I was fifteen when I first spoke out about the sexual abuse I had suffered at the hands of my stepfather. The physical part of the abuse had started almost six years ago, in my last year of primary school and it had never once entered my mind to tell anyone. Telling wasn’t an option for me, I was hyper aware of the devastation that my disclosure would have on my small world, that my mum would be broken by the news, she may never want to speak to me again, for I had betrayed her by causing this man to love and desire me more than he did her.
He had already sent away my big brother for a minor misdemeanour, branding him as unmanageable and deceitful. He went to live in the care of my aunt and uncle up north and we had rarely seen him since he left, at the age of 12. My sister was treated with distain, sometimes disgust, for daring to want to be included in the conversation or having an opinion. She was generally ignored, any glimmer of confidence on her part quickly stamped on with a withering look or a scathing critique of her personality. He was cold and distant with all of us, including my mum, if we did something he didn’t approve of, the silences permeating the air, the threat of his vindictive rages ever present should we say or do the wrong thing.
We were all reminded of his power over us on a daily basis, my own perspective tangled up inside the web of conflicting emotions that paralysed me into silence and submission. It was not his fault that he had fallen in love with me, I had caused this and he was doing his best to deal with this situation that made him act upon his desires. He wrote me long letters explaining how terrible it was for him to live in this state of passion and that our love was pure and innocent. It was a terrible inconvenience that I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen… People cannot help who they fall in love with. If this ever ended, he would kill himself and how would mum cope with these revelations? Perhaps she, too, would take her own life?
So, it was just not an option to speak about the abuse. I separated my life into two halves: inside his bedroom and outside his bedroom. I normalised my relationship with him outside that room, acting every bit like I was his daughter and I was just hanging out with my dad, albeit, rather a lot for a young girl.
When my English teacher confronted me over my disruptive behaviour, when she sat me down and asked me, kindly, what was really going on with me, I hadn’t prepared myself to say the truth, it just popped out, like an over stretched elastic band that suddenly pings.
I am now a member of some closed forums which allow the community of sexual abuse survivors to talk, share their journeys and gain solidarity from their shared experiences. An overwhelming theme that runs through these chats is the amount of time it takes people to speak out, some people using the forum to speak out for the first ever time. Last week an American man joined the forum. He was 45 years old and had been sexually abused by several members of his family since he was four. The abuse was so prolific and engrained in him that he was still being subjected to abuse by his uncle, at the age of 45. This was the first time he had ever told anyone about what was happening to him.
It’s a horror story, and hard to fathom that a grown man could still be so imprisoned by his abusers. Perpetrators use the guilt of the victims and turn it against them to keep their silence. The very nature of the crime and its taboos further compounds this guilt along with the fear of how society will react to the victim when they find out.
In the 1950’s homosexuality was illegal and if a male perpetrator was found guilty of sexually abusing a boy, the child victim would also be treated as equally culpable. They were viewed as having been corrupted and social services would consider them being in need of care and protection from the state. As such they would be taken from their homes, many of them loving, caring families, and placed them into the care system. Many of the care homes and orphanages were targeted and often managed by paedophiles who were given free access to re-abuse these vulnerable children.
My colleague, John, lived his whole married life without telling his wife about the sexual abuse that he had suffered for 2 1/1years from the age of nine at the hands of his teacher at the boys club he attended. He was initially groomed by the other boys who attended, daring him to smoke the cigarettes provided to them by their perpetrator. The group of boys knew not to speak out and were reminded regularly by their housemaster that their local community would believe him, a highly resected school teacher, over that of an nine year old boy. Not only that, but if the boys stopped attending the club the housemaster promised to come around to their house to ask why they were not attending anymore. If this happened then he threatened the boys that he would tell their parents that they had been sexually misbehaving with the other boys. They would live the rest of their lives as social outcasts, with little chance of securing a girlfriend or a decent job.
The housemaster was eventually caught, not through one of the boys revealing the abuse, but in a compromising situation with another boy. He was arrested and John was visited by the police, as were all the other boys who were in the care of the housemaster. In front of his parents, John had to reveal the truth about the sexual abuse he had endured for the past two years. Since that day his mother withdrew from him, her emotional distance telling John all he needed to know about her attitude towards his role in the abuse. John waited in trepidation for his day in court, knowing that his testament as witness would most likely result in him being sent to a children’s home.
In the meantime, John starting seeing a local girl, his first real girlfriend. All was going great until she found out about the abuse and she finished the relationship quickly. The phone call for the court day never came and John found out some time after that the perpetrator had actually pleaded guilty to homosexuality and was serving a four year sentence. A double edged sword as he as never brought to justice for what he had inflicted on those boys and would leave prison without carrying the label of paedophile and presumably able to commit the same acts again. However, John and his peers didn’t have to stand up publicly against their perpetrator, nor did they get sent away from their families.
Its easy to see from the reactions of their community and also close family in the case of John’s mother, why he did not speak any further about the abuse he had suffered. He finally spoke out at the age of 67 when he went to bereavement counselling after this wife’s death. They referred him to Family Matters for specialist counselling and his journey of recovery began then.
The keeper of a shameful secret. The guilt, the disgust, the fear of not being believed – these powerful emotions that victims experience are easy to use as psychological weapons against them. The perpetrator is in a position of power, be they a father, family friend, teacher, carer, older sibling, trusted person. They are inevitably older and more powerful than the victim.
It is up to us who are able to speak out, to continue doing so, to speak for the many thousands who are suffering at the hands of others, unable to escape the web of deceit that is being woven around them. John and I have found freedom in speaking about our experiences, I hope the man on the forum who had taken that tremendous first step will continue his brave journey. Know that you are not alone and there is help out there.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact Family Matters UK on 01474 536661 or visit them http://www.familymattesrsuk.org
Family Matters first opened its doors in Milton Street, Gravesend in the beginning of 1990 by two survivors of sexual abuse who created a self help group meeting the needs of others that had suffered sexual violence and abuse.
The charity is now one of the largest providers of specialist therapy and support for children and adult victims of childhood sexual abuse and rape.
The head office is still based in Gravesend but offers therapy in various locations across Kent and the South East.
In 2014/15 Family Matters saw no fewer than 903 children and adults. A total of 735 of those for one to one therapy and the remainder were children and adults seen by their Independant Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVA’s) for rape support. The Family Matters helpline assisted a further 2000 callers.
Over 200 of those seeking counselling in this time were children and young people and over 400 were residents of Kent. Of the 324 rape victims that were seen in this year, a shocking 33% were children.
In addition to the one to one therapy sessions, Family Matters also provides two Independant Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVA’s) across the boroughs of Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Seveonaoks, Gravesham, Dartford and Medway and are funded for the next four years through the Home Office and local Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs).
An Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) is trained to look after a survivors needs, and to ensure that they receive care and understanding. They offer help in understanding how the criminal justice process works, and will explain things in simple terms, such as what will happen if a survivor chooses to report to the police, and the importance and process of forensic DNA retrieval. The Family Matters ISVA’s see nearly 200 men, women and children who have been raped each year.
The charity is in partnership with Kent Police and the Sexual Assault Referral Centre based in Beech House Maidstone to provide therapeutic support, ISVA AND CISVA support for victims of rape and sexual violence. They work closely with the Crown Prosecution Service, Kent Police, Witness Care and Victim Supoort to provide a seamless service for victims across Kent.
Their most frequent referrers are GP’s, Mental Health teams, CAMHS and community health teams. Self referrals are also common, many victims choosing not to report to police and health authorities. Police, SARS, schools and other therapists are next.
Funding comes from a mixture of Home Office, Lottery, CSP’s PCCs and other charitable grants.
Service users and those affected by sexual violence are represented at every level of the organisation including trustees and have influence on their policies, procedures and service design.
Prevalence of Sexual Abuse
It is estimated that there are over 4.5 million adults in Great Britain, who were sexually abused as children
“The connection between childhood sexual abuse and self harm is well documented”. (Herman 1992)
“Studies indicate that 50% or more of women in touch with mental health services have experienced violence and abuse” (Womens Mental Health: Into the Mainstream 2002)
As over 85% of childhood sexual abuse occurs in and around the home and is perpetrated in the main by family members or those closely associated wi the family, the sexual abuse of children is a domestic violence!
A large percentage of young people rough sleeping in London are escaping sexual abuse (homeless Charity Worker)
Victims of childhood sexual abuse are 27.7 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution (Wisdom 1995)
Of the 324 rape referrals received last year 33% were from children
The youngest rape referral client was four years old, the oldest eighty five.
Speaking out begins the process of healing and I am speaking out on this blog because I want you to know that I survived sexual abuse and I believe with the right support you can too.
Two years ago my old life ended and things I thought I knew, I didn’t know anymore. People who I trusted I looked at through suspicious eyes and most damaging of all, I lost my belief in myself, I started to over-think every move, unconfident and doubtful, to be honest, I was lost.
A series of things had happened leading up to this, each event in itself was a pretty big deal but the culmination of all of them had a forceful impact on me and my sense of self.
I lost a pub I had invested in Camberwell, through an unscrupulous business partner selling it from underneath me, making off with all the money I had invested along with any profit from the sale. Bankruptcy soon followed with the family house in London going into the pot. Shortly after we were forced to leave our spacious house in Kent when my husband became redundant.
Our furniture stored at various addresses of friends, we moved back in with my mum and stepfather, Mark (the house I grew up in as a child) in the October of that year. We seized the opportunity to save and start again. The first few months were quite fun, we approached the whole thing as an adventure, our two young boys fairly oblivious to the chaos around them. We were determined that this would be a positive experience for them and they had a lovely time, hanging out with their nan and granddad, sweets and cuddles in abundant supply lending them excellent incentives to enjoy their temporary new life.
At the end of June my stepfather Mark who has been with my mum since I was sixteen suffered an acute brain haemorrhage outside his antique shop, he was rushed to hospital, and the immediate prognosis was not good, the doctors advised us to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to him in the morning. There was no sign of life in his brain and after studying his brain scan Kings College London declined him as a viable patient.
Miraculously the next morning there was a tiny change in him and he was transferred to Queens College Hospital in Holborn. They operated and he survived and started the long process of his recovery. All hands were on deck to help my mum through this time, sharing visits in London and helping to manage Mark’s antique shop.
Its difficult to put into words the intensity of emotion that a family feels when a family members life is hanging on the line, for the following weeks and months we walked on eggshells, hyper aware of my mothers vulnerability, tuned in for any new information that may give us a snippet of good news on his progress and trying to keep family life as normal as possible for our boys.
All thoughts of saving up and rebuilding our finances to enable us to move out were put aside as I helped to manage the shop with my sister, my husband’s wages going towards paying my mum and Mark’s mortgage. Everyday there were mighty hurdles to overcome, both emotional and practical. While I moved forward with these tasks, keeping things light for the children, comforting my mum in any way I knew and trying to keep a sense of normality, a very old but familiar feeling was creeping up on me, I recognized it quite early on but coped with it the same way I had before. By keeping it to myself.
You see I am a survivor of sexual abuse…
What I was experiencing was the effects of a trauma, and the last time that I had had these feelings as intensely as this was when I disclosed the sexual abuse I had suffered at the hand’s of my previous stepfather, Clive.
I had visited and stayed at my mums house many times since I moved out as a young adult and not found the house a significant trigger, and yet at this time with the events around me unfolding, I began to relive my memories again. Allowing specific events and incidences into my head, invading my thoughts and probably most significantly, asking questions, uncomfortable questions. Questions all the more significant when I looked at my eight year old son.
Clive had moved in with us when I was five, but it was when I was eight that there was a distinct shift in my relationship with him, a man that I loved very much as a father figure, having moved in when I was so young. He was funny and made me feel very grown up and special, always including me whether he was in the garden chopping up wood or making pastry in the kitchen. I was the ‘chief wood chopper’, ‘the pastry-greaser’. He was always the go-to when I had a fall out with children in my class or had difficulty with a maths problem.
It was around this time when Clive started sharing his adult spoof magazine Viz with me, and with characters such as The Fat Slags, the stories were predominantly sexual or violent and were a world away from my usual reading material of Enid Blyton. This marked the beginning of our secret allegiance, where I was aware that we were sharing something secretive that no one else was to know about. It was not long after this that he began to show me pornography.
I look back now and I understand the term grooming and the significance of this to me and my childhood. Although the Viz magazine is the stand-out time to me, a clear marker of when the relationship took a turn for something more sinister, from the age of five leading up to this I was always sat on his lap, helping him roll cigarettes and having a cuddle.
I started looking at my own children, especially my eldest, seeing his eight year old innocence, and the questions started coming. Why was I allowed to be alone with this man so much who was not even my father? How could my mum not have noticed that something was wrong? There were incidents that I started to dissect in forensic detail where my mum was present and I studied and re-studied her reaction to them. The times he used to shake the bathroom door, threatening to come in, the times he used to go through my belongings, footsteps on the ceiling, drawers being pulled out, making sure there was nothing incriminating such as, shock horror, a letter from a boy at school.
What about when much later, he put an alarm on my bedroom window that I used to escape from and join the other kids at the park who were allowed out until nine or ten. These were regular occurrences in our household that went on and were seemingly accepted and treated as ‘normal’. Why, why, why?
There was also another darker question that kept rearing its ugly head, persistent and relentless ‘what if he is doing this to other children?’
I can’t tell you why I’ve never addressed this before. Back when he was arrested I knew I couldn’t face him in the courtroom, his cold, steel blue eyes boring in to me. When the police officers asked if I thought he would do this to others, I answered truthfully, ‘no’. Back then, I felt the abuse was all about me, I made him do and feel these things, no one else, was what he repeatedly told me. Being back in that house at this time, I was confronted by this question until it got louder and more insistent. I knew I had to act, however late it may be. After a few bungled attempts to find out how to get support in this process and a very uninspiring talk to someone from Victim Support I called the police myself. *1
My mum, immersed in the horror of losing her present husband, if not physically, then perhaps mentally, was oblivious to my personal mental state and we existed side by side, me silently and watchfully re-analyzing her every move, and her unwittingly and unknowingly coming up short every time. My silence and its paralysing effects were further compounding my feelings of helplessness and I was faced with the same dilemma as back when I was being abused. If I speak, I will hurt my mum, I will cause chaos in her life. Back then my fear of her knowing and the hurt that it would cause was so great that it took me until the age of fifteen to speak out, to a teacher eventually. This time around, she was vulnerable and weak with the events surrounding Mark and I feared I would break her with the force of my vitriol.
I did speak out, finally. It wasn’t pretty or articulate. It was raw and angry and accusative and resulted in my mum telling us to leave. We barely spoke for two years after that, I blamed her for making us ‘homeless’ and although she tried to reach out to me, I had shut down all communication and refused to let her back in.
What had she done, my mother, to deserve this? She didn’t know of the abuse, not until the police turned up at the house one day after school. Perhaps there were times that she could have spoken up, when he said inappropriate things to me, perhaps she could have spent more time with me and in turn I would have spent less time with him and he would have had less opportunity to have me on his own. If she didn’t work so much then I would not have had to wake him up every day after his nightshift, with his coffee, alone in his dark bedroom, tearfully wheedling excuses why I didn’t have to get into his bed once again.
But this would be to misunderstand the power of him, the power he had over every one of us, controlled by his temper, his cold silences when we did things he didn’t approve of, and by the manipulative and calculated way he divided and conquered us all. He didn’t hit my mum, not to my knowledge, but we all lived in fear of him. In particular rages he would go downstairs and beat the dog.
I am glad I spoke up. Silence is debilitating and if there’s one thing I have learnt in my early counselling sessions is that speaking out is hugely empowering. The first words and sentences are excruciating, the longer that secret has been held, the harder it must be. It gets easier though.
When I first began the journey into counselling it was a bit of a minefield. I was defensive, ashamed and embarrassed and the last thing I wanted to talk about as a sixteen year old girl to a grown adult was something sexually related. Particularly when that involved something as taboo as being in bed with my stepfather. I dreaded that long walk after college to the rooms where I met my counsellor. My skin would crawl in shame as I revealed snippets of my experiences, sure that she would find something that she found disgusting in my revelations or that I would reveal worrying freakish flaws in my character.
The Family Matters counsellor was not my first but she was the most significant to me. I saw a couple of people briefly before her and I learnt a couple of things. Firstly, as with people, we are not compatible with everyone. If you’re not feeling a connection, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else. My first experience was a bit of a disaster and the counsellor chose not to speak during the whole session, a type of approach known as psychodynamic therapy. After years of my personal silence paralysing me, this was not a great start and I left in tears, feeling inadequate and defeated.
I am very glad I didn’t let this put me off. My second counsellor was a man. At the end of the session he asked if I’d like to carry on with him or would prefer a female to speak to. I said I would prefer a woman and actually I regretted this a bit. The decision I made was based on a quick reaction to the question, my gut instinct was actually to stay with him. He gave me some great advice and we chatted about boundaries and that it was OK to tell boys no. It was a useful hour that I still remember and his advice, though not always acted upon, stayed with me and impacted positively on my future actions.
My third counsellor was from Family Matters UK and she was the most significant person that helped me at that time to make sense of the last few years. After the initial relief of my disclosure and letting out this enormous secret, the buzz of my first experiences of freedom and being allowed to go down the park with my mates, cold reality had set in. I started to flounder and I was very detached from my time at college, in fact I went to college, then sixth form, then college and then a repeat year in college before I finally came out with any A-Levels four years later. Talking to her made me feel validated and believed.
I came to understand that Clive was a sexual predator who was very much in control of the situation and my responses to it. She helped me to gain an understanding of what had happened to me, to make me realise that I was not alone and that there were many others out there like me who felt similar fears and emotions. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t met the Family Matters counsellor then I wouldn’t have kept returning to college and starting again, she made me believe that there was hope at a time when I was ready to give up. I managed to get the grades to go to University, something I would never have believed when I was at the start of my sessions with her.
I was very lucky to meet this woman and when my life began to disintegrate around me after the argument with my mum and with the second arrest of Clive, I had the gift of self-awareness given to me by her all those years ago to know that I must seek help once again. I went to my doctor and I was referred to a counsellor for twelve sessions. *2
I suppose what came out of those sessions wasn’t so surprising in retrospect. I thought I was there to talk about Clive, but the more sessions I attended the main subject turned out to be my mum. You see, I had spent twenty years dealing with Clive. There were times when I reached out to other counsellors in that time, I also had some hypnotherapy and EFT*3 when the presence of Clive started to take over aspects of my intimate relationships. The most important lesson my Family Matters counsellor taught me was that being brave isn’t always about keeping that secret to yourself. Sometimes bravery is knowing when to ask for help.
I realised that I had always followed this advice, not always straight away, but I had learnt to confront my fears. When I was feeling something overwhelming about my history, I found some help, sometimes professionally, but also reaching out to friends. This last period of counselling , I surprised myself that I didn’t really need to speak about Clive. I needed to speak about the issue that I had never dealt with – the blame that I attached to my mum for not being able to protect me against this man.
By not dealing with those feelings when they cropped up over the years, it became bigger and uglier and burdensome. It’s out in the open now and we are rebuilding our relationship. Its slow and still a bit raw, I have never fallen out with my mum for such a long time and so violently and the void takes a lot to be filled. Our relationship is not the same as it was and we are negotiating this new terrain cautiously. It does however feel more honest and I am hopeful that when the wounds heal we will be stronger for it.
After moving out, I started again, in a new town in Tonbridge, as at that point I wanted to move as far away from the arguments and memories as possible. It took time to find peace with recent events but as is often the case when faced with adverse situations, much positive can come from the situation. One of the biggest positives for me was that I started to work with Family Matters.
When you are overcoming childhood abuse, you spend much of your life trying to overcome issues and the side effects of that abuse. It rears its head in various ways, in intimate relationships, in having issues in creating boundaries, escapism through alcohol and drugs and reckless behaviour. Bouts of depression and anxiety are extremely common and something I have intermittently suffered from. You learn with counselling and support such as Family Matters how to navigate these hurdles.
One of the things that I was always conscious of is that in spending much of my life just dealing with the effects of the abuse I never took stock of what I wanted in my career, or anything for that matter. Particularly with the timing of the disclosure at an age where crucial decisions are made about the future, I drifted through my A-Levels and the same with my degree, going for English and Media with no sense of direction and no plan. I was simply trying to survive at this time.
The adverse situations that had engulfed my life for the past couple of years in my more recent life were now coming to a close and I took the time to reassess. I started to take a bit of responsibility for my own life now, and knew I had been given another new start, the first when he left all those years ago. With the help of my current counsellor and reading books I started to really think about what I wanted to do with my life.
I started reading a book called The Element*3, its about focusing your career aspirations on what you know, your history and what you are familiar with, running with your tribe. At the same time an advert came up for Family Matters to present a rape prevention app they had created to schools and groups. I went for the job and I got it.
My experiences of sexual abuse certainly do not define me, but I accept that it has shaped the person I am and there are many strengths I have that I may never have known without those experiences. I am resilient, adaptable and I know whatever life chooses to throw at me that I will survive it and I will survive it smiling.
People who have suffered abuse at the hands of their fathers, family friends, stepfathers, mothers, boyfriends, you are my people. We have a knowledge and experience that connects us. Some of you are experiencing this now and don’t know whether to tell, who to tell, or what will happen to you and those close to you, when you do tell.
Speaking out begins the process of healing and I am speaking out on this blog because I want you to know that I survived sexual abuse and you will to.
That I was once frightened, lost and powerless, and even sometimes when we feel that we are on top of life, unexpected events can trigger memories and emotions that we are not always equipped to handle alone. I was given a gift of a Family Matters Counsellor and it changed my life significantly for the better. I want you to know where to turn to and what to expect when you ask for help.
Family Matters UK are a specialised charitable service and the largest provider of childhood sexual abuse and rape therapy in the country. They help over 4000 people every year and as well as experienced counsellors they have a helpline and provide ISVA’s (Independent Sexual Advisers) to help survivors through the court system.
This blog will feature information about Family Matters and its services as well as continued posts from me, my posts will talk about ways that I learnt to cope and traversed the rocky terrain of life post-abuse, and any issues related with surviving sexual abuse. I am not a professional counsellor, and my own content and opinions are personal to me. All content related to Family Matters comes from the perspective of a counselling service, they cannot officially comment on policies of any outside agencies such as the Police and any comments related to them are purely opinion.
If you would like to talk to anyone about the issues raised in this blog, if you are a victim of sexual abuse or if you know or suspect that someone is being abused you can call our helpline 01474 537392.
For more general enquiries or to refer yourself for specialist counselling, call 01474 536661.
If you have any comments about this blog or whether you would also like to share your experiences or chat, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org . I look forward to hearing from you.
Next blog: Who ARE Family Matters and what do they do?
*1 If you are thinking of reporting a sexual violence crime Family Matters have ISVA’s to help survivors through the court system, they can advise what to expect, be with you when reporting the crime and support you in court.
*2 Clients can return to Family Matters after their first twelve sessions by self referral and will simply go back on the waiting list
*3 EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique, a form of psychological acupressure to treat physical en
*4 The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything: Ken Robinson