Societal Denial and Our Role
How society views child abuse has changed dramatically over the years. In the 70s and before, there was nearly complete denial, a virtual "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. In the 80s, reports of abuse shot up in frequency, the pendulum swung in the other direction and survivors were often validated. In the 90s, there was an appreciation that memories are malleable and some cases called into question the whole abuse "movement." Survivors, as well as the mental health community, were put on the defensive. Consequently, it was unpopular to be a survivor in the 90s.
In the past decade, we have reached a sort of middle ground. While a final destination has not been achieved, there is momentum. In which direction are we moving? Are we moving in a direction that tends to help or hurt children? What about survivors? I think these are questions whose answers are outstanding.
The pessimistic view is that while children are technically protected by a slew of laws and safeguards, things may not really be that different now. Only time will tell, of course.
Yes, children are taught about safety in school. There is mandatory reporting. On the whole, those are good. But I do believe that one of the consequences of mandatory reporting is that child protection agencies are overworked and understaffed. As a result, judgment calls need to be made, and who falls through the cracks? Like many well meaning responses, we may not be giving the effort enough of a priority.
Another contributor, which effects survivors negatively, is that I believe collective societal denial is still as strong as ever. In my own hometown in 2007, as an example, there was a public case of child sexual abuse at a gymnastics school. Many young women came forward telling of abuse from a decade or more ago; their stories were consistent. There was also a visual confirmation of physical abuse in the present day. When the case hit the press, the reaction from many (but certainly not all) of the gym parents was: "Not true. They are lying. He's such a nice guy. It's all misinterpreted and taken out of context." What was most distressing was that the ones who were closest to the situation were most in denial!
For me, this was a tipping point in my healing journey. I suddenly broke my silence and spoke up publicly. I came out of the shadows. And learned that to heal you cannot be in the shadows. I learned that to heal, you have to validate your own experiences, else you will be continually seduced by denial.
I was not an activist. I simply wrote a letter in our local paper, stood up for the victims and said that I understood the pain that comes from child abuse. And I was not as shy to bring up the scandal when I talked in public. For this, I got a whole spectrum of responses from hate mail to support.
I learned that there are basically two sets of people when it comes to child abuse. One with their eyes open and one with their eyes closed. For me, this helped me appreciate why we are at a crossroads now in our society.
We can only hope that more and more people are having their eyes opened. That the momentum is in the direction of increasing protection of children. And further, for those who are not protected, that the barriers to healing are not as high.
We can do our part, too. I am not narcissistic enough to think that my speaking up here will change the world. But I do believe that the more of us there are speaking the truth in whatever way we are most comfortable, the more we can help push things in the right direction.
When we keep our eyes open, when we seek healing, when we validate our experiences and the effects of our experiences, then we are unquestionably making a positive difference.
This post was partly written in response to the discussions in a recent post titled Pediatric Symptom Checklist.