Bill Cosby is not accused of child sexual abuse but the reaction to the allegations gives us an excellent window into the experience of survivors of sexual abuse who try to tell others about what was done to them. We are outraged. We can’t believe a trusted person could have possibly committed this heinous crime. We know the person being accused. We know this person couldn’t possibly have done these things. Unless they did.
WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW?
Sexual abuse of children is a crime that is easy to hide and it occurs against victims who do not have a voice in society. Very young children are easy to manipulate. Even if parents warn their children to tell them if someone tries to touch them inappropriately, a trusted perpetrator (and most of those who commit these crimes are trusted figures the child knows well) can get away with their behavior in a variety of ways such as, “mommy didn’t mean this, this is just a little game”, “this is our special secret, isn’t it fun”, “your parents said this was fine, they wanted you to be with me”, etc. etc. Older children between 6 and 11 can be told, “no one will believe you,” “it’s your fault because….”, “you wouldn’t want mommy to be mad at me” or “if I go to jail, who will support the family.” Child sexual abuse, like most sexual crimes rarely has witnesses. It is often done in private settings, often in the dark and it is the word of an unreliable child victim against an adult with an array of deceptive skills to apply. People who commit sexual crimes are not primarily the strange deviant jumping out of the bushes but the kindly teacher, pastor, grandparent or father who has access to the child.
Children of sexual abuse are at high risk for problems as they mature. There is a higher incidence of drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and school failure among teenagers who experienced sexual abuse. Most survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience guilt, shame and lowered self esteem because of their experiences. As these children mature they have greater awareness that what happened was terribly wrong and they often feel at fault. They blame themselves for not speaking up, for not stopping the abuse, or for the pleasure their body’s natural response created. Teenagers with stronger personalities may act out by abusing drugs or failing school. As their relationship with their parents deteriorates they then become able to speak out about the abuse that occurred. AND WHO WILL BELIEVE THEM?
ANGRY TEEN OR TRUSTED ADULT
Time and again I have heard of situations where an acting out teenager reports that they were abused by a family member when they were younger. It is not until a child is at least 15 years old that they are likely to come forward with disclosing sexual abuse.It takes that long to have the maturity and emotional strength to speak up about this deeply disturbing and embarrassing behavior. By this time, if they are troubled, it is much easier to believe the adult than the teenager. Over and over I have heard the family members say, “I KNOW (Dad, uncle, grandfather, priest, step-dad, cousin). He could never do that. Adults are much quicker to support the adult with no history of problems than the teenager who is acting out and whose word has proven to be unreliable; lying about school attendance or work completion, hiding drinking or smoking pot.
BILL COSBY IS THE ULTIMATE ILLUSTRATION
Allegations about Bill Cosby’s sexual predation have surfaced time and again over many years. Multiple women cam forward with allegations. AND WHO WOULD BELIEVE THEM? The media and we, the comedians adoring public turned ourselves into contortions to avoid believing that such a trusted national figure, a national father surrogate to millions could have done such terrible things. We said he couldn’t possibly have done these things, even if we had no personal knowledge of the man. We thought the women were gold-diggers, out for publicity, out for money. We thought they must have asked for Cosby’s sexual attention. Even after dozens of women repeated the story it was easier for most of us to believe the rapist who seemed like such a wonderful, successful and kind person than the women who spoke out.
So it is with the teenagers who accuse their abusers. It is so much easier to believe the adult than the difficult teenager. And by disbelieving our children we damage them further.