Coming clean about child sexual abuse – or not
Sidra Bibi*(*not her real name) was a young girl living with her parents and siblings in Lahore when she suffered sexual abuse, and the trauma has lived with her over the years. “My mother, my father, my aunts and my uncles all connived to protect my paternal grandfather, who was abusing me, my sister and our female cousins since we were six or seven years old,” Sidra, now 30 and married, said. The grandfather, she added, asked the girls to masturbate him, then committed anal penetration on Sidra and her cousin.
“We were asked to keep quiet as the truth would destroy the family,” said Sidra, who is certain the matter was discussed among the adults in the family, but no action taken as “my grandfather was a respected elder”. Sidra has also never told her husband what she experienced, but says she is “very protective” of her own small daughter.
Sidra is just one victim. According to media reports, sexual abuse is not uncommon in Pakistan and ranges from harassment to incest.
Some traditional leaders, however, deny that sexual abuse happens. “Look, these things don’t happen here. It is all Western propaganda. Muslim women here are safe at home, and I always advise people to ensure their daughters, wives and sisters stay home – except for school, or maybe to visit a close relative. They are unsafe beyond their homes,” said Maulvi Abdul Haq, a prayer leader at a local mosque.
2,303 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the national press in 2011, including 56 cases of incest.
Even now, this is an issue people cover up because of the social stigma and pressures involved. Many more cases occur than are reported, sometimes because they occur in remote areas where the media cannot reach, and in other cases because people prefer not to speak out.
Aliya Abbas, a head teacher at a private school in Lahore, recalled a seven-year-old pupil who complained about sexual abuse inflicted by her older brother. “Her mother insisted the child was lying, and when I told her there were signs of abuse in terms of her behaviour, she removed her from my school. I often wonder how that child has fared and if she ever spoke of her experience again,” he said.
Experts say the effect of this forced silence can be traumatic. Sexual abuse, especially incest, can leave very deep scars – even though these may on the surface be invisible. “I have treated traumatized adult women, who are unable to articulate what happened to them even 20-30 years after the incest they suffered. This bottling up of a deeply emotional event just makes matters worse,” one psychiatrist said.
“I have never spoken to anyone about what happened. Even my mother never mentions it. The events were too shameful,” said Sidra.
Obstacles to justice
In 2011, a study [ http://www.equalitynow.org/sites/default/files/Struggle%20for%20Justice_Incest%20Victims%20in%20Pakistan.pdf ] by the international human rights monitoring NGO Equality Now!, found that victims of sexual violence faced “numerous obstacles in their pursuit of justice”.
The study said the police, medical examiners and others were reluctant to believe stories about incest, which means even those who report cases struggle to obtain support. “Societal stigma presents obstacles at the family and community level as well as the justice system,” the study noted.
“To be associated with such a crime is considered a source of shame, and families cover up the incident to protect themselves. Upon trying to seek justice rape victims are often treated in a dismissive manner, accused of lying or having somehow brought the crime upon themselves.”
Pakistan, according to UNICEF, [ http://www.unicef.org/pakistan/media_7553.htm ] has the second largest number of out-of-school children in any country – nearly 25 million. Of these, seven million are of primary school-age and 60 percent are girls.
A Troubled Silence
Recently, in the United States, revelation of widespread child abuse at the elite Horace Mann School in New York City, most of it occurring during the 1970s and ’80s, is only the most recent instance of men coming forward, many years after the fact, with horrific stories of sexual molesting from their childhood.
Most of those accused of the abuse in the Horace Mann case are dead, but under New York State law, if alive they would most likely be safe from justice. The state’s statute of limitations on child abuse is five years from the victim’s 18th birthday. After age 23, the victim has no recourse.
Yet young adults, particularly men, who suffer the aftereffects of abuse are rarely in an emotional state to bring charges. Given what we now know about why it takes victims so long to come forward, the law needs to be changed.
Many people cast a skeptical eye on those who wait so long to reveal instances of child abuse, particularly when it happened to them as teenagers. They assume that accusers are making it up, blaming what were at most minor incidents for their troubles.
Psychiatrists say that the victims spend years putting their emotions in a deep freeze or masking post-traumatic reactions with self-defeating behaviors like compulsive gambling and substance abuse. Eventually, they are forced by internal or external events to find treatment.
The men abuse victims suffer even more. Even in 2012, we are socialized to think that “real men” should be resilient, and certainly not victims. For a man to acknowledge sexual victimhood, even to himself, is to say he is not really male.
What’s more, conventional wisdom says abuse turns a boy gay, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Straight boys wonder why they were chosen for sexual victimization, afraid they might be gay. Gay boys may feel rushed into defining themselves as gay or decide that abuse caused their orientation, complicating their ability to develop positive identities as gay men.
Even worse, perhaps, and again without evidence, common folklore tells us that sexually abused boys almost inevitably grow up to be sexually abusing men. This terrifies a male victim, even if he has no thought of becoming a sexual predator. He worries he may become predatory without volition or warning, or that others will assume he is an abuser if they know his history.
Finally, since boyhood abuse was not part of the public conversation until recently, many boys and men assumed their experiences were repulsive and aberrant. And a man who has not talked about it might feel it would be humiliating to first disclose it in middle age or later.
Needless to say, the decades spent trying to bury the memories rarely work. Men who are sexually abused and who remain mute become isolated, frightened of emotions and hypervigilant.
Things may be changing, thanks, in part, to the recent spate of abuse revelations. Many older victims have gained the courage to come forward. But more needs to be done. Every year since 2005, Margaret M. Markey, a New York State assemblywoman, has introduced a bill to extend the statute of limitations for five more years, a modest increase; it would also create a one-year window for adults up to age 53 to bring charges against alleged abusers. The bill has passed the Assembly four times but has consistently been blocked from coming to the floor of the Senate, largely thanks to fierce lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has yet to take a position on the bill.
The stories of abuse at Horace Mann and elsewhere are truly horrifying. But the victims will have done a great service if their actions persuade others to come forward — and the State Legislature to, at long last, set a realistic statute of limitations for going after their abusers.
Richard B. Gartner is a psychologist and psychoanalyst and the author of “Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse.”