“Sexual abuse within the family environment needs to be talked about.” These are among the opening words of a new report which examines responses to familial child sexual abuse. Released last week, the report highlights worrying concerns around the attitudes, handling and extent of abuse in family settings, which it finds accounts for approximately two-thirds of all child sexual abuse (recent research as part of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse corroborates this, finding that of those victims who came forward, almost half reported being abused by a family member).
Whilst these figures are notably high, my personal and professional experience leads me to believe that they are significant underestimates.
As a member of the victims and survivors consultative panel advising the inquiry, I have been humbled and honoured to listen to the accounts of other survivors; it’s heartbreaking to know so many of the experiences I’ve heard are a reflection of those described in the report.
A woman I met last year shared with me that for many years, she had been abused as a child by a family member. After finding the courage to disclose what had happened to her, she wasn’t believed, but instead cast out of her family, which – being white, affluent and educated – couldn’t accept that such abuse could happen to, or be perpetrated by, “people like them”.
Reflecting on the report, Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman highlights this way of thinking as a key barrier to confronting familial child sexual abuse: “As a society, we are far too reluctant to talk about sex abuse within the family home. It’s much easier to think of abuse happening elsewhere, to other people.”
She’s right: societally speaking, people don’t want to see, hear or speak of child sexual abuse. But the danger of thinking it cannot happen to us can mean we ignore things we ought to have seen.
Also noted in the report is the heavy burden placed on children to disclose their abuse to those closest to them, a burden made all the heavier when the perpetrator is the person a child might otherwise confide in.
As adults, we need to find the bravery we expect from children, placing a greater emphasis on identifying the signs of child sexual abuse and creating a culture where people feel more able to come forward. One of the key takeaways from the report is that “everyone in society needs to know how to recognise the signs of abuse of a child and how best to respond when they suspect a child is being abused.”
Creating an environment where people feel able to talk about and report sexual abuse is an important step towards preventing it from happening in the first place. Rather than worrying about the repercussions of reporting, we need to start having those difficult conversations.
That’s why the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse has created the Truth Project, an initiative that seeks to provide a supportive space for survivors to share their experiences and be heard. For many, it will be the first time they have told anyone.
As well as hearing from those sexually abused in institutions, the Truth Project is there to listen to those abused by a family member or someone they knew, and then let down by an institution or an organisation. This could mean that someone in authority did not respond properly when the abuse was reported, or that a doctor or a teacher ignored signs of abuse.
So far, over 4,000 survivors have come forward to tell their stories.
Sharing our experiences can help to challenge the myths surrounding child sexual abuse and create an environment in which people feel more comfortable about speaking out. As survivors, the shame and guilt of the abuse is not ours, but our abuser’s. We can no longer stay silent while sexual abuse ruins the people, families and communities we love. By seeing, hearing and speaking of this evil, the unseen can be seen, the unheard heard.
Emma Lewis is a member of the victims and survivors consultative panel for the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. Survivors of child sexual abuse can find out more by visiting the Truth Project website.
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