Childhood Sexual Abuse: Ending the Silence


What if every survivor of sexual abuse picked up the phone, called their abusers and confronted them like this woman did? (Or wrote an “open letter” in The New York Times like this woman did?)

That would be a lot of calls.

One in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys have been sexually abused during childhood. Ninety-three percent of those children knew their perpetrator. Abusers aren’t random criminal “monsters” but teachers and relatives, ministers and coaches we know by name and who are often “trusted” caretakers of children.

Because 90 percent of the 25-to-33 percent of adults sexually abused during childhood know their perpetrators. They aren’t random criminals, but teachers and relatives, ministers and coaches—people we knew by name and were sometimes our caretakers. What it we all had the recorded proof that our families, friends and the larger society could not dismiss or minimize and would instead have to confront?

We might live in a different world, one safer for children.

The problem for many survivors isn’t that they don’t know where their abusers are or how to reach them, but that they feel shame for having been abused, for being unable to protect themselves or others. They were guilty, yes, of being children—innocent and naive, gullible and exploitable.

What has kept so many of us quiet isn’t that we don’t know our abusers, it is that we do, and we might have liked or loved, trusted or admired them even as we despised being molested by them.

When I was in my early 20s, I started therapy, talking about my abusive childhood and the frequent chaos and neglect. A few sessions in, the therapist handed me a claim for insurance; on it I was to write the diagnosis for which I was seeking treatment.

Instead, I wrote the first and last names of the three family members who molested me and handed it back.

“You can’t do that,” she said.

“But that’s why I’m here,” I said.

She nodded, but explained how the insurance system worked and that a diagnosis was needed for me to get insurance coverage.

Car insurers look at fault and determine liability—why don’t medical insurers want a context? It made no sense to me. I pointed out how my perpetrators weren’t in jail or therapy, and my getting treatment wasn’t going to change their behavior.

I argued that, from a strictly financial standpoint, if abuse isn’t prevented it’s going to keep happening, and it’s cheaper to find and treat the abusers than the people they abuse. Wasn’t it known that abusers will keep abusing?

Prevention 101, or so I thought.

As a new mother, I wouldn’t leave my child at a lunch table alone in the Children’s Museum in Boston, prompting my social worker friend to laugh at my over-protectiveness. “You think something is going to happen to her here?” she said.

Even me—as a survivor abused in my own bed, at my home and in my stepfather’s car—bought into the myth that the predator is some sneaky stranger in public and not the trusted coach, stepparent, teacher or priest.

In some ways I miss the indignation of my youth when I felt outrage just on my own behalf and didn’t know that one in three or four of us have been abused. I look back at the 22-year-old in therapy who knew that treating my anxiety was necessary, but that more was required to end child sexual abuse.

It wasn’t just that I needed insurance to cover therapy—though I did, as a college student with terrible anxiety who was on work-study and getting financial aid. It was that I was at a liberal college in Amherst, Mass., where there were classes on abortion rights and a health center that gave you a mirror during a gynecological exam so you could be educated about your own body, but where there was little talk about the violence done to girls (and to boys).

I understood why it would be hard to speak up in families where abuse took place, but why was the silence so prevalent everywhere else?

We can learn from Jamie Carillo, who insisted on justice. When told it was too late to file a criminal charge against her alleged abuser because the statute of limitations had run out, she made a phone call and demanded accountability.

She got what every survivor of sexual abuse deserves and rarely gets: the truth. She used her to voice to make sure this teacher who she alleged had abused her couldn’t stay in her job with easy access to other children. And she inspired another survivor to come forth, which led to criminal charges against the teacher.

I was not so brave. I did not out my abusers. I did not file charges. I waged a war with my own pain, hating myself for having nightmares and anxiety and trouble with sex and fears of parenting and trust issues.

I accepted a diagnosis in order to get more therapy sessions. “Generalized anxiety” would get coverage, my therapist explained, though post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was more accurate. I went with PTSD because I wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to lie or manipulate the system. What I wanted to do was write to my insurance company and say how awful it felt to feel blamed for being abused.

But I didn’t.

That was 25 years ago, and it’s still difficult to be an incest survivor. It’s not a resumé builder or an asset for a profile. That’s why Jamie Carillo’s YouTube confrontation went viral and is so jaw-droopingly brave. She delivered her own justice and broadcast it. She protected others from being victimized and reminded survivors that we are not alone.

And that’s why you’ll find me running victory laps around my living room, jumping up and down and high-fiving the computer screen watching this video. Obviously I am not happy there is another person who survived childhood sexual abuse, but I am relieved someone spoke of it so directly and reminded me that I was not to blame for what was done to me as a child. That is not a message one can receive too often.

Abusers love shame, and they love silence. Silence protects them. My privacy is not what needs protecting. Our children need protection.

For more on preventing childhood sexual abuse, see here. Read More:


Christine "Cissy" White is a stay-at-home writer and in-the-world mother from New England. She blogs at