Child Sexual Abuse Stigma and How to Combat It
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.William Earnest Henley, "Invictus"
On your healing journey, you may come across people who react to your experiences in inappropriate or even hurtful ways. These reactions, whether intentional or not, might make you feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or discouraged. They might make you feel judged or criticized. A painful reaction when you disclose your abuse may lead to a setback on your healing journey, causing you to question whether you should even continue sharing your story with others.
As harmful as certain reactions may be, stigmas about child sexual abuse do NOT define you or determine your journey as a survivor.
What is stigma and where does it come from?
“Stigma” is when a person or a group of people assign a negative connotation onto another person or group of people, based on a set of beliefs, perspectives, or biases.
There are many variables that can play into a person’s attitude towards child sexual abuse. A person may have their own trauma histories they haven’t resolved, they may be ignorant about how to properly respond, or they may have been influenced by other cultural myths. Even if someone’s reaction is well-meaning, it can still be misguided and ultimately leave you feeling disheartened or even triggered.
Feeling affected by someone’s reaction to your disclosure or by other messages in the media or popular culture does not make you weak, unsteady, or powerless. It doesn’t mean you are ill-equipped or have somehow regressed on your healing journey. The fact is you are strong, capable, and resilient. That you have survived, are here reading this, and are facing down your demons is proof of your courage and strength. You are a model of resilience and a powerful fighter as you choose to face and reconcile with the trauma you have endured.
But no matter where you’re at on your healing journey, the ignorance of others can still be painful. You may encounter this type of misinformation not only in reactions from others, but in social media posts, news coverage, public conversations, media portrayals, etc. These hurtful and triggering messages stem from stigmas that have surrounded sexual abuse for years. Such stigmas have led to outdated and misguided perceptions, or cultural myths. These cultural myths (“she was asking for it,” “men’s passions are uncontrollable,” “boys can’t be sexually abused”) and their problematic ripple effects were first addressed by sociologists and feminists in the 1970s. In 1975, multiple researchers theorized that cultural myths surrounding sexual abuse served to justify, downplay, and even perpetuate inappropriate aggression and toxic behaviors.1
These myths continue to influence our culture today. For example, they may reinforce certain barriers or biases in the justice system that increase the likelihood of survivors being disbelieved or perpetrators going unpunished. This misinformation might also contribute to an ignorant or dismissive response to a sexual abuse disclosure, a misguided Facebook post, a sensationalized news story about false allegations, or harmful portrayals of family relationships on a TV show.
One of the most damaging effects of sexual abuse stigmas is survivors being too afraid to disclose their abuse and seek help, largely due to the fear of how others will react.2 But if you share your story and your resilience, you will provide hope and encouragement to the silent survivor. Through your example, others will feel safe enough and emboldened enough to break their silence and seek help, no matter the criticism they may come across.
Of course, just because such stigmas still exist doesn’t mean everyone accepts or reinforces them. Thankfully, through the efforts of survivors, supporters of survivors, therapists, researchers, legislators, and support organizations, progress continues to be made as awareness and education about sexual abuse increases.
While faulty messages and misinformed opinions can be hurtful, there are ways you can combat them as you continue on your healing journey.
The next time you come across a hurtful point of view that is difficult to shake off, it may be helpful to ask yourself:
• How reliable is this person’s opinion?
• What type of information and background is influencing their opinion?
• How much truth do I want to assign to this person or statement?
Another way to get out of a claustrophobic headspace is to do service for others—perhaps for fellow survivors or other needs in your community. Service and volunteering will not only instigate positive social interactions but will boost your sense of control and circle of influence.
Yes, stigmas surrounding child sexual abuse still exist. And they can perpetuate misinformation, outdated stereotypes, and misguided reactions. But what they can’t do is take away your courage, resilience, and strength. As disheartening as stigmatized and misguided views can be, they can’t silence your voice. The stigma surrounding sexual abuse is crumbling and will continue to crumble, one conversation at a time. And you have the power to make that happen.
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