Sunday Reflections: How We Talk About the Victims of Sexual Abuse Matters
As Christmas vacation approached during my 9th grade year, my fear increased. I couldn’t go back. But there was a part of me that also thought, surely I must be wrong about what happened. So one day I went into my school guidance counselor and I told her the story of what happened the year before I moved to this new place to live with my mother. I told her fully believing that she would look at me and say something along the lines of it was perfectly normal and everything was fine.
“I’m sorry, I have to call the police now” is what she said instead when I finished my story. So I sat there as she called the police and then my mother who came to hear what I had to say.
You see, the year before I lived in a different state with my father and a variety of other family members. One of them did a variety of things to me that became increasingly uncomfortable and then downright traumatizing. I lived in fear. I stayed up at night trying to protect myself. I tried to go to friends houses as often as possible. But it was sinister and subtle what was happening, and I just wasn’t sure. In part because you don’t think it can happen to you, in part because some people are really good at grooming you in ways that make you doubt and question, and in part because you just don’t think someone who claims to love you can do this to you. But they can and they do. And it alters the landscape of your life.
The following year, now living with my mom, was a tremendous relief. There was no more fear. There was no more anxiety. There was no more hiding and scheming to stay out of the house. And I just couldn’t go back. Even for a two-week Christmas break, I knew I couldn’t go back.
And I didn’t, for many, many years I didn’t go back. There was a brief investigation where everything was swept under the rug, but I was given a voice that day in the counselor’s office and I never went back for many years.
The only way I know of to fight back against this – to make sure the attackers are convicted and jailed, and victims receive the care they deserve – is for adults to start talking to our kids about sexuality. Too many of us still don’t know how to find the words because we were raised by parents who didn’t know how to talk about it either.- from Laurie Halse Anderson, author of SPEAK.
But navigating family events was and continues to be a tremendous issue. Many family members said it wasn’t fair what I did, cutting off ties to protect myself. They still continued to feed this person information about me, which forced me to cut ties with them as well. Everyone was so worried about protecting this person, they forgot to think about protecting me. It was yet another form of betrayal and injury.
And navigating family events today can still be complicated. Everyone has an opinion about what happened, and very few of them want to remember what happened so they judge me. They judge me as I work out ways to make sure that I and my girls are never left alone with this person at family events. They judge me as I decline invitations and when I do go, I put boundaries in place. Boundaries are difficult to enforce, a reminder to them all that this person they love did this horrific thing and it’s often easier just to pretend that I’m being petty and difficult.
I’m expected to just forgive and forget. It’s in the past they say. I’m supposed to sweep it under the rug. I’m supposed to make life easy and convenient for everyone, including the person who did this thing to me.
I am alone in my effort to keep myself safe. Not even physically any more, just emotionally. But there’s no one on my team in my family because denial is so much easier, even though it is a salt in the wounds for those of us who are victims. Your comfort comes at the cost of my silence, and sometimes it is too great a price.
So I thought of all of this when the news of Josh Duggar broke out this week. About what it must have been like for those girls having to continue to grow up in the same home as this person who had violated them. Having to smile and play happy family for the camera while inside I imagine they were thinking and feeling much different things.
I know what it’s like to have a family that wants to pretend that these things didn’t happen to you. That years later you should be over it, forgive it, and everyone should play happy family again. But the truth is, many times you can’t. And even if you can and do, it has to be on your time table, not everyone else’s. Being violated in that way, living in that type of fear, it resets something inside you. There can be healing, maybe even forgiving, but there is no forgetting. Thirty years later sometimes the most seemingly innocent thing can trigger an emotional response in me regarding the events of that year.
And it is such an offensive idea that the victims of sexual abuse should pretend otherwise for the sake of others.
Time and time again when these things happen we tend to react by wondering how this will ruin the abuser’s life. Josh Duggar did this when he said in his statement that he knew he had to stop before he ruined his life, never once mentioning how he might have ruined the lives of his victims. This happened after Steubenville when the press wondered how it would ruin these boys lives being labeled a sex offender, the victim only a foot note. My family wondered this when they claimed that I owed it to this family member to keep in touch with him just because he was a part of my family, as if I was somehow hurting HIM by breaking off contact.
When recent events happened in my neighborhood one of the mother’s felt bad about pressing charges, wondering what would happen to this man that had violated her daughter. This is what I told her: You owe it to your daughter to press charges. She needs to know that someone cares about what happened to her, that someone is on her side, that you are there to support her and protect her and be her champion. She needs to know that she matters by having people recognize the harm that was done to her.
I can’t presume to speak for the victims of Josh Duggar’s abuse. And I can’t presume to speak for other survivors. Everyone deals in their own time and in their own way. And I can’t pretend to know how this situation was or was not dealt with. And it’s horrible that these girls are now being forced to face this part of their life again whether they want to or not by having it put into the public spotlight. But it’s there and I think there are a few things I want to make sure we take away from all of this:
1.Victims of sexual abuse should be able to keep themselves safe at all times and draw personal boundaries that allow them to maintain both their physical and emotional health. Actually, all people should. But in events where abuse is known the victims should be able to draw those boundaries and they should be respected by all family members.
2. Victims of sexual abuse should be given the time and the space to deal with their emotions on their own terms. It’s not about what’s best for the family but about what’s best for them. Counseling from a neutral party that is licensed in sexual abuse should be consulted. Not a family friend, not a clergy member who is not trained to deal with sexual abuse, not a clergy member who has close family ties, but a neutral party that is trained and licensed to deal with this type of abuse.
3. Family and friends should recognize and understand that this healing journey is personal and it is not smooth. Even the most seemingly fine individual may have moments where they are triggered, even years after the event.
4. Family and friends should not put pressure or put expectations on the victims that they need to forgive their offender and no time limits should be given. I’m not saying forgiveness is a bad thing or an impossible thing, I’m saying outside forces don’t get to determine what the violated think and feel about what happened to them or on what time table.
Worse, with the statement they released, they’ve now framed the story so that the victims cannot come forward, if they choose to do so, without being painted as “unforgiving” and choosing to “ruin his life” even though he said he was sorry.
It’s a statement designed to silence the victims. – from Josh Duggar says he’s sorry, so what? by Kathryn Elizabeth
5. How we talk about what happened sends a message to the victim about their value in the family and in the world. It’s important that they be respected, validated, and allowed to seek legal recourse if they wish; that they be allowed to go on their own personal healing journey; that they be allowed to draw whatever boundaries they need in the future to keep themselves safe. And it’s important that family members recognize that when they draw these personal boundaries they are not the one causing problems, that responsibility rests solely on the shoulders of the person that violated their trust and safety.
That’s why how we talk about what happened in the Duggar family matters right now. We are in the midst of a huge cultural discussion about consent and sexual violence. People are listening. This conversation can help shape the narrative of how we talk about sexual violence, how we talk about the victims/survivors, and even how we talk about the different types of sexual abuse. Every time we talk publicly about important things, it helps frame that narrative. What we say right now and how we say it matters. It matters to every survivor out there in that it validates or invalidates their story. It matters in that it can help change the tone of how we approach issues of sexual abuse in the future, allowing more victims to come forward, speak up and get the support that they need. And it matters in helping to prevent sexual abuse because how we talk about it does or does not make clear what our expectations are in terms of how we approach each other sexually, it helps make clear what – and who – we as a culture value.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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