Child Sexual Abuse Stigma and How to Combat It

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 Such stigmas have led to outdated and misguided perceptions, or cultural myths.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.

1. If you are triggered, use grounding techniques.

Feeling triggered by stigmatizing words or actions is a perfectly legitimate and understandable response. If a certain reaction, behavior, or piece of content from someone else causes you great stress or anxiety, you can use grounding techniques to help you calm down and return to the present. Some effective techniques include breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and mindful walking. Once you’ve found your equilibrium, congratulate yourself for working through the experience, even if it was difficult. Remember that your emotions are valid and your brain is doing its best to protect you. If you feel that the experience has caused a setback, read here on useful tips to bounce back.

2. Recognize that another’s hurtful reaction is about them, not you.

It can be tempting to hold on to others’ opinions, allowing them to take up more space in our head than they deserve. Hurtful words in particular can sometimes seem impossible to forget. Negative self-talk might also come into play, jumping to extreme statements such as “They must be right about me,” “Everything I thought about myself is wrong,” or “I’m worthless.” In reality, the opposite is true. Another person’s troubling reaction is not a reflection on you or your experience. Rather, it reflects their own perception and the information (or misinformation) they’ve received. Likely, an upsetting reaction or opinion is a reflection of the cultural myths that person has encountered.

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?

3. Seek emotional support from the ones you trust.

When you start to feel stigmatized, your thoughts may gravitate toward an unhelpful place. You may start to experience shame, anger, or fear. To get out of this narrow headspace, reach out to someone you trust—someone who you know will offer you emotional support. Talk through the triggering reactions or messages you’ve encountered and the feelings that they caused. This may be especially helpful if done with a support group, a therapist, a crisis line, or a trusted loved one. Confiding in and listening to the perspectives of other survivors who have experienced similar stigmas or misguided opinions will help validate your own feelings and empower you to manage those types of uncomfortable situations in the future.

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.

4. Journal about the experience.

Writing out your feelings about a painful interaction you had, or misinformed content you were exposed to, can be healing and insightful. If you’re still feeling stuck in that uncomfortable moment, reliving it and the pain it caused, writing can help you identify the reasons why. It can help you recognize and process why someone else’s opinion does not reflect your truth and is not relevant to your journey as a survivor. However, be aware of your emotional state as you write. If you’re starting to stray into a subject or territory that is overwhelming or triggering, stop the writing exercise and instead engage in a grounding technique. Ultimately, be kind and reassuring to yourself. Remember that even if another person’s opinion isn’t valid, your emotions are—especially when it comes to encountering stigma.

5. Find other perspectives.

If you’re genuinely curious about a certain topic or point of view regarding sexual abuse, don’t be afraid to dig deeper. Seek out more information from reputable sources, like research studies, scholarly articles, or books by specialists in the field. You might also want to talk with your therapist or support group facilitator. It might even be helpful to ask your therapist about specific stigmas in order to better recognize them and their ripple effects. Being aware of certain stigmas or myths might also help you plan on how to respond when encountering them in the future. Equip yourself with as much knowledge as you need—whether for your own peace of mind, to educate others, or both.

6. Distance yourself from toxic environments.

Just as seeking out beneficial information and relationships can be illuminating, avoiding harmful confrontation is equally helpful when it comes to certain environments or groups. While it’s empowering to be informed and aware, actively seeking out hateful and toxic points of view might be detrimental to your healing journey. You might encounter content that is triggering and opinions that are expressed with hostility and malicious intent. To avoid such triggers, be wary of the influences you surround yourself with and the places you visit—especially online. Be particular about where you choose to channel your attention and who you choose to engage with. Remember the boundaries you have put in place to enable your healing and recognize that certain websites, forums, and comment sections are unlikely to respect those boundaries. While initiating conversations about sexual abuse is crucial to raising awareness and reducing stigma, such interactions should NEVER be at the expense of your own self-care.

7. Remember you are in control of your own story.

Harmful words and reactions can sometimes wound or even trigger us. But they don’t define us or have the power to sway us from our journey. No matter the social stigmas or ignorant opinions out there, you get to choose your own story. You get to determine where it goes and how you want it to end. Writer Rebecca Scritchfield compares life’s experiences to a road trip. “You’re driving the car. You decide the speed, control the gas pedal and brakes, and choose the roads you take on your journey.”3 The assumptions, biases, and misconceptions of others might cause you to swerve or slow down. But they can never uproot the road. The negativity of others can’t impede you from living a life of hope and positivity.

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.William Earnest Henley, "Invictus"

Conclusion

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.

References:
1. Payne, D. L., Lonsway, K. A., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1999). Rape Myth Acceptance: Exploration of Its Structure and Its Measurement Using theIllinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 33(1), 27-68.
2. Bonanno, G. A., Keltner, D., Noll, J. G., Putnam, F. W., Trickett, P. K., Lejeune, J., & Anderson, C. (2002). When the face reveals what words do not: Facial expressions of emotion, smiling, and the willingness to disclose childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 94-110.
3. Scritchfield, R. (2016). Body Kindness: Transform your health from the inside out, and never say diet again. New York: Workman Publishing.