In the Shadows

As a new movement confronts the denial of rape culture that has been reinforced by silence, a group of survivors remains in the silent shadows.

UN Women / Creative Commons

We have yet to create safe space for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) to heal. Of the 50 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America, only 15 percent of them were identified as victims in childhood. That means that 85 percent of them came into adulthood without ever addressing issues related to their abuse.

Isolation comes easy for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Sometimes they isolate themselves because they feel so misunderstood. It is easier to lean into silence than to find their voice. It is easier to distance themselves than to fight to be heard. Sometimes society does the isolating for them. People reward silence with invitations and recognition. So, survivors isolate, sometimes physically, often emotionally.

Even in the face of the #MeToo movement, there is little activism to create safe space for survivors of incest. Speaking about harassment outside of the home may be tolerable. However, speaking about what went on within the home is still too taboo. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse are expected to move on, as if survival should be enough. Addressing the trauma as public conversation is not a welcome topic.

The irony is that we build prevention programs based on the idea of children being open about unsafe touch. We expect six-year-olds to talk about a topic that 60-year-olds are too ashamed to disclose. Until we offer safe space for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to speak about their experiences of violation within the home, we remain at great risk of continuing silence in the workplace. We give a clear message to violators that victimizing family members is the safest place to initiate sexual impropriety behaviors that will continue in all other aspects of society.

Research reveals that the closer the relationship between violators and child victims, the less likely the child is to be identified. This phenomenon explains why the identification rate is so low. Approximately 80 percent of child victims are related to their abuser, including relationships by adoption, marriage or other live-in adults, as well as blood relativesall of which are considered incest.

Incest survivors often feel connected to their violators, or at least the family well-being, and often choose an adult life of silence to remain in good standing with family members. Contrary to survivors’ needs, they often find themselves ostracized, criticized, condemned, or even threatened by family members who wish to hide the abuse, no matter how many years have passed.

When 20 percent of the workforce shows up with the experience of silence well-rehearsed for a decade or more, they remain as vulnerable at work as they were in their homes. They may be silent because someone has told them they deserve to be abused, or learned that speaking up is dangerous, or convinced that no one cares if they are abused. Adult survivors are predisposed to remain silent. One of the clearest predictors of adult victimization is child victimization. Adults who were sexually abused as children are four times more likely to be victimized than adults with no history of abuse. Previous victims are also more likely to react to threats of abuse with a freeze response rather than a fight-or-flight response, especially if no healing has been addressed.

The prodding of the #MeToo responses to the movement was based on women confronting unwanted advances from men who cross respectable boundaries. While all sexual improprieties were lumped together, there appeared to be a quick parting of the water with a public focus on workplace sexual harassment while most incest survivors continue their journey of silence, unsupported by family members and distanced by friends. Too often the family chooses to focus on the problems caused by the survivor who wants to break the silence, instead of the violator who committed the crime. The incest survivor raising a hand in the air to be counted while family members hold their hand over the survivor’s mouth perpetuates the problem. The public outcry remains the private shame that is covered up.

When we do address childhood sexual abuse we tend to focus on the vulnerability of the child. We attempt to teach the child how to be less vulnerable as if sexual abuse is a virus that is caught by not washing one’s hands carefully. When we focus on child characteristics of vulnerability, we take the focus off violators. Children are sexually abused because a violator, almost always a person known to them, sexually abuses. Exposure to an abuser is the greatest vulnerability and predictor of childhood sexual abuse.

We must start targeting violators for identification instead of victims. We must bring violators to the light and give them less room to hide among the crowd as least likely suspects. We know too much to continue in denial. We know that parents, siblings, clergy, teachers, coaches, babysitters, neighbors and grandparents can be violators. Paying bills, having a charming personality or being in a relationship should not decrease suspicion, and there should be no statute of limitation on supporting survivors no matter how old they are when they disclose.

We must close the gap between survivors and listeners by removing the stigma of survivors. Every survivor needs listeners to heal, not just survive. They need listeners to break their silence, help them process their past, and to provide a safe space to release some pain. Perhaps it is not survivors who need to be targeted for identification, but listeners. Maybe we need to prod those who are willing to create safe space to start a “we too” movement. We, too, will seek to understand. We, too, will listen.

Dr. Rosenna Bakari is the executive director of Talking Trees, Inc. an empowerment organization for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. She is also an author and her memoir, Too Much Love Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Silence of Childhood Sexual Abuse, will be released on April 12, 2018. For more information, please visit


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  1. Elaine Mattingly says:

    Bakari’s work and personal fortitide have powerfully improved so many lives it would be difficult to overstate her impact.

  2. Audrey Voorhees says:

    Rosenna Bakari connects the dots between incest and abuse in the workplace, identifying the need for listeners to heal. As a survivor, I am deeply grateful for this message and Dr. Bakari’s contribution to the women’s movement and breaking the silence. #We2

  3. Shalise Keating says:

    Thank You Ms. magazine for sharing the work of Dr. Bakari. It’s so important for survivors to find resources in order to not feel so alone.

  4. As a survivor who only disclosed and started living openly in my mid 30’s, Bakari and her words have continued to help create a safe space for healing. Please listen to her words and be there for those in your own life, or be there for yourself and your inner child who needs you to acknowledge her now.

  5. Val Flynn says:

    This article is so spot on. My exact life story. Healing has only come as a result of my no longer being willing to be quiet and convince myself that it was “no big deal” that my father sexually abused me. After I confronted him at age 20 he tried to kill himself and then continued to deny the abuse and my family chose to believe and support him. When he succeeded 12 years later they blamed me for his death. My healing has been hard won but so worth it! I am a survivor! And I am hear to be a listener to anyone with a story to tell and healing to fight for! It is possible and it is worth it!

  6. I have never been better in my struggles to overcome Incest than I am right now. However, I still have triggers with my siblings when they act like “Just get over it” I am a very strong supporter of the #We2 movement because I feel as if I’ve never been understood and Dr. Bakari gets it and is not afraid to talk about it. Not afraid to talk about it with others who don’t even know me. I usually can pick up on the violator’s predatory actions and have even given them a look that says I know what you’ve done and are doing and you won’t get away with it forever!

  7. Thank you for publishing this article. Collectively, we gain courage every time this subject is brought further into the light. Too long have we hid in shame and silence. I was shouting a resounding “YES” to everything that Dr. Bakari wrote.

  8. Hetty Sarjeant says:

    Shining a torchlight on the issue of childhood sexual abuse is a major factor in breaking the silence and reducing or eradicating the problem.

  9. Often the “family” are cowards, all are aware and remain silent and watch it happen and say I’m glad it wasn’t me too! Survivors break away for self-preservation as adults but not without a cost. The majority of the time the victim is ostracized by the whole family for taking a stand. Many stay silent for that reason. I hope one day it evolves where a child has a safe place to go and report on family or close family member but society better be prepared to rescue that child also because opening up makes it worse, that’s the dilemma!

  10. Wendy Tuck says:

    Dr Bakari’s courage in calling for this problem to be addressed publicly may open the floodgates for incest survivors to reveal the cost of this insidious form of abuse. Often it takes one person willing to break the taboo, the rule of silence, for others to begin to see and name what happened to them. Dr. Bakari’s leadership and understanding of the shame/fear/silence dynamic is a great gift to our culture. What is named can be addressed and healed.

  11. Jenny Terras says:

    An important article, by a courageous woman who has certainly inspired me to speak out more. Only as more people speak out, share their stories, can the shame and secrecy be ended, perpetrators unmasked, children saved.

  12. Kelli Grauel says:

    Thank you, Dr. Rosenna Bakari for voicing for us. There are many of us living with these issues, every minute of every day. Her work is important to us, for us. She is encouraging and allowing us freedom…something we are not used to, in many ways. We shouldn’t be or feel shamed in or to silence. We were chosen, we didn’t choose this.

  13. Donna Vondenbosch says:

    Donna Vondenbosch,( from Netflix The Keepers) I also think thst institutions must be held for restoration of lost time. I suffered much career and education wise.

  14. Jackie Kehler says:

    Thank you for the connection between family based incest and work place harassment. I have found that as a survivor, I had normalized the objectification of women from my own experience as a child. Later in workplaces where I was sexually harassed several times over, I found myself revisiting my childhood trauma in flashbacks. I now have been off work for over 2 years and in therapy at The Laurel Centre in Winnipeg. After 100 hours of individual therapy and 100 hours of group therapy, I met feel equipped to begin looking at new career options that may help me prevent revictimization. I hope. That hope: priceless.

    • Jackie, I hope you will pick up a copy of my book “Too Much Love Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Silence of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” It speaks in depth about the internalization of objectification. Also, check out

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