When Is It Safe to Tell a Story?

Safety First When Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

Posted Feb 27, 2018

Source: Source:Pixabay

I was thinking about the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA) as a whole, and in the context of keeping children safe during disclosure. It caused me to evaluate my intentions in writing this post. My intentions turned into a keen interest, as well as felt paralyzing. I froze. What was I doing? Why I am trying to write this blog? Will anyone care? Does it matter what happened to me over forty years ago? Who am I to tell this story—another story—there are so many now with #metoo and #timesup? The capacity to feel apathetic, cut off from one’s own feelings about significant trauma, betrayal, collusion, and abandonment is the defense of ego, of self. It is the coping mechanism I have learned to use when feeling vulnerable and at risk for exploitation.

There are moral and ethical concerns I have had when writing about my experience of sexual abuse. Deep moral questions bothered me when I set words to paper. What is my moral obligation to share my story? What is our obligation, and what is the obligation of others to protect future children? It is easier to say nothing, or do so quietly, involving as few people as possible. This is what the organizational cultures of many patriarchal institutions have constructed as an acceptable practice in handling claims of crimes against children. Where are the witnesses to these crimes? Who is bearing witness? And why don’t they speak up? It has been my experience that their silence is imposed from above, and or internalized. And what lies underneath the silence are complex relationships—typically family relationships— because children are most often sexually abused by someone they know. 

Or, as Paul Farmer in Pathologies of Power says as he describes his role as a physician working with people in under-resourced areas: “One could almost say there are two ways of knowing, and thus two ways of bearing witness. The first – to report stoic suffering of the poor – is, in every sense, as genuine as another, more freighted from knowing. That is, it is true that members of any subjugated group do not expect to be received warmly even when they are sick or tired or wounded… the silence of the poor is conditioned.” Although he is speaking about the silence of the sick and poor—this thinking can also be applied to child sexual abuse. 

Farmer goes on to say one of the most insightful things I have ever read about stoicism, the suffering in silence: “[it] runs the risk of missing the great eloquence beneath the silence.” When we scratch at this surface silence, we can trigger a painful eloquence that many of us are not prepared for. When we hear the profound and deep pain children who have been sexually abused have experienced we cringe—we close our eyes—we stifle their story and with our turning from protector to enabler, we give children another story, one that then is the second silence. The second silence is the one that is less eloquent—it is thick with details of suffering and rooted in respecting their right as a human being to be safe, healthy, and well. 

The two ways of knowing are not about understanding the details of the history or getting the story ‘right’. Farmer says, “The two ways of knowing, I have come to believe, are about linguistic competence. To get beyond the first silence requires compassion and solidarity…Bearing witness, like ‘solidarity’ and ‘compassion’, is a term worth rehabilitating. It captures both ways of knowing, both forms of silence. Bearing witness is done on behalf of them, for their sake… It needs to be done, but there is no point in exaggerating the importance of the deed. I would like to insist that, no matter how great the pain of bearing witness, it will never be as great as the pain of those who endure, whether in silence or with cries…” 

As we educate people not to be bystanders when they see or know of child sexual abuse, we must also educate them to tell children that it is not always safe to tell a story. As a witness to their story, to CSA, we, too, may have to stay silent until it is safe to tell authorities, until we know who to safely tell and how, and feel safe enough to both tell and protect. This is a reality for many “witnesses.”  Reporting is hard—it is difficult—and it has consequences, too. It is often not just a simple phone call to a child protection agency. Reporting is fraught with its own kind of stress for the reporter—will the perpetrator know who reported them?  If so, how will they interact with the perpetrator moving forward, and with the perpetrator’s family members? Stress can also be induced when a reporter questions his own perceptions of the situation—is this untoward feeling about the perpetrator correct? Did they hear the child right? What if they are wrong, and the person is innocent? 

Dr. Pamela Pine of Stop the Silence®: Stop Child Sexual Abuse, Inc. (Stop the Silence®, www.stopthesilence.org), an award-winning comprehensive, evidence-based, innovative, and creative CSA prevention and mitigation organization, has worked to help communities learn how to care for children of child sexual abuse and to properly and safely report CSA. She recommends that we – as individuals, communities, organizations, and governments – challenge ourselves to learn about CSA, know its signs and symptoms, understand what it does to the children, adults they become, families, societies… And, in that knowing and understanding, we can come to stop it, eradicate it. She notes: “It will take us all to recognize and act on this excruciating public health issue that is currently doing so much harm!”

During my lifetime, I learned that sharing the details of my own abuse can cause harm through the re-traumization of others, did not change policies, nor did it prevent others from CSA. Until recently, relaying the details of my abuse served only my own therapeutic journey with a well-trained therapist. But I have hope now, with the #metoo #metoocsa, #timesup, #churchtoo, #mosquetoo movement, that perhaps the millions of people recounting their stories can change policy, can help communities and families face this complex epidemic. These stories have the power to help us learn how to keep spaces open and be receptive to the wonderful variations of being human, and unconditionally provide safe environments for all to flourish and succeed. 

I chose to write this blog because my perspective of moral obligation has changed as I have watched this unprecedented movement unfold. Alan Wolfe, a social scientist, said it best, “...no abstract and formal rules exist specifying what we owe to others and others owe us. Instead, moral obligation ought to be viewed as a socially constructed practice, as something we learn through the actual experience of trying to live together with people.” And I believe we are moving towards a world where the individual and collective will feel the power of these stories and continue to see them as a social force to extinguish the interfamilial, political, and economic structures that have supported the risks for child sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence—all part of the larger social matrix of a rape culture. 

And finally, there is my moral integrity. I want to be a person with integrity. I want to be a person who thinks about righting wrongs. I want to be a person who doesn’t live in fear of exposure. I want to be a strong woman who can look back on her life proud to have given voice to a small number of children who were silenced. Am I sure? No. I am not sure. I am still scared sometimes. I am the list above; the list of all the reasons child sexual abuse victims stay silent—stoic. Yet, I feel alone, and connected, simultaneously. I am in some weird space between the shame of my past, the eternal gratefulness of my present, and hopeful about our future.  


Farmer, Paul, Pathologies of Power, University of  California Press, 2005, pgs. 27-28.

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