Cosby was a better actor than I thought he was.

Bill Cosby was an even better actor than I thought he was. Cliff Huxtable, whom Cosby played in The Cosby Show, was a man with admirable family values and honorable morals. Wow, that was great acting! In more recent years, Cosby has toured the country propagating a message about people taking personal responsibility for their actions. But what Cosby portrayed and proclaimed seemed to be nothing but an act. A recently released sworn deposition revealed that Cosby admitted to acquiring sedatives with intent to give them to young women with whom he wanted to have sex. His acknowledgement has vindicated more than 25 women who have accused Cosby of sexual abuse in the form of assaults and rapes that have occurred over a period of 40 years.

Last week, my wife and I watched a television special on CNN that featured one of the abused women. The report was a vivid reminder of our society’s relentless resistance to understand the contexts and outcomes of sexual abuse. What should we husbands of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) survivors be mindful of from Cosby’s alleged evil? If you are not the husband of a CSA survivor, I encourage you to read on as well. The information may help all of us the next time we hear from a survivor.

Perpetrators are often highly respected individuals

There is a process in childhood sexual abuse called grooming. Grooming refers to the intentional and often gradual steps the perpetrator takes to: (a) develop relationship with the victim, (b) leverage secrets that may be held by the victim, (c) move towards isolating his victim, and (d) gradually violate personal and sexual boundaries with the victim.

While the perpetrator grooms the victim, he also grooms the community. For example, a perpetrator’s involvement in the community, contribution to charitable causes, leadership position in the church, verbalization of moral values, and seemingly friendly and caring personality can all be intentional strategies that groom, or condition, the community. The respect gained elevates the unidentified perpetrator to a stature that prevents anyone from thinking he would ever harm a young girl. In short, perpetrators can be good actors.

I am certainly not suggesting that we become suspicious of every decent male we know. At the same time, we must be advised of this frequent profile and strategy of perpetrators.

My wife attended a private school when she was age nine. One of the teachers in the school attended the same church my wife’s family attended and was familiar with her family. One day, my wife was wearing her Sunday shoes to school. This was in the day when there was such a thing as Sunday shoes. Many people had a dressy type of shoe that they only wore on Sundays. My wife hid her Sunday shoes in her school bag when she left home so that she could wear them at school. The teacher took notice and said to her, “Do we have a little secret?” Being in a rural community, the school provided transportation in a van. When the same teacher drove kids home from school in the van, he invited my wife to sit in the front passenger seat, telling her to put her hand on the stick shift so that she could shift gears with him as he put his hand on top of hers. A subsequent emboldened step of grooming was to suggest that she flip her skirt up, like a game, in the back of the school while he would be looking out a school window. Eventually, he led her through more abhorrent actions. Simultaneously, he was grooming the community.

My wife eventually told a friend and the friend told her own mother about the teacher’s disturbing actions. The mother’s response was “Oh, Mr. _____ would never do anything like that.” It was more than 22 years later before my wife told anyone else about the CSA.

Research studies conducted in 1999 and 2009 (sources noted below) indicated that when CSA occurred during the formative years and was accompanied by coercion to maintain secrecy, efforts to disclose the abuse were usually unsuccessful during childhood. Some children were accused of lying or blamed for causing the abuse. Consequently, some disclosures were recanted and a sense of betrayal was implanted in the child.

A lesson for all of us: when a child speaks of inappropriate actions that someone has done to them, we need to listen and to respond with wisdom rather than assumptions.

A lesson for husbands of CSA victims: when our wives speak – and I realize that not all do speak – we need to respond with undivided attention and find ways to offer emotional protection. Research studies indicate that the most powerful variable related to the survivor’s health and fewer symptoms of CSA’s effects was a partner’s positive and loving attitude at disclosure.

Please watch for next week’s blog in which I’ll address the second reminder for all of us from the Cosby story, which is: Disclosure of sexual abuse is always risky and gradual.  In that upcoming blog, I will offer valuable guidance for when a CSA victim discloses to us.

In the meantime, I invite you to share your thoughts by submitting a comment.

Sources cited in this blog:

Courtois, C. A. (1999). Recollection of sexual abuse: Treatment principles and guidelines. New York, NY: W. W.           Norton & Company.

Putman, S. E. (2009, Winter). The monsters in my head: Posttraumatic stress disorder and the child survivor of sexual abuse. Journal of Counseling & Development, 87(1), 80-89. Retrieved from /docview/218975118?accountid=12084

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