Survivors of child sexual abuse often navigate a variety of physical, psychological, social, financial, and other hurdles in the short- and long-term aftermath of abuse. Unfortunately, all these types of post-traumatic adversity are made worse by the social stigma attached to the subject and victims. Stigmas persist in the absence of accurate understanding. This is why having difficult discussions and changing the cultural conversation about child sexual abuse are essential elements of prevention and recovery efforts.
In 2016, the now infamous story of Larry Nassar’s systemic and long-standing abuse of children as a doctor with the US Gymnastics Team came to light. In addition to revealing the dangers of abuse by professionals, risks of isolation, and organizational complicity and betrayal, the experiences of the gymnasts harmed by Nassar show us just how deeply inaccurate the cultural assumptions of sexual abuse are.
There are common misunderstandings in both how abuse tends to occur (doctor-danger may be more accurate than stranger-danger, for example) and the effects it has in the life of those harmed. As we increase our understanding of the immense impact of child sexual abuse, we must remember these experiences are only part of the whole person.
Simone Biles is the most decorated US gymnast and one of the most accomplished athletes in world history, truly pushing the limits of her sport. She was also abused by Larry Nassar and spoke more about the experience in the latest episode of the Facebook series Simone Vs Herself, where she candidly shares her struggles with classic post-traumatic symptoms. For example, she describes periods of sleeping all the time to avoid “offing” herself. Those moments fit our idea of what an abuse victim looks like, but that they occurred alongside her professional success and being an inspiration to millions, does not. Stigma towards victims persists in part because of the assumption that successful people don’t simultaneously struggle.
If roughly 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse, as studies conservatively estimate, a more informed assumption is that a portion of people we know and care about have experienced CSA. Role models, cultural icons, government officials, and people we interact with in our daily lives; some of them are managing immense hurdles from the impact of trauma, while simultaneously excelling in their career, sport, passion, or families. If we as a society begin to understand survivors as whole people, those same survivors will have even more support and resources, and rise to even greater heights than they already do all around us.