- Shame keeps survivors of abuse silent, ultimately serving both perpetrators and the societal stigma, which drives denial.
- Rates of childhood sexual abuse as reported by survivors are far higher than reported to authorities, reflecting need for change.
- When survivors disclose their experiences of abuse, shame is transformed in both liberating and challenging ways.
- Detailed interviews with young survivors of childhood sexual abuse reveals four core experiences reported post-disclosure.
Opening up about childhood sexual abuse is a highly personal decision, one often made only after years of suffering in silence, soul searching, preparatory work, and healing—and never under potentially retraumatizing duress. Forces that prevent survivors from acknowledging their experiences stand in the way of recovery.
As with sexual harassment, for which official reports vastly underestimate the incidence of aggression, official reports of child sexual abuse (CSA) stand at 4 in 1,000. One in 8 adults reports a history of CSA, suggesting that CSA may be 31 times more common than acknowledged. Social taboo, external stigma, well-founded concern for repercussions including bias in the legal system, reactions in one’s family and social circles, and fears of victim-blaming join with internal, or "self-stigma", to shift decision-making toward secrecy.
Learning from Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
\What happens with shame after survivors disclose their experiences is the focus of research by Lateef, Alaggia, Collin-Vézina and McElvaney (2023) reported in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.
Researchers used qualitative analysis1 to identify consistent themes shared by a group of 38 adolescent and young adults aged 14 to 25 who were receiving or had received counseling after disclosing CSA, as part of a larger study. Four main themes emerged from their narratives.
1. Struggles with Identifying as a Sexual Abuse Survivor
Participants had difficulty integrating being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse into their identities. They tended to talk around naming their experience as “sexual abuse”, using euphemisms. Some made a point that what they experienced could have been worse (e.g. more “invasive”), which while true for some, may reflect an understandable need to soften full recognition (which, along with identity integration, may take time).
Participants noted that others had reacted with shock or disbelief, and they were wary of how others might respond to future disclosures, including in personal and professional relationships, and how law enforcement often blames victims. Some noted benefits of making CSA part of their identity, for example: “[T]he minute you let go, it becomes part of your life story, it becomes just an event in your timeline that is your life”.
2. Manifestations of Shame Post-Disclosure
After disclosure, participants often continued to blame themselves, regardless of understanding the perpetrator’s responsibility. They might point out decisions made as a child to meet the abuser, blaming themselves for being “dumb” or even appearing to willingly participate in abuse. The situation is complicated when there were perceived positive or pleasurable aspects to the relationship, vulnerabilities that perpetrators often seek out and groom, such as creating an apparent safe haven when home life is problematic. Victim-blaming by others, including the legal system, contributed to self-blame in spite of intellectual awareness to the contrary. For many, sharing CSA shifted, but did not eliminate, shame.
In addition to self-blame and stigma, shame also persisted following disclosure in the form of changes in patterns of speech and mannerisms. This goes along with identity struggles—research on attachment style finds that insecure attachment is often associated with unresolved developmental trauma as reflected by disorganized autobiographical narratives and patchy memory ("dissociative amnesia").
For example, study participants might shift from laughing while discussing abuse to secretive whispering, with stories characterized by pauses, self-interruption, or points of not knowing how to articulate what they are trying to say. In addition to the fact that abusers often threaten victims to stay silent, persistent feelings of shame during interviews led to distraction and concealment. Additionally, some participants noted depression, suicidality and social isolation following disclosure, associated with shame and moral self-condemnation.
3. Shaming Responses
Often when survivors open up, there is backlash. It's important to be prepared. Disbelief by close others, including parents, leads to additional trauma and betrayal. Participants reported being shamed by schoolmates objectifying them, attributing abuse to having sexually mature bodies or the way they dressed. Some reported police interviews being inappropriate and intrusive, making them feel “gross”, in addition to frank victim-blaming. While many reported that therapists were helpful, some noted that therapists didn’t listen or understand, leading to invalidation alongside avoidance of discussing the abuse. Without being deterred, it's important to prepare for potential detrimental responses when contemplating disclosure.
4. Strategies to Overcome Shame
Disclosure of abuse shifted the way participants dealt with shame, to an extent. It’s easier to actively cope with any problem once it is named and known. Participants used rational thinking, realizing they were so young when abuse happened, to lessen self-condemnation, accepting the reality and wrongness of victim-blaming. Getting support from other CSA survivors, for example in groups, helped to dissipate shame, with shared understanding, belonging, and comparing notes on useful approaches. Acknowledging how common CSA is helped with feelings of being uniquely affected. Some participants noted that after disclosing abuse, psychoeducational materials they received helped them realize that what had happened was not their fault.
Life After Disclosure
This is important research because it sheds light on what happens to shame on the other side of sharing one’s story. While taking the step of being vulnerable can feel insurmountable—given the actual risks and trauma-driven fears of retaliation, non-acceptance, further shaming, and victim-blaming–there is a growing movement to “own” various forms of trauma, abuse, and neglect (and even one’s own past transgressions). This can be liberating, freeing one to take steps along the path to recovery from trauma and moral injury to reclaim a full sense of self.
The research addresses a critical aspect of how disclosure transforms the core experience of shame. There is strength in numbers. As more people open up about their experiences, it becomes more and more difficult for forces of stigma and repression to keep survivors hidden away, as if protecting others from the shared pain of their experiences.
For many, opening up about what they lived through is emancipating, yet it is a highly personal choice. The chances of it doing more good than harm, given the remaining obstacles, increase as society holds itself increasingly accountable. With time, high-profile disclosures, research, and public awareness, along with constructive depictions in media and literature, help reduce stigma and increase solidarity, making it incrementally safer to speak one's truth sooner rather than later.
1. "[A]n interview schedule was crafted based on the research team members’ previous research with CSA survivors. This covered the following broad topics: how and in what ways they disclosed CSA; what facilitators and/or barriers to formal and informal disclosures of CSA and other forms of victimization did they identify; outcomes of disclosures; interactions with service systems during or following disclosure; advice to other youth; and recommendations for service providers. The average duration of the interviews was one hour." (from the original study)
Rusan Lateef, Ramona Alaggia, Delphine Collin-Vézina & Rosaleen McElvaney (2023): The Legacy of Shame following Childhood Sexual Abuse Disclosures, Journal
of Child Sexual Abuse, DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2022.2159910