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Reasons I Didn’t Tell Anyone I was Being Sexually Abused

Earlier this week, I shared an article about sibling sexual abuse and how being abused by a sibling added to the reasons not to tell for many of us. I also made this statement:

There’s no surprise to me that it’s underreported. I didn’t report it. The litany of reasons I didn’t report could take up volumes. Some of the reasons are in the article above, including the fear of not being believed (especially as a male victim), the fear of being removed from my family, and because I had no idea it was happening to anyone else.

Many survivors don’t tell out of fear of what will happen to them and the abuser. When the abuser is a sibling, that is a very real fear. It also means having to tell your parents that one of their children is an abuser. I never wanted to tell my parents that.

I’m not going to write volumes at this time. Still, it did occur to me that it might be educational to share my reasons for not reporting as a child in the hopes that it helps people understand why so many survivors don’t disclose, let alone report, abuse for decades. Some of my reasons were the reality of the times I grew up in, the 70’s and early 80’s. Sadly, some were not specific to that time and still exist now, and some might be coming back.

In no particular order, here are some of the biggest reasons I didn’t tell anyone:

  1. As mentioned above, the abuse was happening in the family. I believed that telling meant breaking up my family in the most literal sense. Someone was getting sent to foster care, possibly me. That stress level could end my parent’s marriage; my younger siblings could end up in different homes. I couldn’t be the reason for that.
  2. Straight-up fear. My abuser could physically hurt me. There was never any question that he was older, larger, and stronger than me. There was also never any question that I was scared of him.
  3. Ignorance. I couldn’t have defined sexual abuse at that age. I was in my 20s the first time I heard the phrase “sexual abuse.” What I experienced didn’t have a name until then. As a male, I never considered the possibility that I could be the victim of a sexual crime growing up. That didn’t happen to boys, especially at the hands of other boys. No adult ever tried to teach me anything different.
  4. The gay thing. I’ve written about this before. I grew up in a world where having my friends and other parents think I was gay seemed worse than just continuing to be abused. A male who admits to having been sexually abused by another male was assumed to be gay. After all, didn’t your body physically respond? It must be gay. We’ve made strides since then, but I fear we will return to that world. The one in which LGBTQ kids can’t be who they are, straight kids are ignorant about LGBTQ realities, and the boys being sexually abused can’t talk about it for fear of being labeled. It’s not a world I want to see again.
  5. Other stigma. Beyond being labeled as gay were the fears of being seen as damaged or weak and knowing that for the rest of my life, people would look at me the way they looked at kids with disabilities, with pity and a lot of distance. Seriously, there was a LOT of distance, as if being abused was contagious or something.
  6. Who would I tell? My father was an alcoholic. My family life was chaotic as hell. Keeping secrets was the norm. I trusted no one. Adults didn’t intrude on the family lives of others. In addition, I was, and am, a shy introvert. I wasn’t close to many people.
  7. In what may seem like a contradiction, I didn’t know that this happened to anyone else or that it wasn’t completely normal. Again, I was so uneducated that I thought if I told the story, it was just as likely that someone would see it as the weirdest, most outrageous story ever as it was that someone would respond and tell me this happened in every family. I had no education. No one talked about sexual abuse. How was I, a pre-teen, supposed to start that conversation?
  8. What my abuser told me. See items 1, 2, 4, and 5 above. Where did those beliefs come from? My abuser. In the absence of other information, I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? Telling would harm me and my family more than it would hurt him. Looking back, he might have been right, too.
  9. Shame. This is tied up in many of these other items, but I need to give it some space for itself, too. The shame of having been victimized like this only got worse the longer it went on. I was ashamed of what we had done the first time it happened. (Again, with the uneducated mindframe that I wasn’t being abused, I was somehow complicit in this.) The second time, I was ashamed of the act and not stopping it the first time. Then, each time after, I was ashamed that it happened, that I didn’t stop it, and that I didn’t tell on him. Shame compounded well into adulthood. The longer I went on, the more shame I felt for not doing anything. Admitting it would just expose that shame to others. I kept it inside until my 20s. Statistically, that makes me someone who disclosed very early in life. Most men are closer to my age now the first time they tell anyone. That’s the power of shame.
  10. Finally, in my top ten list of reasons I didn’t tell, I was trying to protect the rest of my siblings. I believed he wouldn’t bother any of my younger siblings if I could put up with it. In my case, I think that was what happened. I’ve since learned that is often not the case. It was a dumb thing to assume, but I didn’t know any better. In retrospect, it seems backward. I protected the rest of my family by keeping the secret. That makes no sense.

I cannot stress this enough. If you look through that list, you’ll see many examples of me being uneducated and misinformed. During my pre-teen and teen years, no one gave us school speeches about sexual assault or abuse or shared statistics about the number of kids being abused in any manner. There was no way I could have known who to talk to or what to say. I didn’t have a safe, stable home environment. I had no experience with open, supportive relationships in my life.

I was a child trying to navigate growing up in a dysfunctional household while being abused by a violent, drunk father and an older brother who was a sexual predator with no assistance.

That’s why when people approach me with ideas for how to prevent childhood sexual abuse, the only two things I focus on are education and honesty. I didn’t even know I was being abused because I lacked any education, and I didn’t talk to anyone because there were no safe adults for me to talk to.

If you want to prevent abuse, do those things. Talk to kids about sex, abuse, rape, violence, and LGBTQ issues. Please give them the vocabulary to talk about what is happening to them, to define what is right and wrong, and a place to get their questions answered honestly, get good information on the topic, and have open conversations without judgment.

If you aren’t willing to provide that for kids, I guarantee you there is a predator out there who will be more than happy to fill in the spaces for the kids around you and teach them about sex. You’re not going to like what they teach them.

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