It’s Not Something You Can Just Share on Facebook. On the Difficulty of Talking About Childhood Sexual Abuse

By Maggie Studholme

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’

Wittgenstein, Tractatus 7

I have found it almost overwhelmingly difficult to write/speak the sentence ‘I was sexually abused as a child’. But why, in a societal atmosphere in which ‘abuse’ now makes frequent appearances in the mainstream media, and in which others have also begun to voice, publicly, assaults that were previously unspeakable (for example, #metoo), does it remain so difficult to ‘tell’?

After more than half a lifetime in which, one way or another, I have ‘contained’ this huge secret – one that I have learnt has the capacity to shock and horrify people, I have begun to want to ‘come out’. My reasoning is that speaking publicly about the abuse will somehow diminish its power, and allow me finally to face up to and deal with its negative effects, which persist even 50 years on. Among these effects, I have recently become horribly aware of my irrational inability to submit to general anaesthesia (my body revolts physically at the prospect of being touched while unconscious) – and that this ‘failure’ to submit to a needed medical procedure could end up killing me.

Might coming out be a cure? Is it possible that speaking openly of things that happened to me when I was a very small child might mend what has always been broken inside me? In desperation, I have thought about posting this ‘news’ on Facebook. While this would avoid the inevitable awkwardness of having to bring up the subject in conversation, personal experience suggests that as well as expressions of sympathy for me and/or of anger towards my abuser, some (maybe many) of the people I know would more or less openly prefer me to ‘just shut up about it’.

Just shutting up about it has been, historically, society’s way of dealing with child sexual abuse (CSA). In 1896, for example, at the Vienna Neurological Society, Freud presented a paper that outlined his seduction theory, which suggested that hysteria was the result of children’s ‘premature sexual experience’ (in other words: fathers’ abuse of their daughters). He expected his paper to generate discussion but was met with stony silence, and soon abandoned the theory, publicly announcing in 1905 that he had overrated the importance of seduction. Based on his reading of Freud’s unpublished letters, the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson has suggested that Freud withdrew the theory because he feared the disapproval of his colleagues, and Freud himself appears to have worked actively to suppress and discredit the work of his disciple, Sándor Ferenczi, who believed that sexual trauma was ‘the pathogenic factor’ in neurosis. After this, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, post-Freudian psychoanalysis paid little or no attention to childhood trauma, while Freud’s own work was used selectively to discredit allegations of abuse.

In spite of active political campaigning by feminists and child protectionists, and the establishment of a Joint Select Committee on Sexual Offences against Young Persons, which reported in 1925, many in the medical profession, as in psychoanalysis, found the sexual abuse of children unthinkable. Venereal disease among young girls in children’s homes was attributed to ‘innocent’ transmission via towels and lavatories. Children who lived at home were said to have caught STDs just from sleeping in the same bed as their parents. Because fathers had inalienable rights over their children, Smart further suggests that even where they actively suspected the sexual abuse of a child by its parent, doctors were faced with a choice between speaking out and being able to treat the child, as an accused father could simply withdraw the child from treatment. Thus, professional silence became the norm.

While the 1925 report of the Joint Committee acknowledged the traumatic effect on children of both abuse, and being made to give evidence about abuse, the legal profession remained highly resistant to reform, believing children to be either ‘vicious’ or ‘mendacious’, and this seems to have been why nothing much changed in attitudes to abuse between 1920 and 1960.

By the 1980s, evidence was mounting that childhood trauma, including sexual abuse, far from being harmless, could have devastating long term effects, and the scope of what was considered abuse had expanded. In the 1990s, as people began to speak out about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on their lives and relationships (and some of them took their abusers to court), the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and others began to cast doubton the idea that individuals sometimes repressed traumatic memories, which could then resurface years later. Via a series of experiments, she developed the concept of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ (FMS), which suggested that people could be encouraged to form false memories for things that happened in childhood. In the 2000s, in the wake of the Savile Affair, the sociologist Frank Furedi reframed societal concern with the sexual abuse of children as a moral panic. The number of ‘public enquiries’ into historical allegations of abuse, for Furedi, represented an ‘institutional means to… manage public mistrust’ in institutions of governance, a view that appears to ‘sidestep’ concern for victims themselves. Loftus’ mentor and colleague, Richard McNally, claims to have resolved the controversy about ‘false memory’ by asserting that people forget childhood sexual abuse in the ‘normal’ way because it is not experienced as traumaticOther experts in the field, by contrast, continue to suggest that children use repression and dissociation as strategies to survive terrifying events that they do not understand, or suffer from PTSD with traumatic amnesia.

From the shocked refusal of Freud’s audience to countenance even the idea of abuse, through decades of silent acceptance or inability to act on the part of professionals and others, adults’ sexual molestation of children appears largely to have gone unchallenged, despite the fact that it was both illegal and considered morally wrong. Until feminism’s challenge to patriarchy in the 1960s and beyond, when sexual abuse began to be understood as abuse, there existed an anomalous situation in which people knew it happened and considered it ‘wrong’, but in which it was spoken of by neither abusers, nor victims, nor by those around victims (parents or professionals for example), who knew of or suspected, the abuse. In the space left by this silence, sexual abusers remained free to abuse.

According to the NSPCC, more than 3000 children were on child protection registers in mid 2015, in a category that included CSA, a figure that is almost certainly much lower than the real number, since the same source reports that 1 in 3 sexually abused children do not tell. Accordingly, in a societal atmosphere in which sexual abuse makes frequent appearances in the mainstream media, and in which both men and women have begun to make public their own experiences of abuse, it remains a subject about which it is still difficult to speak at all, and almost impossible to speak freely.

In exploring the reasons why I have stayed silent about my own memories of abuse for the last 25 years, my aim is not limited to elucidating the reasons why it is difficult to tell, but also to explore, from a personal perspective, some of the issues raised by commentators like McNally, Loftus and Furedi – whose work seems to suggest that the contemporary concern with the impact of CSA is overblown, that recovered memories might be false memories, and that memory is in any case a highly unreliable resource. On the other hand, that we still routinely warn our children against ‘stranger danger’, when there is a far greater chance that they will be abused by someone they know and trust, and in their own homes – illustrates how far we are from properly acknowledging (and therefore being able to prevent) the sexual abuse of children. Perhaps, if we cannot bring ourselves, individually and collectively, to speak openly about the sexual abuse of children – we are co-offending or colluding with the perpetrators?

In what follows, I begin by outlining, both the ‘what’ of my experience and the ‘how’ of remembering. I have done this for two reasons. ‘What’ is important, because the most commonly used definition of sexual abuse encompasses a wide range of assaults, from unwanted touching, through forced exposure to pornographic material, to rape and other violent sexual assault. Recent news coverage of high profile cases likewise includes wide-ranging allegations, which seems to invite us to discriminate between serious and less serious types of sexual abuse. Thus, while multiple factors (including the relationship of the child to their abuser, the child’s age at the time, and what happens when victims speak out) can have an effect on its long-term impact, and it is thus neither straightforward nor even advisable to attempt to ‘rank’ the severity of child sexual abuse, recounting the ‘what’ of the abuse enables the reader to decide for themselves what they think about it. I do not remember whether my abuser was violent towards me, though he nevertheless damaged me physically. I have tried below to offer an account that is factual, and neither emotional nor of a kind to arouse a salacious interest. Second, because of the controversy about the veracity of recovered memories, I also recount below the occasion on which I spontaneously recovered my ‘lost’ memories. The emotions associated with this remembering are relevant because they help to explain why I told no one for many years afterwards.

The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of being sexually abused and of recovering memories of abuse begin to offer some insight into my reasons for remaining silent. The experience of ‘telling’ suggests further reasons why speaking about being abused is so difficult. I conclude with a plea for greater open-ness about CSA and its individual and societal impact, and while acknowledging that this raises other issues, at least in the short term, argue that we should err on the side of believing those who are more vulnerable.

Remembering Abuse

I spontaneously recovered memories of being sexually abused as a small child when I was in my mid 30s. The first memory I recovered is this: I am standing on something (the windowsill? our twin tub washing machine?) looking out of the kitchen window into the dark yard. Arthur stands behind me, with one arm around my waist and the other up my nightdress. He has (what I now assume to have been) a finger in my vagina. I am uncomfortable and the feeling I have is of needing to pee. Headlights sweep into view and I am lifted down from the windowsill. I am about three years old. The memory ends there. A second memory is similar, but the location and time of day is different and I am several years older.

In the mundane everyday activity of hanging out washing in the garden at home, on a sunny summer afternoon, these memories surfaced with the suddenness of a slap. Among the washing was a stuffed elephant toy from a box of old things at my mother’s house. As I pegged it to the line by its ears, its naked grey trunk was level with my face. Its blue corduroy trousers were sewn into place with childlike stitches, so that they would not come off. I remembered sewing the trousers and I remembered the elephant’s name. It was called Arthur (my abuser’s name). That object was enough to start a flood of remembering. It was unwanted, stigmatising, shameful – I felt disgusted and repulsed by the thought of what had happened. I felt soiled by this unwanted intrusion into an everyday life in which I was too busy to think about it (it was unthinkable). I did not want to acknowledge it and I told no one (it was unspeakable). But I could not re-forget.

Narrating Sexual Abuse

I kept the memories to myself for about 10 years, pushing them down repeatedly into a mental background from which they often surfaced unwanted. I pretended to myself that what had happened was ‘nothing’.

In my mid-40s I was interviewed by the police, after a close relative had spoken to them about being sexually abused by the same man. Fighting down revulsion at the idea of disclosing what I had kept carefully hidden, I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, trying to answer (as if they were the sort of mundane everyday questions that people discuss in that most mundane of environments), the questions of a specialist female police officer. The memories of abuse, spoken out loud – in the context of searching questions about our family history, threatened to derail me. Factual details I had not recalled – the abuser’s last name, his smell, the names of his wife and children, more details about the assaults, were asked for and brought to mind with a speed and clarity that surprised me – it was all still there, so very close to the surface, even though I had never spoken of it to anyone. My personality, self-image and identity felt compromised by the stigma and the secret of the abuse. Without properly acknowledging it to myself, I had been living for years with powerful feelings of guilt and shame that had spread into almost every aspect of my life. Did my failure to tell anyone about the memories of abuse make me complicit, a willing participant? Was I somehow guilty, at age 3, of colluding with my abuser? Did I encourage it to happen?

Talking about it to a policewoman – creating a narrative of abuse, ought to have been a ‘fateful moment’, a space in which to begin to construct an alternate reality – in which the abuse was reconstituted as a criminal assault on a small child. That vision did, for a while afterwards, flash briefly into mind whenever I saw young children. How very small and ‘child-like’ they really were, how vulnerable and unknowing; it was unimaginable that anyone could want to do to a child what had been done to me – but I could never hold on to the idea of myself as a child – with a child’s understanding and view of the world. Feelings of dirtiness and shame reassert themselves as the child and the adult become intertwined; the childish mind surfaces where the adult should be, and the adult becomes culpable by taking the place of the child. After the police interview, I tried once or twice to talk to particular people (my mother, a colleague at work, a close friend) – to make a space to discuss and re-frame the past in a way that would make it easier to live with, but I was easily put off. The friend and the colleague were dismissive. My mother slid between acknowledgement and incredulity. I felt they would all rather ‘it’ went away. Not knowing how to go forward from there – and reluctant to wreck our family history by rewriting it, I tried unsuccessfully to put the memories back where they came from.

It is difficult to explain how, for long periods of time, I can have simultaneously accepted our family narrative of ‘normality’ (a happy childhood) and at the same time unconsciously (and consciously!) known and shown through behavioural, bodily and emotional signs, that something else was (also) true. Nevertheless, that is what I had been doing.

I have put the word (also) in parentheses above, because it seems impossible that both things (the experience of sexual abuse; a ‘normal’ family life) have an equal claim to truth. Each has the power to discredit the other. At the moment they forced themselves into the open, I avoided endowing the discrediting memories of abuse with the power to destroy my remembered past (our happy family, my privileged middle class childhood!) by boxing them up and shoving them away into a dark corner unrelated to past and present problems in my life. I brought up my children, studied, worked, and refused to think about them, but they nevertheless refused to subside. Thus, experiencing but not knowing about; remembering but refusing to acknowledge, have become long term anti-narratives of sexual abuse – of childhood experiences that I only gradually came to acknowledge have shaped the anxious, defensive, depressed, self-loathing, self-sabotaging and self-isolating parts of me that take so much energy and effort (not always successfully) to suppress.

Invisibility/Silence and Power

I have tried repeatedly to imagine how my abuser persuaded me, between ages 3 and 7, to tell no one. At 3 I would not have known that what was happening was wrong – but then why keep it a secret? The response to anyone who would question its ‘wrongness’ (for example, on the grounds that I may not have experienced the abuse as traumatic), seems to me to be an absolute: not only was there then, as now, both a universally accepted moral taboo, and a law against sexually molesting a child, but it is surely indisputable that small children’s bodies are not designed, biologically, to be sexually penetrated. Repression and dissociation seem likely mechanisms to explain my childhood silence. I don’t think I ‘knew’ what was happening even while it was ongoing. I do understand, however, why it has been impossible to speak of as an adult. Not telling about past abuse has multiple roots: a complex confusion of feelings of guilt, complicity, dirtiness, shame and stigma, the worry that I somehow ‘caused’ the abuse to happen to me; the risk that my social identity will be spoiled. This identity has been tied to my family history, my social class, my intelligence and education; the life choices that have given me a sense of personhood, of agency and autonomy. Being sexually abused strips agency away; it exposes your vulnerability, takes away autonomy, renders you absolutely powerless. This disempowerment, the inability to protest or fight back, has been expressed recently by the many women who have spoken of sexual assaults they experienced as adults. Is it worse, when it happens to a child? Andy Woodward – a sportsman, physically strong and fit, agile, powerful and in control on the football field found that the social expectations attached to his status as a sportsman made it harder to disclose his experience of abuse. To be made powerless, whether that is because you are small and defenceless and cannot stop what is happening to you or whether it is because you are frozen with fear (of being hurt, shouted at, excluded – or of what might happen if you tell) – is at the heart of what it means to be abused. It is in this context that we begin to understand why unwanted touching is part of the same definition as digital penetration or rape. It is clear to me now that my abuser groomed my parents and the other people close to our family as well as my relative and myself. He worked his way inside our family to become a trusted helper and friend, and was allowed (was paid!) to take care of we children while our parents worked or socialised. An old family cine film frames a glimpse of this man with his true social identity disguised, in our garden, feigning the role of a family friend. The cine camera was part of the way he worked his way into our family: he was always on hand to document family events –Christmases, birthdays, Grandparents’ visits, a stepsister’s wedding. Likewise, Barry Bennell, Woodward’s abuser, was his football coach, a liked, trusted and paid adult in a position of authority. Woodward recalls a pet monkey as one of the inducements Bennell used to create the friendship that led to the abuse. Arthur would bring his talking macaw and pet cockatoo round to our house.

Institutional Abuse

Multiple police investigations into allegations of historical abuse, both institutional and individual, give an indication of the scale of CSA in the recent history of our society: operations Midland, Fairbank, Athabasca, Cayacos; The Savile Affair; Rolf Harris; Barry Bennell; Ian WatkinsGary Glitter. Abuse that happens in institutions is perpetrated by people in positions of authority, who groom children and other adults into liking and trusting them. Individuals like Savile, Harris, Watkins and Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) hide in plain view behind their charisma and celebrity – while other adults who know of, or suspect, their abusive behaviour, defer judgement, or choose to say nothing, because of their fame. Nor is abuse of male and female children exclusively perpetrated by men: Ian Watkins was abetted by at least two women, one of whom was the mother of one of his victims. That child sexual abuse has remained so prevalent is not just a question, then, of an unequal power relationship between a child and an adult, but of unequal relationships of power and deference between adults themselves – between the abusers and those who silently condone their abusing behaviour. How did my parents (two highly educated, professional people, one of them a medical doctor) not know or notice that they had allowed a paedophile into their home and trusted him to look after their children? That their judgement might be so impaired must have been not just unspeakable – but unthinkable, to them. Perhaps suspicions of abuse (which my medically trained mother ought certainly to have had, since I was treated repeatedly for urinary tract infections (UTIs) over a period of years) led to denial simply because to have acknowledged them would have brought our happy family life comprehensively into question. It would have blown apart everything they took for granted about themselves: their self-belief, judgement, social identities, social status and the family life they had built. As a collective, society’s silence and refusal to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual abuse, and the desire to make light of, or ignore its harmful effects – from the reception of Freud’s conference paper to Furedi’s re-framing – makes more sense in this context: once we admit that bad things can happen to children under the very noses of their parents, that even the parents themselves can be guilty; that it can happen in the church, in schools, hospitals, care homes, sports clubs, and inside the family itself – the very foundations on which our civilization is built are brought into question.

False Memories of Sexual Abuse?

In 2005, telling my experience to the police did not result in the prosecution of my abuser. Arthur was interviewed and denied that he had committed the abuse. But the message that came back from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was that a prosecution was not in the public interest – it had happened so long ago that it would be his word against ours and the chance of a conviction was small. Although it was not spoken, the police and CPS may have been concerned that a defence barrister would cite ‘false memory syndrome’ to imply that my relative and I had fabricated what they (the police) told us were almost identical narratives.

Here then is yet another reason it is so difficult to write openly about my experience of being sexually abused. The take-home message of the work of Loftus and others is simply that memory is faulty. Far from being a snapshot of the past, they suggest – memory resembles a road full of potholes and the further back we reach, the more fragmented become our stories, which we then flesh out with ‘imaginative elaboration and confabulation’. After she received a visit from the police, who wanted to talk to her about what I had told them – my mother phoned the abuser to warn him that police were on their way to his house. Whether or not she had known about it at the time, she could not, fifty years into the future, bring herself consistently to acknowledge the possibility that the abuse had happened. To have done so would have forced her to confront two irreconcilable accounts of our family’s past. It was easier for her to deny that it had happened than to be forced to dismantle the myth of her own good motherhood. Among the first generation of women to ‘have it all’, she raised five children and had her career as a GP at a time when none of today’s safeguards (however inadequate!) existed to protect her from hiring a paedophile. But to acknowledge the truth would be to turn on its head her idea of herself and our family history. The past would be brought into question as sharply for her as it had been for me. The UTIs troubled her so significantly, however, that I think in the end she acknowledged the truth to herself, but continued to deny its significance and impact.

False Allegations and the Impact of Abuse

In recounting above what I remember about being sexually abused, I have deliberately avoided any kind of embroidery or detail of which I cannot be certain. I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I might have wanted to invent the experience of being sexually abused, but even so, how can I be sure I did not manufacture for some unconscious, warped and manipulative reason, a series of terrible things that simply did not happen?

The knowledge that at least one relative endured a similar experience at the hands of the same abuser only almost releases me from the charge of having ‘made it all up’ as the possibility remains that we could have cooked it up together.

An old friend emailed me recently, having come across a bundle of old letters from when we were young. I would laugh and cry at my misguided youthful self, she wrote. Implied in the idea of laughing was that it had all turned out OK in the end, but I was horrified to be reminded of the aspects of my past she mentioned: I remembered the youthful self of whom she wrote as an unhappy misfit who exhibited a wide range of disturbed behaviours throughout my primary and teenage years: a child who was told off in primary school for ‘inappropriate’ sexual behaviour; who by age 11 had begun to deliberately create opportunities to run out of school; who by age 16 had run away from home (it took them more than a week to find me); who regularly used marijuana, amphetamines and cocaine, rode with an ‘outlawed’ motorcycle gang, attempted suicide by overdosing on painkillers; and who eventually found herself pregnant and single. I do not think that, as a pre-adolescent or teen I had any conscious memory of being abused, although researchers have linked such disturbed behaviours with childhood trauma. Moreover, it is deeply problematic to attempt to retrospectively connect, definitively, an individual’s behaviour with having been a victim many years ago of something that is scientifically unverifiable – and the question of ‘proving’ after 50 years, that the events underlying this monstrous secret, of which only one other person can claim knowledge, actually happened, remains unanswerable. This is important because among the recent police investigations have been some which ended in exoneration of the accused, who have been understandably angry at the damage such allegations have inflicted on their lives and reputations. Operation Midland for example, not only collapsed, but the investigating officers are themselves now being investigated because a key informant turns out to have made false allegations against establishment figures including former MPs Harvey Proctor and Leon BrittonPaul Gambaccini and Sir Cliff Richard were both also subject to high profile investigations and subsequently exonerated of offences relating to child sexual abuse.


The memories I recovered are memories of real things that actually happened (no more than fragments of the whole). No one persuaded me to remember. The memories were triggered by a close encounter with an object that I had christened with the name of the perpetrator. Another person can corroborate them. But there is often no way to ‘prove’ that abuse claimed to have happened (sometimes many years) in the past actually did happen, and no way to ascertain that a recovered memory is in fact a memory of abuse. Thus, it is impossible to reconcile the interests of abused children, and adults who were abused when they were children, with the interests of those who are wrongfully accused. It is easier (if still problematic) to reconcile the interests of the falsely accused with the interests of perpetrators: both are better served by silence and denial than by openness. But putting the onus back onto the vulnerable and powerless by bringing up children to be suspicious and mistrusting, especially of the bogey-man figure of the ‘stranger’, is not useful, not only because the evidence shows that 90% of abusers are known to their victims but also because children need to be able to trust that when something is wrong they can turn to an adult (even a stranger!) for help. This leaves only the victims themselves, and those adults in the middle, who know, suspect, or intuit that something is wrong, with the power to stop abuse by ‘telling’. The extent to which we can, institutionally and individually, make telling the ‘normal’ thing to do in future will be a marker of society’s progress towards preventing CSA. To mitigate the damage done, to individual children and the social fabric as a whole, children need to be able to tell someone what is happening – not many years after the event, but in the here and now. To allow that to happen, it is vital for all the adults around them to be willing to engage in truthful and open (non-salacious, non-sensationalising, non-judgemental) conversation, in families, at school, in the church, mass media – even perhaps on social media like Facebook, which to date remains a place where perpetrators will remain free to groom children, so long as child sexual abuse remains unspeakable.

Maggie Studholme worked at the University of Bristol for more than 10 years. She is now an independent sociologist and researcher with interests that range from classical and contemporary theory to environmental issues and everyday life.

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