Disclosing sexual abuse refers to communicating a sexual abuse experience to friends, family or the authorities.
Disclosure of child sexual abuse is a complicated process which depends upon a host of factors, such as abuse characteristics, the amount of fear or violence associated with the abuse, etc. Oftentimes, Children do not disclose abuse because they are afraid of the perpetrator who physically coerced or harmed them, or because they are threatened with consequences of disclosure that involve harm to family members or to self. Therefore, it is predictable that the more severe or frightening the abuse or the more the child is threatened post-abuse, the less likely the child would be to disclose.
Research shows that many children do not disclose sexual abuse immediately after the abuse occurs. In fact, many children do not disclose the abuse for years, if they disclose at all. Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse have never disclosed their abuse to anyone. In addition to being developmentally vulnerable, children are often manipulated to feel guilty or responsible for the abuse. These children may fear the disclosure will not be believed, and they may be concerned about consequences for the perpetrator, as often the perpetrators are familiar figures who develop complex, confusing, and ambivalent relationships with the child.
Children who had experienced greater severity of abuse are more likely to feel they cannot talk to anyone about the abuse, and they are less likely to talk to a parent or family member. Those who do not disclose immediately have more major depressive episodes and delinquency. If the Children were victimized by family members, they have far more negative consequences if they delay disclosure. These consequences include, symptoms of PTSD, negativity in childhood and self-blame, etc. Prompt disclosure buffers the impact of severe abuse, it also makes it less likely that there will be additional abuse.
Factors associated with non-disclosure of sexual abuse:
- Many children do try to tell but are not heard or no action is taken.
- Disclosure is determined by an interplay of child characteristics, family environment, community influences and societal attitudes
- There could be threats to the child, fear of the perpetrator, a lack of opportunity, a lack of understanding of child sexual abuse or a relationship with the perpetrator.
- Shame and fear of causing trouble in the family is also a huge factor, including fear of their parent’s reaction.
- Many children do not disclose out of concern about consequences for others.
- Children who are abused by a family member are less likely to disclose and more likely to delay disclosure than those abused by someone outside the family.
- Males report being reluctant to disclose because they fear being labeled a homosexual or a victim. Females delay disclosure because they feel responsibility for the abuse, and fear not being believed.
- The duration of abuse – one-off incidents of abuse compared with abuse that takes place over a significant period of time is also an important factor.
Other factors, such as culture and religion, may also influence willingness to report experiences of Child Sexual Abuse. Although no one value is exclusive to a particular culture, issues and values may weigh differently in different cultures and influence the ability to disclose. Examples of potential barriers to disclosure include:
- The roles of modesty; taboos and shame.
- Sexual scripts that normalize Child Sexual Abuse (e.g, it is normal for men to want sex, so abuse is a girl’s fault for tempting a man).
- The emphasis on virginity and honor.
- Girls’ reports of Child Sexual Abuse being discounted as fabricated because of their lower status within a community.
- Fear that disclosure would lead to obligations to avenge lost honor through further violence.
- Respect for elders and filial piety.
- The influence of religious beliefs and teachings.
Practitioners in the field of child development and parenting should incorporate child sexual abuse prevention and intervention strategies into parenting programs and resources. Programs and resources need to convey a number of important concepts:
- First and foremost, parents and other caregivers should never assume that a child would disclose to them if they were sexually abused.
- Caregivers of all kinds should teach children about child sexual abuse beginning at a very early age, as age-appropriate. Children who understand what sexual abuse is are more likely to disclose.
- Parents and other caregivers should look for non-verbal and indirect signs that could indicate child sexual abuse.
- Parents and other caregivers should be aware that disclosure may take place over a period of time, and may include recantations and inconsistencies.
- Parents and other caregivers should regularly ask the children in their care if they have been sexually abused, as age-appropriate.
- If a child does disclose, the parent or caregiver must be supportive and calm.
- Parenting public awareness campaigns should include a “Talk to your Children about Sexual Abuse” message. There is evidence that public awareness campaigns targeting children, parents and communities are an effective tool in the prevention of child abuse.
The impact of the first disclosure often determines whether the survivor will tell again. On one hand, negative responses from others may act as a deterrent to further disclosure and result in feelings of isolation and distress, as well as distrust of others. On the other hand, survivors who receive negative responses from professionals after disclosure tend to consult more professionals until they receive a positive response.
Positive responses to the disclosure has several effects on survivors’ well-being. Each telling enables the survivor to incorporate more insights into his or her story and eventually change the narrative (e.g., growing from feelings of self-blame in the abuse to understanding that only the offender should be held accountable). The repeated telling of the story has been interpreted by survivors as a healing experience.