A Child’s Voice: A Perspective on Sexual Abuse (Jan-Feb 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Leslie Collins
January – February, 2003

In the first installment of her life story, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou recounts her childhood sexual abuse and subsequent events that brought years of silence for her. She was molested and raped by a family friend who was arrested and tried in court. Later, we find out that the perpetrator was kicked to death. Ms. Angelou, then eight years old, stopped speaking for years afterward. One could infer from the recounting that the child’s voice was stifled as a result of her rape and the murder of her perpetrator.

While she stopped talking as a result of the events, I believe her voice was stolen long before. It was stolen during the initial incident when her abuser molested and threatened to kill her brother if she told. When she kept that secret, her voice was silenced. The process of silencing the voice by assaulting the mind, body and spirit is a common theme of child sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is a process that not only systematically silences children, but family, friends, and the community as well. As in Ms. Angelou’s recounting, most children are sexually abused by someone who is known, trusted, and loved by both the family and the child. The perpetrator appears to form a very strong and emotionally manipulative bond with the child by meeting emotional or spiritual needs in the child’s life. In any case, child abusers put themselves into a position where the child and family depend on the perpetrator for meeting their needs.

The victims feel obligated to keep silent or stifle their voices to ingratiate themselves to the perpetrator. The perpetrator then starts to lull the child and the family into a false sense of security and tests the deterioration of their voices by asking the child to engage in seemingly innocent behavior and to keep it secret from those who care about her. This behavior further circumvents the child’s voice.

The perpetrator creates emotional conflict and confusion in the child. The child wants to ask questions but is afraid to betray the abuser or to put others in danger. By normalizing inappropriate behavior or distorting the context of appropriate behavior, the predator is able to desensitize the family and create the code of silence. Once sure that the child will not use his voice, the perpetrator begins the process of desensitizing the child and anyone who might be a threat so that unlimited access to the child is unquestioned. The physical assault culminates the sense of shame in the victim and the family, reinforcing the deconstruction of voices.

Why are voices silenced? What is the danger?

Child sexual abuse is by nature a subtle and lengthy process. If the perpetrator is to sustain this crime over a period of years without fear of repercussions, then silencing the victims becomes a matter of self-preservation.

Children’s voices are powerful tools for them. By using their voices, they are able to answer questions, express emotions, convey thoughts and get their needs met. Pilfering a victim’s voice isolates her and makes her more vulnerable for longer periods of time. Without her voice she is unable to ask questions or express feelings about the abuse to others that would contextualize the events for her.

Often children who are abused are silent because they fear they won’t be believed or because they fear getting into trouble. In either case, they are further isolated from their families. Squelching the child’s voice ensures complicity. Silencing the family guarantees complacency. Because families and children stay connected within the larger community through verbal communication, silencing the family leaves them completely powerless to act against the abuser. If the family reports the abuse, not only do they risk not getting their needs met but also becoming pariahs in their community.

Being silent about the abuse can lead to serious consequences for the child, the family and the community. By not being able to express her feelings about the abuse, the child must learn ways to numb the pain. Most adult survivors of abuse have drug addictions. They also find themselves in physically and sexually abusive relationships because the dynamics of domination, power, and silence become familiar and comfortable for them. Silence through sexual abuse creates a death of the spirit of the family as well. For the community, silence not only guarantees the continued abuse of this family but also secures other children for the predator to victimize.

How do we protect the children?

If we understand the seductive and subtle nature of child sexual abuse, then we must also understand that perpetrators gain access to children by fitting comfortably into their world and disarming the people around them. There is no profile for who will abuse a child; therefore, when protecting children we have to begin to think in a new way. If we are going to protect our children and our communities from sexual violence, we will have to expand our concept of protection to include proactive behaviors to reduce risks as well as reactive behaviors. We must empower them by teaching and modeling ways to be assertive and discerning.

The first way to encourage children to use their voices is to listen to them. Listening exemplifies for children the importance of their voices and the necessity of using them. Adults have to model the listening and responding in a way that shows we are interested regardless of the subject matter. For instance, if children cannot tell you about their day, they cannot tell you about being hurt by someone they trust.

In addition, listening to a child’s decision-making process shows children that they have some control over their environment and that they are able to protect themselves to some degree. Children who are not able to communicate verbally will find a way to communicate through behavior. Most abused children will use play as their voice to indicate what is going on in their lives. They will role-play or tell stories. Showing an interest in these behaviors will allow them to start to speak about abuse.

We can facilitate protection in the following ways:
• Teach children about the subtle tricks used to steal their voices such as the difference between safe secrets and touches and unsafe secrets and touches.
• Teach children that there will be times in which things happen to them that they cannot control; however there are always opportunities to protect themselves and the people they care about by telling parents and other appropriate figures of authority.
• Give children the words to talk about abuse as well as telling them whom to tell. Most children understand that the behavior is not safe and that they should tell. They even know whom to tell, but they don’t have the words.
• Help children understand that sometimes adults also need protection from danger, and the way for children or adults to protect themselves is to use their voices to ask for assistance.
• Encourage parents to foster assertiveness in children by respecting children’s ownership of their bodies (e.g., asking before hugging, kissing, etc.), respecting privacy of family members and, if that privacy cannot be respected, offering explanations.
• Educate parents about sexual abuse and steps to take if their child discloses it. Make parents aware of local community resources such as rape crisis centers or victim intervention programs. Departments of Human Services can provide referrals.
• Teach the community the laws about child protection in their area. In some states, for example, any adult who suspects that a child is being abused is required by law to make a report. To facilitate reporting the Department of Children’s Services has a 24-hour phone line. The report can even be anonymous. Other states have similar laws regarding reporting.

Ultimately, it is understood that children must be protected from abuse. We also, however, have a moral obligation to protect victims of abuse not only from their abusers but also from becoming abusers or prey to other predators. In the words of renowned poet and writer Dorothy Law Nolte (1954), “Children learn what they live.” If a child is manipulated, sexualized, and objectified, they will learn to become manipulators; they will objectify and use sex to meet their needs. In other words they will become perpetrators.

There is no way to un-teach destructive behaviors; however, the teachings can be neutralized. Teaching basic character-building skills can counteract the destructive teachings of sexual abuse. Clarifying and respecting boundaries, teaching about consequences of behavior and accountability, teaching ways to communicate and renegotiate social situations to benefit all involved will reduce the risk of victimization or re-victimization. Teaching, however, is not enough. We must expect that people—no matter what their experience in life—will make choices and be accountable for those choices. If we do these things, we foster an environment for victims of sexual abuse to become survivors.

The process of healing from childhood sexual abuse may be likened to a work of divine grace that follows the pattern of Christ’s own experience. He was crucified. He died and was buried. But the power of God raised him to life again! Similarly, the abuse process puts a child’s voice to death. By the twin powers of rescuing love and healing grace, the voice is restored—stronger, more aware, and passionate.

Victims of sexual abuse often allow themselves to be defined by the abuse. Survivors, on the other hand, understand that sexual abuse, while an extremely traumatic experience, is an experience. They understand that the experience is not the whole of a person. Survivors are able to regain their voices and define themselves based on the person they choose to become.New Wineskins

With degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, Leslie Collins worked five years at the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where she developed and implemented a personal safety-training program for children in public schools and in the Middle Tennessee area and provided therapy for victims of sexual assault and adolescent offenders. She is currently the Program Director of the Mid South Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, where she develops and manages programs and services for families in the community.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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