CONTENT WARNING: This blog discusses some of the most sensitive topics in our society today, including sexual assault and abuse. We understand that these realities may be difficult for many people to discuss. We encourage you to care for your safety and well-being. If you ever feel unsafe, please call 911.
If you were asked to picture the face of someone who has experienced sexual abuse or a sexual assault, who would come to mind?
You may think of well-known cases of institutional sexual abuse that have come to light in recent years. Perhaps the face of a celebrity who has bravely shared their own story would flash before your eyes. Or you may not be able to picture anyone's face clearly at all - but instead, you would draw on media portrayals and popular culture to envision someone - a stereotype - in the abstract.
Sadly, often without knowing it, many of us could probably picture the face of someone near and dear to us. Statistics suggest that every one of us likely knows multiple people among our family members, friends and/or acquaintances who have suffered or will suffer from sexual violence at some point in their lives - whether they have disclosed it or not.
And, distressingly, your own image may be the one that appears in your mind's eye.
Knowing there are so many faces we could picture when doing this exercise speaks to how pervasive sexual violence is in our society. But despite its prevalence, sexual abuse and child sexual abuse are still very much secret crimes that remain a secret because many people simply do not want to talk about them.
In this series of blog posts, I want to encourage more people to start talking (or at least thinking) about this most personal of all personal injuries. In these posts, I will debunk some frustratingly persistent myths about sexual abuse and sexual assault and try to demystify the process of civil litigation for survivors. Whether or not you have personally experienced this kind of violation, I hope we can all come to understand our collective responsibility better to create an environment that supports survivors of sexual violence and affirms their choice to find their path to recovery and healing.
Who are the survivors?
It is extremely important to know that anyone can experience sexual abuse at any point in their lives. Although statistics suggest that people within certain demographics are disproportionately likely to suffer sexual abuse or sexual assaults, no one is immune to the risk of this kind of violence.
In my practice, most of my clients are adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This is not entirely surprising as nearly 70 per cent of reported sexual assault and abuse occur to people under the age of 17. Statistics about children who have been sexually abused suggest that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before 18 years. Overwhelmingly, children who have suffered sexual abuse know their abuser, and younger children often experience abuse from family members or other close caregivers.
Members of vulnerable or marginalized communities, including the disabled, Indigenous or racialized people, LGBTQ2+ individuals, the elderly, or people receiving institutional care, are more likely to suffer from sexual abuse or sexual assaults in their lifetimes. It's estimated that for every 100 sexual assaults, only six are ever reported to the police.
While survivors have many valid reasons for declining to report these crimes to the police, the discrimination members of these vulnerable or marginalized groups have experienced in their lives can further discourage them from trusting authorities to help them.
What are common reactions from sexual abuse survivors?
There is no hierarchy when it comes to sexual abuse and sexual assault. Any unwanted touch of a sexual nature is, by definition, sexual assault. In some instances, the assaults can result in physical injuries beyond the emotional and psychological damage this type of violation can cause to a person. The abuse may occur over a long period of time or be limited to a single experience.
But the individual circumstances of these crimes should not be used to diminish any survivor's experience. Assault is assault. Everyone feels and responds differently after being subjected to these crimes. There is no 'right' way to respond.
When my clients tell me their stories and describe how they felt or responded after an assault, they will often ask: "Is this reaction normal?" The answer is invariably: yes. Sometimes a survivor's "normal" is not society's "normal." Yet being assaulted or abused can be such a traumatic experience for a person that they will react in ways other people may not understand.
The uneven power relationship with their abuser prevents some people from revealing the abuse. For others, there may be a sense of guilt or shame about what has happened to them, and they may unfairly blame themselves or explain away their abuser's actions. For some, the assault(s) may be part of their personal narrative until life circumstances force them to deal with the trauma and damage done. A few survivors even suppress memories of the assault(s) and may only react later in life when triggered by something they see or hear.
There is no single "right" way to respond to sexual abuse and assault. This attack on a person's bodily autonomy can cut to a person's very core. However, they respond, whether by choice or by circumstance, is what they feel they need to do to survive.
Sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors take many different paths to recovery and healing. Some choose to go to the authorities. Others seek assistance from counsellors and/or crisis centres to help them process what has happened or while they are in treatment for other, and often related, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders or PTSD. Still, others may begin to unpack the damage the abuse caused when seeking addiction treatment. They may start to understand that they have turned to certain substances or activities as a way to escape their painful trauma. Once they can deal with the underlying cause of their addictions, they often have more success in abstaining from these activities or moderating their consumption.
Disclosing what has happened to another person can be a supremely powerful moment in a survivor's life. There are times when I am, or someone else from my office is the first person to hear their story, and we always do so with compassion and without judgement. As we witness them taking back control over their lives by telling their story in their own words, we often see their relief, sadness, anger, fear, or determination. Usually, it's a combination of these complex and sometimes conflicting feelings.
In the next part of this series, I discuss why coming forward can be such a difficult decision for many survivors, and I examine some common fears about what will happen when they do.
At the beginning of this post, I asked you to picture the face of a sexual abuse or sexual assault survivor. Whether you pictured someone you knew, someone you don't know, or a person in the abstract, I hope this post has encouraged you to think about how survivors deserve to be heard on their own terms, without judgment. By affirming this courageous step, they can feel empowered to continue to do whatever they need to help themselves recover from these heinous acts.
Every person faces their own personal challenges in life that we may never know about. It is incumbent on all of us to be kind to each other so that we do not add to these challenges.
We are here to listen
If you or someone you love has been sexually abused and don't know where to turn for help, please contact Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein Lawyers, and we will be here to listen.