Mental Health

Victims of Sex Abuse: Why Don't They Tell?

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One of the things that child abuse deniers like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation focus on, besides Elizabeth Loftus's irrelevant arguments about the unreliability of memory, is the fact that many adults who claim to have been victims of incest as children did not tell any other adults about it at the time the alleged incidents took place. 

Some children do tell.  So why wouldn't the others?

A whole bunch of logical explanations have been advanced to explain why not. In an article in the December 2010 issue of Psychiatric Times, Richard Kluft lists several of them:  incomprehension, shame, fear of retaliation, and the misperception that the child is to blame.  He also mentions loyalty conflicts, but more on that in a little bit.

The statistics listed in this article, as unreliable as they may be, say that only 30% of incest victims reveal their situations, and most of the revealers are the older children and adolescents.  In almost half of these, the revelation is accidental.  Some who do reveal suffer negative consequences, such as being blamed for "seducing" the perpetrator or being accused of lying. One study showed that 52% of those who reported mistreatment to a parent were still being abused a year after the disclosure.

Many perpetrators do threaten the victim that if he or she tells, they might kill someone in the family.  Sometimes they say that the authorities will come in and break up the family - not an unlikely scenario if the child is believed and the parent who is told actually reports the perpetrator.  Other victims are told that no one will believe them.

All good explanations for why the children remain silent.  However, I think that the reason that is talked about the least may be the most important of all:  family loyalty.  Family loyalty as a major determinant of human behavior was focussed on in psychotherapy most notably by family systems pioneer Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.  It is also highly consistent with the biological evolutionary concept of kin selection.

The strength of family loyalty was illustrated by a patient I saw who had been raised by a female relative rather than by her mother because the mother was a deadbeat parent.  In an initial interview, the patient impulsively blurted out, for the very first time in her life, that the husband of this female relative had continuously molested her.  She immediately burst into tears and could not stop crying for many minutes.

One might assume that memories of the abuse had come flooding back to her and that this was the reason for the emotional breakdown, but as it turned out, that was not it at all.  The woman kept repeating, "I can't believe I told someone!  I can't believe I told someone!"  

After I calmed her down by swearing by all that was dear to me that the session was confidential and no one outside the room would ever have to know what she had revealed, she admitted that her biggest fear was that the woman who raised her would be irreparably hurt by the revelation that her husband had done what he had done.  The patient could not bare the thought that this was what might happen.  She owed the woman just too much.

As Boszormenyi-Nagy stated in his 1986 book, Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy, "Even very small children are sensitive barometers; they know when their parents are overburdened with anxiety, guilt and mistrust.  Moreover, they want to do something about it." (p.35).  If important relatives are dependent in some way on the perpetrator, children are naturally reluctant to create problems for those relationships.

Many victims of incest dissociate, or zone out, when memories of the abuse surface.  Most therapists assume that this takes place because the incest survivor is trying to avoid the pain associated with the memory.  Undoubtedly this has something to do with it.  However, I find that a much more important consideration with my patients is that they are following a family rule, and do not want to break it out of family loyalty.

When the abuse happened, they were told by the perpetrator in so many words, "This never happened."  When the survivor starts to think about the fact that the incest did indeed happen, they dissociate so that the memories begin to either take on an unreal quality or seem to disappear altogether.   Dissociating may be a way of preventing the sort of accidental revelation to others that took place as described with my patient above.