Statistics

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The SAVI – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland –  report was published in 2002. It details the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of people with regard to sexual abuse in Ireland, and it makes for grim reading. Three thousand randomly-selected adults were surveyed for the report. Given the random-selection of participants, and the fact that the response rate was over 71%, it is safe to say that the findings can be extrapolated into the general population. Overall, almost one-third of women, and a quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Attempted or actual penetrative sex was experienced by 7.6 per cent of girls, and 4.2 per cent of boys. Equivalent rape or attempted rape figures in adulthood (adults were defined as those aged 17 and over) were 7.4 per cent for women and 1.5 per cent for men.

 

The SAVI Report is now 14 years old, and I really do think it’s time we had another. We would like to think that attitudes towards sexual assault have changed in the (almost) decade and a half since the SAVI Report was published. Changed for the better, I mean. And I, for one, would like to know what the numbers currently are in Ireland. I’d like to think that revelations about institutions have made people more confident in speaking up. I’d like to think that some people being open about their experiences has made it easier for more people to be open about their experiences. And, yeah, I include myself in that.

 

The most recent statistics the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has are from 2013. A quick look at those numbers tells us that 2,467 people made 22,460 appointments for counselling and support. The Rape Crisis Network answered the phone 32,026 times to people who needed to talk. Horrifyingly, 61% of survivors who reported being abused as teenagers were raped. Of all the people who reported being sexually assaulted, 91% knew the person who attacked them.

 

These numbers are deeply disturbing, suggesting that sexual violence is still a part of everyday life for too many women, children, and men in our society. We need a consistent, sustained campaign to teach our nation about a variety of connected issues and to combat the persistent rape culture that permits and promotes the persistent sexual abuse of vulnerable people.

 

 

Mothers, Motherhood, Mothering

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Being a mother is hard. Not least because it is the most important job in the world, and the most important job to get right. It’s also the only job in the world that everyone else feels qualified to judge and comment on. Even if they are not, or never will be, mothers themselves.

 

Mothering is even more difficult when you add the additional burden and complexity of sexual abuse. If your child has been abused, how do you – as a mother – cope? Research tells us that mothers who are made aware that their children have been sexually abused often react in much the same way as people react to a bereavement (Myer, 1984; Hooper, 1992), or they react as though they have been raped or assaulted themselves (Hooper, 1992; Winograd Leonard, 2013). Of course, not every mother is as capable of putting her children first. In my own case, when I disclosed about the fact that my brothers were abusing me, my mother’s response was to make contact with the Rape Crisis Centre. They didn’t deal with people under the age of 16, so I was referred to another facility. My brothers’ propensity for raping was never addressed, however. To this day, it still hasn’t been addressed.

 

At the time, I was told they were sorry and it was impressed on me that I needed to forgive them. (I’ve written up a few of my thoughts on forgiveness here). I was told that they were ‘great lads’, who ‘never gave a moment’s trouble’ and that ‘boys will be boys’. All this did was tell me that the oral, digital, vaginal and anal rape they perpetrated on my body was, somehow, of no consequence, because they were ‘great lads’; and that raping me on a regular basis was not to be counted as them ‘giving any trouble’. The harm they did me was not something to get too upset about because ‘boys will be boys’,  and it is nearly to be expected that they will rape their little sisters.

 

Later, when I told my mother that my father was abusing me, she told me she didn’t believe me. Then she got me and him in a room and told me to repeat my accusations. I did. He said it was my own fault. She said it was my own fault. She was jealous of the fact that her husband was sexually attracted to her daughter. I remember feeling sick. I remember feeling that they were sick in a very, very twisted way. I remember feeling confused, dazed, gaslit (even though I didn’t know, at the time, that’s what it was) and thoroughly, utterly abandoned. I was, somehow, cast as a Jezebel for being sexually assaulted between the ages of two and 17 by three members of my immediate family.  She may not have known at the time that it was happening, but as soon as she did know, my mother took the side of her husband and her eldest two sons against me. Sadly, this kind of victim blaming by mothers is not unusual. Especially when the mother is – like mine – a narcissist. (If you have been the victim of a narcissistic mother, I highly recommend this book as a good place to start understanding that dynamic.)

 

Later, for a woman who was sexually abused as a child, becoming a mother is difficult. I spent the first year of my PhD studies reading about just how hard it is, and was comforted and outraged in equal measure to learn that I am not on my own in this. Not least because intimacy is such a difficult area to inhabit. How do you surrender to an act that has, all your life, been about the other person and their gratification? An act that has been about secrets and lies? An act that has been about power and shame? An act that has had nothing at all to do with love? How do you then try to convince yourself that that same act is something that you can be an active participant in? How do you then try to convince yourself that you are allowed to enjoy such an act? That enjoying such an act does not automatically make you a terrible person?

 

If you manage to resolve that issue within yourself – and if you have managed to escape physical damage to the extent where you are actually capable of conceiving and carrying a child, then maternity care can be fraught with difficulties. Health care providers are often (usually) unaware of the damage that child sexual abuse has on women who have survived it. They are not aware of how to care for such women. As a result, may women report being victimised again during pregnancy, labour and childbirth. These events can re-traumatise a woman who has already been so horribly traumatised.

 

And then, if you manage all that – if you manage to achieve a pregnancy and give birth, and have a healthy baby, what do you do after that? How hard or easy is it to breastfeed? For some women, this feels like an invasion of their bodies all over again. For others, it is hugely empowering because they feel like – finally – their body is doing what it was meant to do. They are choosing to use their breasts for the main (though not the only) purpose those breasts were designed.

 

Still, motherhood is fraught with extra challenges for the woman who has managed to survive sexual abuse and who is trying to raise her child/ren. We have a tendency towards over protection – but we’re aware of that, so we sometimes over-correct in order to be ‘fair’, in order not to be the over protective, overbearing mama – and that bring on anxiety attacks.

 

We worry about the state of our mental health, and the impact that might (will?) have on our child/ren. We worry that, somehow, we have transmitted – in our DNA or through our birth canals – the elements of being a victim on to our children. We worry that they, too, will be abused and we worry about how to warn them, how to teach them to look after themselves, how to know a perpetrator when they see one, how to escape from danger. We worry that these precious children of ours might be better off with someone else: That because of the damage done to us, that because we are so damaged, that our children would be better off with someone else. Someone whole, someone better. Because, when all is said and done, deep down somewhere, we secretly believe what our mothers told us, when they told us it was our own fault.

References:

Hooper, CA, (1992) ‘Mothers Surviving Sexual Abuse’ Routledge; New York

Myer, M. (1984) ‘A new look at mothers of incest victims’, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 3: 47-58

Winograd Leonard, E. (2013) ‘Expecting the unattainable: Caseworker use of the “Ideal” mother stereotype against the non-offending mother for failure ot protect from child sexual abuse cases’, NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 69(2), pp. 311–356.

Love

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Love is the one non-physical thing we all need to live. Of course, the love of family and romantic love are important, but the person’s love who is most important, is our own.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am fed up reading self-help books that tell you you must love yourself in order to love someone else; live the life you deserve; live the life of your dreams; have successful relationships etc. I got sick of hearing this on self-development courses that I attended when nobody can answer the question ‘How?’

So about three years ago, I started this quest in earnest and tried to answer my own question – ‘How do you love yourself?’ (These days, I even run workshops on the subject). Of course, I am not the font of all wisdom – I don’t have an answer for every question, and I still have ‘off days’, days when I don’t feel too much love for myself. But I’m a lot better than I was – I’ve clawed my way back from feeling suicidal because I didn’t think I deserved love (so I didn’t love myself) to a place where I really do love myself.

Part of what helped me in my journey from self-loathing was having my daughters. They saw how I treated myself. They heard how I spoke to myself. They flinched when I punished myself. This self-abuse, this self-loathing was not something I wanted to pass on to them in any way, shape or form. In order to create a better future for them, I had to construct a better present for me. Not that I felt (or feel) that anyone should – or indeed can – live for anyone else, but I think that having girls to raise really trained the spotlight on me and what I was modelling for them. Being children, of course, they see through bullshit. They won’t be fobbed off if I pretend to love myself. I have to do it. It has to be the real deal.

You know the way babies are born as what child development experts call ‘ego-centric’ ? They believe that they are the centre of the universe and that the whole world revolves around them. And they’re right. Babies love themselves. They are born fully convinced that they are love, that they are loved, that they deserve to be loved by everyone who comes in contact with them; and the second they feel they may be around someone who doesn’t love them truly, madly and deeply, they react. They cry, they squirm, they look for Mum… Well, you were once a baby. You mightn’t remember it, but you were. And all that love that babies automatically, naturally, have for themselves, you had for your self, too.

Now, do you want the really good news? That love hasn’t gone away. It’s still there. It’s still inside you. That’s the good news. All we have to do is figure out how to access it. That’s the harder part.

If the love you have for yourself has gone into hiding, you need to figure out where it’s hiding, and who chased it there.  I think that, as sexually abused people, we fall out of love with ourselves because we start to believe what other people – those who abused us, especially – tell us tell us about ourselves. And then we think that ‘everybody’ holds this vision of us. And if ‘everybody’ believes that, then they must be right. And we are, therefore, unlovable. We start to believe things that aren’t true about us. We allow other people’s treatment of us, and the messages they send us (verbally, non-verbally, in pictures, and in full-stereo) to  influence us, and tell us a new story about who we are; less lovable than we really are. Recognising these stories, and learning how to change them, is the first step in our journeys to love ourselves.

Knowledge

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The knowledge that a child is being abused is knowledge that must, under Irish law, be reported to the relevant authority. Once a child has revealed information pertaining to abuse, that information must be taken seriously, no matter who the abuse is alleged to be against, or what the child says happened. All allegations of child abuse – including (especially) child sexual abuse – must be taken seriously. What is done with that knowledge and what should be done with it are two different things. But I’m not going to go into great detail here about how the Irish state has failed, and continues to fail,  children in the Irish state with regard to sexual abuse.  Instead, I thought it would be far more productive to set down a number of signs of sexual abuse.

Children don’t always have the words to explain what has happened/is happening to them. There are, however, a number of signs apart from a verbal disclosure that a child is being sexually abused. Among them are:

  • Sleep difficulties – trouble getting to sleep, nightmares, bed-wetting and tiredness during the day (from being woken up/kept awake by the abuser)
  • ‘Zoning out’ or seeming distant
  • Changes in eating habits – like refusing to eat, or constant eating, difficulty swallowing, an aversion to a certain type of food texture.
  • Mood swings – fear, anxiety, aversions to activities they previously enjoyed, rage, insecurity or withdrawal
  • Leaving ‘clues’ – drawings, books open at pages that discuss issues of a sexual nature, for instance
  • Suddenly becoming afraid of certain places or people
  • Refusing to undress (even taking off outer garments) at appropriate times – like when it’s time for a bath, or to go swimming
  • Averting their gaze from mirrors
  • Self-harming
  • Attempts suicide
  • Attempts at running away from home

If you spot one, or more, of these signs in a child or adolescent you know it may not necessarily mean they are being sexually abused. That said, however, any one of these signs indicates that there is an issue worth discussing. So discuss it. Use the knowledge you have.

 

 

Justice

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Justice usually evades those of us who are abused. Even if our abusers face the full force of the law, ‘justice’ and ‘law’ are not the same thing.

If you have managed to escape from an abusive relationship – no matter who the abuser was – and if you have managed to carve out any sort of a life for yourself, then you are one of the fortunate few. If you have managed to challenge your abuser/s, you are in an even smaller minority. If you are now in a position where your healing has allowed you to decide you want justice, then I think the first thing you need to do is decide what justice looks like for you.

Justice, as you know, is very distinct from law. The law is written – my eleven-year-old daughter pointed out a few months ago – by angry, old, white men. Not only that, but it is written for angry, old, white men. If you want a man who sexually assaulted you convicted, then chances are you will be sorely disappointed. The odds are stacked against you.

Many women with whom I have spoken, and who have been through the justice system, mention their regret at engaging with the law. They have expressed disappointment at how they were treated – not (always) by individuals in the system, but by the system itself. So before you, as a victim of sexual assault, decide you want to pursue someone through the law, you might want to take some time to decide for yourself what justice looks like to you. Because the only person who has to be happy with your decision is you. 

 Justice, for you is about you. It’s about what you decide you want and need for yourself in order for you to be able to live the best life possible.  I know when I decided to take action against my brothers  (I have four brothers, but the younger two never assaulted me) for sexually abusing me – up to and including raping me digitally, orally, vaginally, anally and with objects – I did so for a fistful of reasons.

Among them were the desire to ensure that they never abused anyone else (abusers tend to keep abusing unless they are stopped). I did so because I wanted them to see the destruction and the devastation and the damage that they had inflicted on me and, by extension, on my children. And I wanted them to express their remorse for that damage.

This specific goals were too lofty, and too unattainable for me to have any chance of achieving them. I realised that I can’t make someone else be sorry; and I can’t protect entire populations from my brothers; the best I can do is gather together what’s left of my life and cobble it into the best life for myself and my children that I possibly can.  There is a saying that the best revenge is living well – but I contend that, sometimes, the best revenge is merely living.

 

Justice, for me, is gathering what I was left with after years of abuse, and using it to the best of my ability for my good and for the good of as many people as possible. I decided years ago that my life’s purpose was to be the most useful person that I could possibly be. I use my experiences of abuse to help other people make sense of theirs. I use my experiences of abuse to let other people know they are not alone. I use my experiences of abuse to inform my academic research which will, I hope, help even more people understand and deal with the complex trauma they suffer as a result of abuse.

That’s why my book begins with a quote from Hubert Humphrey that reads:

          “Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts.
It’s what you do with what you have left.”

Justice, for me, is doing the best with what I have left and using .

 

Incest

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Incest appears to be the taboo within the taboo. Society prefers to think of rapists and sexual predators as extra-familial. We prefer to think that they are the men who wait, in dark alleys, for women to rape; we prefer to think of them as clergymen who cannot contain the impulses that an ‘unnatural’ life as a celibate dictates they must; we prefer to think of them as coaches and teachers and scout leaders who abuse and traumatise our children. We prefer to think of rapists as cruel, evil men who spike girls’ drinks on nights out in order to abuse and rape them.

We do not like to think of rapists and sexual predators as men who rape their own granddaughters, daughters and sisters. Sadly, however, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men who are blood relations to those they assault. This makes it harder for the victim to both process and reveal. If the people who are closest to you, the people who are meant to protect you, are the people who are hurting you in the most abominable ways, who are you supposed to trust? Who are you supposed to tell? How do you even find the words to describe what is happening to you?

Family is, to a large extent,  a social construct. It is also held, by many, to be the bedrock of society. As such, there are certain expectations of how a family is supposed to function – or appear to function – there are certain rules and mores that are associated with family. When these rules are transgressed,  as they clearly are in incest situations, the person who is abused is completely abandoned and alone; the ‘family’ which is supposed to be their safe haven and is attacking them. The society of which they are part, tells the abused person, through all manner of messages, that they are expected to behave in a certain way towards their family members including the member/s who is/are abusing them. This dreadful confusion compounds the awful situation the abused person finds herself in. Very often, the internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo and say nothing is overwhelming. As a result, only a small percentage of people actually disclose inter-familial abuse to anyone but their therapists.

People who are victims of incest often feel that they have no choice but to remain within the fold of the family and preserve appearances. They are often pressured to act ‘as though’ all is well within the unit. This, of course, does all manner of damage to the child and maintains the culture of abuse within the family. As a society with a duty to all the members of that society – and, I would argue, especially its children – we need to address this taboo within a taboo and confront incest as the most pervasive form of sexual assault.