We Can’t End the Cycle of Familial Sexual Abuse in Silence

Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.

Liz Lemon / Creative Commons

Statistically, Jane is the one in four girls sexually abused before the age of 18. Her father, uncle and cousins are among the 34 percent of familial perpetrators of sexual abuse. She is a granddaughter, a daughter, a niece and a cousin of women that, too, suffered childhood sexual abuse at the hands of male family members. Together, they are the expression of generational child sexual abuse—the transmission of abuse from one generation to the next.

Jane experienced abuse by her father from age five to 11 and other male family members from 14 to 17. Today, she is one of many familial child sexual abuse survivors managing mental illness, with a history of domestic violence, who struggled to navigate parenting. She lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and experiences bouts of depression. She learned about healthy romantic boundaries through negative experiences, including but not limited to emotional and physical abuse. Mothering skills were developed through trial and error, to the detriment of Jane’s daughters.

Jane’s mother was the vessel through which sexual abuse spread. Repeatedly, Jane’s mother identified with the perpetrator and facilitated Jane’s abuse. In the home, Jane’s mother saw her as competition, a belief reinforced by Jane’s father’s commentary: “Why would I need you, I have [Jane].” Blaming Jane, her mother persecuted her, the victim, to please the abuser. Among family, Jane’s mother validated the abuse, perpetrated by a cousin, as a man “need[ing] attention from a woman.” Jane was 16 years old. Still, she loves her mother and contributes to her current care.

In Jane’s family, young boys learn how to abuse through observation and, at times, through direct lessons. Recalling a basement, Jane recounts an episode in which an older cousin taught younger boys exactly how to be an abuser using her body. Girls, on the other hand, were taught silence. Predators groomed the young women by inviting them to sit on their laps, kissing them on the lips and heavily complimenting the female children. Conditioning, in the form of threats, abusive language and maternal negligence, conveyed that no one cared and no help was available.

Feeling anxious and helpless at her childhood home, years had passed since Jane* visited family after escaping sexual abuse at the hands of her father, uncles and cousins. When she went back, a relative told her: “I remember listening to them talk about fucking you.”

Child sexual abuse, grossly underreported and poorly regulated, is shrouded in silence. Silenceencouraged by the media, by the legal system and by cultureperpetuates sexual violence against children, more so against children abused by family. Conversations in the media cause misunderstandings, and, often, create isolating environments for victims and survivors. The legal system provides loopholes for incest, essentially rewarding abusers who are related to their victims. Culture is inundated with sexualized images of children and the depiction of sexual violence as normal, i.e. aggression labeled as passion.

Well-groomed and conditioned, Jane remained silent throughout the abuse. She confided in no one. Sought help from no one. And no one offered their help to her. Educators, religious leaders and community members attributed Jane’s poor hygiene, hypervigilance, depression and anxiety to her poverty. No one looked beyond the surface to intervene or provide support, validating the threats spoken by Jane’s abusers.

Jane’s pain went unseen. Jane’s voice was quieted before she attempted to speak. Jane’s life is lived in the context of familial child sexual abuse. Sadly, the abuse that shapedher life could have been prevented—but cultural forces and norms didn’t allow for that.

Silence is a powerful weapon. No longer should anyone be forced to carry it.

*Jane is a pseudonym used to protect the interviewee.

Sharae Barajas, an MSW candidate at the University of Southern California, seeks to end the silence surrounding sexual violence while advocating for sexual violence prevention.

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