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.

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