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.

 

 

Quitting

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Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.

 

In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.

 

Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:

  •  Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.

 

  • Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.

 

  • If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.

 

  • If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.

 

  • When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.

 

 

 

Public Property

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One of the most awful ‘side-effects’ of sexual abuse, for me, was the re-victimisation I was subjected to as a teenager, as a young adult, and even as an older adult. When you have been abused by several members of your immediate family, and then abused again by strangers and others, you do end up feeling a bit like public property. I wrote about that feeling when I was about sixteen, and am re-producing the text here:

 

Public Property

I am public property
You can own me, if you like
Anyone can own me.
All you have to do is ask.
Or drop a few subtle hints.
Or pretend you really want to.
Doesn’t make much difference.
At least, not to me.
I don’t care.
I am public property.

I am public property.
Whatever I have is yours.
I have no secrets, no dreams,
No hopes, no ambitions.
They all belong to you.
You wrested them from me.
I could not fight to keep them.
I have no right to them, really.
They’re not actually mine.
I have nothing.
I am public property.

I am public property.
You’re allowed to play with me.
Use me at your own discretion.
Tear me up, wear me out.
Grind me down – you’re allowed.
I won’t protest.
I don’t protest.
I can’t protest.
I am not allowed.
I am public property.

Opinions

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Opinions, we have all heard, are like assholes; everyone has one. There is also the more genteel version of the ubiquity of opinions, that everyone is entitled to their own. The thing about opinions, however, is that they are not facts. Opinions, I think, should be based in fact in order to hold any credence, or be of any value, but often they are not.

 

When it comes to abuse, many people – from friends and relatives to some therapists, to the victims ourselves – have opinions on when and how we should ‘recover’, and when and how the aftermath is ‘allowed’ to impinge on our day-to-day lives.  Some people believe that, if you were abused as a child, you should be well over the abuse by the time you are 21. There is absolutely no basis in fact for this opinion; different people recover from abuse at different paces. People also recover at different levels; meaning that they deal with the abuse at the level they can manage at any given time. Sometimes, this means not dealing with it, because they feel they couldn’t cope – at that moment – with the upset that looking at the abuse and its effects on them would bring to their lives.

 

Another commonly-held opinion is that everyone should be affected by abuse in the same way: That, because one person reacts in a certain way to sexual abuse, everyone should react in the same way. Again, there is no basis in fact for this. While there are a set of behaviours that manifest in a lot of people who were abused, not everyone will have the same reaction to their life events. Nor will everyone react in the same way at the same time. For example, many women who are abused and/or raped by family members choose not to deal with their abuse, or to deal with it on certain levels only, because they do not believe they could deal with the fallout if they delved fully into the complexities of the effects of the abuse on them and their relationships.

 

Then, there is that old chestnut about how ‘real’ sexual assault is a rare thing and a lot of women either lie or exaggerate what has happened to them. Again, there is no basis in truth for this. Thankfully, this opinion is being challenged more and more in mainstream media, and on social media with women recounting their own experiences of sexual assault. Perhaps the most shocking thing about these revelations is the opinion, held by so many sexually-assaulted women, that this type of abuse is ‘normal’ and ‘part of being a girl/woman’. See, for example, #everydaysexism (where many of the examples are, in fact, of sexual assault), and #shoutingback (where women recount their experiences of sexual assault) on Twitter.

 

Another old favourite among rape-apologists (male and female) is that women are somehow complicit in their own abuse. Sadly, this opinion has no basis in fact, either. It is true, however, that many women are conditioned to believe that because they engaged with a man, or didn’t engage with him; or because they stopped saying no when they were attacked; or because of what they were wearing they ‘invited’ an assault. This is a sad reflection on the attitude society has to victims, not on victims themselves.

 

We all hold opinions, on everything from the job the government is doing, to what colour works best where, to what makes a good book. We’re all entitled to hold whatever opinions we like, but if we expect our opinions on serious topics to be taken seriously, we need to educate ourselves on the facts surrounding these topics first.

 

 

Normalising

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The family is the first social environment that a child ever encounters. It is the family that tells a child what ‘normal’ is, and what ‘acceptable’ is. If ‘normal’ is tea from china cups and linen napkins, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is no TV after 5pm, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is sexual abuse, then the child accepts that, too. This is how sexual abuse survives and thrives in homes up and down the country. Children who are abused from the time they are tiny have no notion that what is happening to them is unacceptable and abnormal, in a wider societal view.

 

So when people – genuinely puzzled – ask an adult who was abused as a child ‘why did you never tell anyone?’ the answer has a few threads to it: First of all, the abused child has no idea that what is happening to them is not supposed to be happening to them. Abuse does not happen in isolation in a family. Families where children are sexually abused are toxic environments where there are many harmful practices; for example, neglect and abuse often go hand in hand. Put in its most simplistic terms, one parent will neglect the children while the other abuses them. Children in these families will often have no, or few friends, who are allowed to visit. There will be strict rules about having other kids home to visit as well – ‘drop-in’ visitors will not be encouraged and the child who ‘allows’ or ‘encourages’ such visits will be punished. Children who are being sexually abused will have most elements of their lives controlled and ‘managed’ by parents who need to keep the secrets of the home within the four walls of the house. So, with all the other controls exercised over the child, the abuse does not seem out of place (to the child); there is nothing remarkable about it, so they do not think to mention it.

 

Another reason children don’t disclose is because they don’t have the language, the vocabulary or the ability to disclose. Often, children are threatened with vague or real threats of what will befall them if they do discuss what goes on at home. These threats often include the child being told that the abuse is ‘love and no one else would understand’ or that the abuse is the child’s own fault and they will be punished by others if they tell. Shame is often used as way of keeping children quiet about the abuse they are suffering.

 

What happens to children within their families is ‘normal’ to them. As a society, we really need to stop allowing sexual abuse – and, indeed, any abuse – being any child’s ‘normal’.

 

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.