Societal Denial and Our Role

| By Paul | | Comments (8)

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.


Evan said:

I think the next big step is for men to start reporting. So I think your letter was/is important. I think the men are a generation behind the women in this.

At the personal level we can make it known to our friends that we are willing to offer refuge to those who need to escape abuse and that we will offer what support we can to those coming to terms with their past. And yes, this will mean changing how we organise our lives.

It is at the personal level that major attitude change usually occurs.

It is important to realise that abusers are 'nice people'. This isn't mentioned much, I'm not sure how we do educating about it. but I do think it is very important. The demonising of abusers means building up the expectation that they walk around wearing black hats and looking different. Perhaps a campaign highlighting that the great majority of abuse is domestic and that the great majority of sexual abuse is incest would have this effect. (I'm quite sure that no government would have the courage to do this.)

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Evan:

Evan, Thank you. I agree with you that men are behind women. I think with the Catholic Church scandal, this was made easier for some of us. But men are behind women for good reasons, all of which you are well aware of and I'm not sure are going to change anytime soon. I think there's a systemic belief that if someone acts "nice", they are safe. Of course we can't go around thinking everyone is an abuser. But this is where, as you said, personal change comes in... being aware, always. One of the problems, though, is that those of us who have been through a lot usually have a more keen sense of awareness. It's not something you can easily teach others.

castorgirl said:

I hope I don't cause offence, but while I agree with what you are saying about men needing to speak up; I think that the problem of abuse is only going to be addressed when society values the rights of the individual - irrespective of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation or beliefs. Too often, children are seen as a commodity, or not being capable to experience a full range of emotions. We all know this is not true.

This is why I like UNICEF's Convention on the Rights of the Child, it's about the rights of the child to live a life free of harm and to participate fully in society. It's about protecting the child from any form of abuse, and setting up the policies which are meant to ensure that goal of protection is met. I know that there are still shortfalls in the Convention, but it highlights the need for the child to be safe from abuse - no matter whether they are a girl or a boy. It also makes the age, gender and relation that the abuser has towards the child, irrelevant.

You mention the under resourced child protection services Paul, and that is a huge issue here. We've had several well known cases where children have been murdered due to the incompetence and shortcomings of our protection services. I know this isn't unique to where I live. It's heartbreaking to know that you can report your suspicions, and the agencies won't have the resources to do anything but a cursory look into the situation.

I do think that people, like yourself, who take the risk of speaking out publicly, do create a shift in thinking. It's one thing to read the child abuse statistics, it's another to met a person who is a survivor and able to communicate the effects of that abuse. You never know who you will reach when you blog and speak out. Someone suffering in silence might feel less alone, and be encouraged to seek help... someone might be more likely to report a child they're worried about...

We still have a long way to go in destroying the stereotypes about which children are likely to be abused, and by whom.

Take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

CG: Very well said. This is another area where we can work to change things. If we experience abuse (or even if we don't) and we dedicate ourselves to the values you state (respect of the child), then we are making a change. I applaud steps like UNICEF are making, but it's sad that any of that has to be even said. Thank you for your kind comments about how it means something to speak up in places like this. I think it's true. I think it all comes down to the individual. The problem will be healed when individuals make changes. There are no amount of rules that will shift things.

Michael said:

I do not think or feel that those in authority doctors, nurses, law enforcement, social services, legislators, the courts, school counselors, teachers or clergy will make any changes on their own accord. In my opinion those considered leaders are more often followers.

Two examples;

The false memory syndrome and that DID is really a construct of the therapeutic relationship (acknowledging this does happen) was driven by fear caused by a court case in NH where the therapist was convicted of malpractice for going against the norm.

That a mental health professional must report if they believe a person is a danger to themselves or others is based on a court case in CA.

I think and feel authority will change only when those that they have authority over demand it to the point where it is in the best interest of those in authority. See Catholic church.

This is not to say that those in authority do not have a role. That role is to give the people the government they deserve.

I think and feel that progress is being made. It is driven by those that speak out, a often more than thankless position to take.

I without anger or preaching in my conversation with people try and inform the best I can. That females do abuse is becoming more accepted. Ritual abuse is lagging well behind other types of trauma.

The understanding that people can heal from trauma did not come from studies it came from people having the courage to heal and those therapists that have the courage to go outside the norm and help people realize this healing.

Journalist have a role at which they are failing miserably. I have a belief that the internet is making an impact.

On a very basic level it is about knowing that children are individuals and not an extension of the adults in their life.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Michael:

Michael: Thanks for saying your opinion. In a sense, this is how it works. Public opinion informs policy to a great extent. We don't have laws aimed at fixing the problems of seniors driving until there are accidents and people complain. Governments appear to me to be only reactionary that will impact their public opinion. But, in the case of child abuse, I don't see any public groundswell. And I think that has to do with the societal denial issues I brought up in the original posting. I love what you said here: "On a very basic level it is about knowing that children are individuals and not an extension of the adults in their life." My greatest joys in life come not from seeing my kids emulating me, but by thinking and doing for themselves in their own way. My guess is that that's not the norm. Though I think we all would agree that it absolutely should be.

katie said:

hi paul~ thank you for this post. for your bravery and honesty speaking out about your life here and in the rest of your life.

i still feel shame and struggle with minimizing what i experienced, because it's not "abuse" the way abuse is often thought of i think, i.e. extreme. i did experience a toxic and damaging environment, boundaries were crossed, i felt unsafe, have suffered at various times in my life from depression and ptsd symptoms, though have never been diagnosed with any disorders, yet i struggle with feeling torn about being open about my life and feeling like i have no right because what i lived through isn't as bad as what other people have. that their pain is legitimate. mine is not.

one thing you wrote here pinpoints something that has comforted me lately about all this. you wrote:

speaking the truth in whatever way we are most comfortable

and that is part of what has helped me lately. to honor my instincts and if there is a level i'm not comfortable being open at this point, to accept that this is ok. it's ok to respect my own feelings of discomfort, and that doesn't necessarily mean i'm feeding my shame. we all have our limits on what we feel comfortable sharing and we needn't feel bad about ourselves for what feels too vulnerable.

the other thing that has helped me is TO find ways to speak up, but in ways i do feel comfortable, to not live in shame. because i believe it is likely there are other people out there who lived with the same life experiences as me. and if i'm silent and ashamed, then in some ways, if i don't speak up, then what kind of example am i setting?

there are people all over the world who suffer in similar ways, and some in unique ways, but silence helps no one. i think you're right, that the more each of us is willing to share the ways we've been hurt, the less alone and the more healed we'll all be.

wishing you well~~~

Paul Author Profile Page replied to katie:

Katie, Thank you! Remember, "extreme" is relative. Most of us, "extreme abuse" or not, are hurt in some way. Most of us, "extreme abuse" or not, need to heal. I'm glad you are giving yourself permission to do that.

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This page contains a single entry published on July 26, 2010 11:45 AM.

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