorer social functioning later in life. This includes an increased risk for:
- conduct problems
- early mortality
- PTSD (Survivors of CSA have a five times higher risk of developing symptoms of PTSD in adulthood)
- personality related problems
- dissociative symptoms
Disclosing CSA is, however, a complex and difficult process, the research says. It takes between 17.2 and 21.4 years, on average, before survivors of CSA tell someone about their experiences, and the longer the delay before disclosure, the more serious the symptoms are.
Around 60–70% of CSA-survivors do not disclose until they are adults and 27.8% of CSA-survivors have not told anyone.
The study highlights that quantitative research points to several factors that influence disclosure at a group level. For many victims, disclosure is associated with personal conflicts and interpersonal issues, which are important to consider when developing interventions to help children to disclose.
- One known barrier to disclosure is the fact that many survivors do not necessarily categorise their experiences as abuse. Children often do not know what the norm is, and many children also lack the ability to understand and verbalise their experiences.
- Another barrier is having an ambivalent relationship with the abuser. This is particularly threatening when the abuser is a primary caregiver or a family member, as the abuse shatters the child’s fundamental assumptions, while disclosure additionally puts the attachment and care from its caregivers at risk.
- Shame and fear of reprisals keep children from telling someone with cultural factors reinforcing such feelings.
- Many children comply with the abuser’s demand for silence because of secrecy pacts, violence, and threats.
- Abusers may use grooming as a strategy to exploit, where relationship-building, inducements and coercive behaviour promote children’s compliance and make disclosure difficult.
“Fear of not being believed, feelings of shame and guilt, fear of stigmatisation, and worries about oneself and others have been documented as barriers to disclosure across different samples of survivors of CSA,” added the report.
Fear of reprisals
With this background research in mind, this latest study aimed to explore barriers to disclosing sexual abuse from the perspective of adult survivors of CSA. Nine women and three men, who had experienced abuse as a child, volunteered for the study in Norway. Participants were between 18 and 57 years old. For five of the participants the abuser was a primary caregiver, for two participants, the abuser was an extended family member, and five experienced sexual abuse from somebody outside their family. Nine participants had experienced sexual abuse from more than one perpetrator.
Three main themes were highlighted as distinct barriers to disclosing CSA:
- Fear of reprisals - the participants’ feared consequences for themselves and others if disclosing.
- CSA stains – Negative implications for self-representation - participants’ experiences of CSA marking how they thought about, identified and understood themselves, and also how they thought others perceived them, making it extremely complicated to relate to and disclose the abuse.
- The complicating effect of ambiguity - the survivors’ often mixed and confusing feelings about the abuser, which interfered with disclosure.
Fear of reprisals was experienced as a distinct barrier to disclosing CSA for participants, which included potential consequences disclosing would have for oneself and others. In particular, this theme was related to the abuser’s threats, which made participants fear for both themselves and others.
Many of the participants expressed that their experiences with CSA influenced them and the ways they thought about, identified, and understood themselves, and also how they thought others would think of them. They described how, this in different ways, made it terrifying, difficult, and undesirable either to think or talk about the abuse. As part of this, the concept of self-identification came out as a barrier to tell about the abuse. Many of the participants wanted to be like everybody else and keep things normal, and this prevented them from disclosing.
Many participants shared how difficult it was to find the words to say it out loud. One participant explained how saying the words was like defining her past in a devastating and unchangeable way:
“It is almost like coming to your mother and saying “I ran over the cat” or stuff like that; it feels like you are about to kill something, because in a way you kill your own childhood”. (Female, in 20’s).
A few of the participants expressed exclusively negative perceptions and feelings about the abuser, but most described how they also cared about him and/or experienced something positive in the relationship. This was particularly applicable when the abuser was a primary caregiver, or where a close relationship existed in other ways. These mixed and often confusing feelings showed that sexual abuse was not black or white in the experience of the participants, and this complicated the process of disclosing sexual abuse.
Several participants described the positive sides of the relationship as closeness to the abuser, the particular attention they got, and the feeling that the two of them had something special. This prevented them from disclosure. For several participants, disclosing CSA would mean dramatic changes in social networks to which the abuser also belonged, and this affected the relations among family and friends.
“In line with earlier research, fear of reprisals and an ambivalent relationship to the perpetrator were experienced as distinct barriers to disclosure. Also in line with earlier research, CSA’s negative impact on self-representation, including feelings of shame, self-blame, fear of not being believed, and fear of stigmatisation acted as distinct barriers to disclosure,” said the report.
A stain on self-representation
However, the findings expand on this to recognise CSA’s negative effect on self-representation, and how this might act as barriers to disclosure, by shedding light on the way CSA is experienced as staining. As a result, self-perception and self-preserving considerations acted as significant barriers for disclosure for the participants. This included the ways lack of self-respect and devaluation of one’s own needs kept participants from talking about their experiences; the way the urge to keep things normal and be like everybody else made disclosure very threatening, as it would upset and change their own and others’ perceptions of themselves; and the fear that disclosing CSA would rob them of their identity as they and others knew it and mark them as different forever. These phenomena might act separately, as well as together, as barriers for the individual’s disclosure.
The report concludes that self-representation is a powerful phenomenon as it points to who you are both for yourself and others, and most of us are occupied with how we appear in social contexts. The findings suggest that keeping quiet about CSA might be a way of keeping in control, preserving self and identity like everybody else, and choosing a normal life.
Campaigns targeting the disclosure of CSA focusing on strong penalties for the perpetrators, and the stigma of both victim and perpetrator, can serve as barriers to telling. “Who would choose the life of stigmatisation and bring disgrace to important others if it is possible to avoid?” the report asks.
The research concludes: “An important and unexpected implication of this is that society’s focus on providing information about CSA to facilitate disclosure, might instead, work as a barrier. Thus, it is crucial to explore this potential effect further when developing future interventions to facilitate disclosure.”
“To say it out loud is to kill your own childhood.” – An exploration of the first person perspective of barriers to disclosing child sexual abuse