An invaluable power that comes with great responsibility
Early on, survivors of childhood sexual abuse face a dilemma that can have serious consequences on their lives: whether to disclose or hide the events experienced. Those who disclose are at great risk of facing a negative and unsupportive reaction from their confidant. These reactions may hinder their recovery, retraumatize them or even prevent them from seeking professional help.
In Quebec, approximately one out of four people who have been sexually abused in childhood will never disclose the experience1 . Of those who do disclose, one out of two will wait more than 5 years before talking about it1 . The question then becomes, why do so many survivors of childhood sexual abuse not disclose or wait so long to disclose? This question is fundamental because it leads us to reflect collectively on our openness to discuss a taboo subject that profoundly shakes our values: sexual abuse. Indeed, many survivors are reluctant to disclose because they fear not being believed, being held responsible for the event, or potentially breaking up their family by revealing the identity of their abuser2 . Many prefer to carry the weight of their trauma to avoid a reaction perceived as harmful by their close ones or to protect them from the "bomb effect" of disclosure. However, the disclosure of sexual abuse and an adequate supportive response are fundamental elements that contribute to the recovery and healing of survivors3 .
Disclosure of sexual abuse: A burden that can be lightened or accentuated
Disclosure is generally a significant and sometimes stressful experience for some survivors, as they may be confronted with unsupportive reactions from their loved ones3 . Receiving such a testimony can provoke strong reactions, especially from loved ones, who may be affected by the events and caught off guard, not knowing how to react. Some people may react in unsupportive ways, including hostile or rejecting behaviors, disbelieving, or blaming survivors, minimizing, or normalizing the sexual abuse, changing the subject, or even refusing to talk about it3 . These negative reactions can increase distress and depressive, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms that may already be present in survivors1 ,4 . Moreover, this type of reaction can strongly discourage survivors from seeking help5 , leading them to cope with the consequences of their trauma alone.
The positive reactions (see examples below) are more about emotional and tangible support, as well as a calm and caring attitude that gives space to the survivor's emotions. These reactions encourage discussion about the events. They can also contribute to the survivor's recovery by allowing them to make sense of their story and possibly reinterpret it, for example, by recognizing the sole responsibility of the person who committed the act3 . Finally, it allows survivors to feel listened to, believed, considered and validated1 ,6 . Survivors who received positive feedback are reported to have fewer psychological, relational, and sexual consequences compared to survivors who did not receive such feedback4 .
Preferred responses to disclosures of sexual abuse
Strength in numbers: Working together to support survivors' recovery
First and foremost, promoting a better social response to sexual abuse involves understanding that children have limited resources to protect themselves from sexual abuse, and face many barriers to disclosure. Children need caring adults who will open the dialogue about sexual abuse in an age-appropriate way in order to prevent it or to encourage them to talk about it if it happens. For example, it is important to educate children about the importance of talking to a trusted adult when they are in situations that make them feel uncomfortable, as well as about respecting their bodies and their privacy7 .
Adults who disclose need to be listened to, believed, and respected regardless of their decision, but also to be told clearly that they are not responsible for the events. The fact remains that the disclosure of sexual abuse can also affect the person who receives it. Nevertheless, when someone does not feel prepared to respond well, it is important that they encourage the survivor to talk about the events to someone else they trust or refer them to specialized support resources. Together, we have the power to contribute to the recovery of sexual abuse survivors.
*Roxanne Guyon was awarded the Relève-étoile Paul-Gérin Lajoie prize from the Fonds de recherche du Québec for the scientific article she disseminated in this blog. She would also like to thank the organization of Com-Sci-Con (science communication event), which allowed her to receive comments on this text.
- 1 a b c d Hébert, M., Tourigny, M., Cyr, M., McDuff, P., & Joly, J. (2009). Prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and timing of disclosure in a representative sample of adults from Quebec. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(9), 631-636. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 070674370905400908
- 2McElvaney, R., Greene, S., & Hogan, D. (2014). To tell or not to tell? Factors influencing young people’s informal disclosures of child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(5), 928-947. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260513506281
- 3 a b c d Guyon, R., Fernet, M., Dussault, É., Gauthier-Duchesne, A., Cousineau, M. M., Tardif, M., & Godbout, N. (2021). Experiences of disclosure and reactions of close ones from the perspective of child sexual abuse survivors: a qualitative analysis of gender specificities. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 30(7), 806-827. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2021.1942369
- 4 a b Therriault, C., Bigras, N., Hébert, M., & Godbout, N. (2020). All involved in the recovery: Disclosure and social reactions following sexual victimization. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 29(6), 661-679. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926771.2020.1725210
- 5Kennedy, A. C., Adams, A., Bybee, D., Campbell, R., Kubiak, S. P., & Sullivan, C. (2012). A model of sexually and physically victimized women’s process of attaining effective formal help over time: The role of social location, context, and intervention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1), 217-228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-012-9494-x
- 6Gagnier, C., & Collin-Vézina, D. (2016). The disclosure experiences of male child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 25(2), 221-241. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2016.1124308
- 7Craig, E. (2022). Teaching safeguarding through books: a content analysis of child sexual abuse prevention books. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2021.1985672
Roxanne Guyon, M.A. in sexology, is a doctoral student in sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her research interests include the interpersonal and sexual trauma experiences in childhood or adolescence, notably, the short- and long- term consequences on relationships and sexuality, as well as the adaptation and recovery of survivors. She also works as an educator for the Montreal Youth Centers, where she intervenes directly with youth housed in residential care.