What can we learn from discussions about sexual abuse generated by the grand jury disclosures in the case against Jerry Sandusky at Penn State?
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I can offer the perspective of someone who knows what it is like to be enamored of an adult who befriends and then violates you. I understand what it is like not to be able to find words to describe the violation — not only of your body — but of your trust and affection.
Each survivor is unique and situations are different, but there is a common bond shared by those of us who have been sexually assaulted by someone whom we and our families knew and trusted. I was assaulted by an uncle and his friends over a period of years and never had the courage of the young men in this case to speak of it until much later in my life. I speak now to let those who have been assaulted know they are not alone and that help and healing are available.
I urge those asking questions in the Sandusky case to look less at the perpetrator and the failures of the institutions in which these assaults occurred and more at the victims to see what we need to learn:
The victims were not physically overpowered and abused by threat of physical violence.
These boys were subjected to the threat of a powerful person using his influence over their lives to control them and betray a trust. Using trust, authority and social prestige as weapons to coerce victims is much more common than assault by a stranger. Because the coercive "force" is not what we as a society expect, it is an effective weapon for the predator.
Neither victims nor predators are whom we expect.
In order to maintain feelings of personal safety — and the sense that we are able to protect our loved ones — we worry that children are at risk from strangers lurking in dark places. But the facts tell us that children are much more likely to be abused by someone whom both the child and the parent know and trust. They will assault the child over a lengthy period of time and use fear as a means of controlling and keeping a ready victim.
It is also more likely that adults will be assaulted by someone they know rather than a stranger. We think there are behaviors, apparel and locations that can be avoided that will keep us safe from assault. In other words, at some level we believe that the victim is responsible for the assault.
The predators are expected to be frightening at first sight — someone we would run from if we saw them on a dark street. However, often they are in our homes, offices, schools and churches — people who are well-respected and well-known. They cultivate an aura of unbelievability around them to keep them safe for the victims they coerce.
Silence is the power that keeps many perpetrators hidden.
Shame, embarrassment and a desire to move on cause many survivors of sexual assault to remain silent about their abuse, and this silence empowers the abuser. This silence makes the very idea of one in four girls and one in six boys being sexually abused before they turn 18 seem unbelievable. It also means most of us think we do not know anyone who has been sexually assaulted either as a child or as an adult.
The truth is we all have survivors in our daily lives, many still living with the fear that people will know what happened to them. Once survivors feel safe to speak openly of their abuse, we will all become safer because abusers will no longer be able to hide in plain sight.
Recovery, healing and a full and satisfying life are possible for those who have been sexually abused. Contact your local rape crisis center. Seek trained therapists. Find fellow survivors, and share your stories. I know this works. It worked for me.
Ken Followell, who lives in Bradenton, is president of MaleSurvivor: National Organization against Male Sexual Victimization. MaleSurvivor.org has information for male survivors of sexual assault, a discussion board and a chat room.