Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Abuse & Assault

In the current issue of Time, editorialist Laurie Penny identified questions that many people are prone to ask in response to the recent #MeToo trend; the declaration of being a victim of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment.

Could this [referring to childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment] really have been happening to so many women and girls? Why didn’t they speak out before?

I am gratified that the recent company of #MeToo survivors have been emboldened. As Penny contends, the history of those previously silenced is now being declared “aloud so that all the ugly uncomfortable stories in the margins can finally come out.”

At the same time, there are reasons why survivors of childhood sexual abuse have not spoken out before. Threats have silenced some, shame has paralyzed most, and many have been shattered by the uninformed or insensitive responses they’ve heard from their previous attempts to disclose their abuse.

So here is my challenge to all of us:

How can we respond to disclosures of sexual abuse in an informed and sensitive way that sets a survivor on a pathway toward healing?

There are nine things we need to know, do, or not do, when we hear the disclosure of some form of sexual abuse.

1. The survivor of the sexual abuse has assumed safety with you.

If someone has disclosed their childhood sexual abuse to you – or any form of sexual assault or harassment – the good news is that they probably felt safe enough with you to disclose the trauma to you. Sense of safety is a prerequisite for disclosure. Your response to their disclosure(s): (a) determines whether or not they are truly safe to trust you, and (b) plays a key role to their future health.

2. Disclosures are typically delayed.

Disclosures can occur at a young age once the survivor gains the vocabulary to express that something is wrong. A child may attempt to communicate something at age four. But it is not unusual for a female or male survivor to be in their 40’s or 50’s when making an initial disclosure.

In regard to childhood sexual abuse, a variety of events can trigger suppressed or forbidden memories years after the abuse occurred. Here’s a short list of the seemingly endless possibilities of triggers:

  • The content of a news report
  • A comment on social media
  • A survivor’s child reaches the age they were when the abuse occurred
  • Individuals in addiction recovery can have memories triggered when the drug or alcohol is no longer suppressing their memories
  • Visiting a location from childhood
  • The death of the perpetrator
  • A change in body chemistry
  • Sights, smells, and sounds associated with the abuse can trigger memories of the abuse

When the disclosure is shared, a spouse or close friend might innocently but ill-advisedly ask, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” or “Why am I just hearing about this now for the first time?” Be aware that this kind of question conveys to the victim that you may have some doubt that the abuse happened, whether or not you have those doubts. The victim hears, “If this really happened you would have told me sooner.”

The truth is that the victim of childhood sexual abuse probably would have disclosed earlier if they could have. But perhaps the memory had not yet resurfaced, or there was no sense of safety, or the energy it took to suppress the memory is now gone.

3. Disclosures often occur in stages.

Disclosures are sometimes difficult to receive and understand because of the unfolding detail and increased horror with each new disclosure. A victim might say, “I felt anxious when he/she would touch me.” Months later, the victim’s account may expand to “it was really painful when he forced his penis into me.”

When the original version of disclosure becomes intensified, a spouse or friend might wonder if the account is being exaggerated. A wounding response would be, “If that’s what happened, why didn’t you say so earlier?” The answer to that question is that the victim did not feel safe enough earlier. Disclosures progress when the victim has an increased sense of safety and readiness to deal with the reality of the abuse. Disclosure indicates that the victim is ascending a spiral staircase to the unknown.

4. Initial disclosures may not identify the perpetrator.

A victim’s disclosure may even identify someone other than the actual perpetrator. This is especially possible when the victim is a child and the perpetrator was someone very close to the child such as a father, uncle, or a family friend. It is difficult for children to identify a family member as the perpetrator. A child’s mind cannot accept that someone who is supposed to love and care for them would be capable of doing the unthinkable to them.

5. Listen patiently and do not end the conversation prematurely.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault do not find it easy to trust others. How can they when a trusted person has sexually abused them? Therefore, disclosures are times of great risk for the victim. They will carefully measure your response, verbally and nonverbally, in order to gauge the level of safety. Your patience will facilitate trust building. If you appear hurried or end the conversation prematurely, the victim may likely feel abandoned or rejected.

6. Keep your opinions to yourself.

In recent years, there have been some high profile and highly respected individuals who have been charged with some form of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault. Bill Cosby comes to mind. When an initial disclosure is made against such an icon, it is not unusual for some people to think, or even say, “I don’t see how [perpetrator’s name] could do that?” When this response is verbalized when a disclosure or accusation is true, the victim shuts down. No longer is it safe to say anything further until, perhaps, the next #MeToo campaign.

But it is also counterproductive and can be destructive to say, “Yeah!  I always thought he/she was a creep!” The reported abuse is not about you or how you see things. Disclosure belongs to the victim alone.

7. Let them be angry.

The victim’s anger has been there all along though they may have tried to bury or deny it. Self blame and shame has held the victim in bondage for too long. If anger comes out at the perpetrator in the disclosure, allow them to express it because it is finally being aimed in the right direction.

Eventual forgiveness of the perpetrator can never occur unless there is first the angry awareness of the violation.

Your expression of acceptance and care will generate safety and trust.  Don’t say that you understand. Instead, let your spouse or friend know that it is appropriate to be angry. God is angry at what was done.

8. Know your limitations

Robert Cardwell has stated, “Your intentions to help are wonderful but when you are dealing with problems such as [childhood sexual abuse] you need to incorporate referral for professional help in your goals” (p. 17).

9. Encourage the sexual abuse survivor to get professional counseling.

Give careful thought to what you say. Don’t say, “You need counseling.”  In the ears of the victim, that well-intended statement might sound more like a judgment; as though you said, “You’re really messed up!” There’s already been enough self-condemnation for the victim. But do express hope and that you believe there are people who know how to help others who have faced such trauma.

Final Instruction & Invitation

The focus of this blog is the disclosure from a legal adult. If the disclosure is from a minor, local and State laws for notifying authorities must be carefully followed.

Share the insights you’ve gained from your experience with disclosure. I welcome your comments and interaction. You can submit your insights in the comment section below.


Sources for this blog included:

Cardwell, R. (1998). Through it together: Help and advice for partners of survivors of child abuse. London: Minerva.

Cheston, S. E. (1994). As you and the abused person journey together. Mahwah, N.J.: Illumination Books.

Penny, L. (2017, October 30) “Me Too” Women will be the ones to decide what happens next. Time, 190(18), 23-24.

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