Removing the stigma around sexual abuse

By Dan Heard

In the last couple of weeks, professional footballer Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to grooming a teenage girl and disgraced former artist and television star Rolf Harris was charged with further counts of indecent assault, despite currently serving a five-year prison sentence. Among this whirlwind of revelations, questions have once again been raised over whether there is something of a stigma surrounding sexual abuse. Just why is it such a controversial subject to discuss, even when what has occurred simply needs to be confronted, yet never really is? When they discover that they have been abused, victims most frequently report feelings of betrayal. It can often depend on how close the victim felt to the perpetrator, on how much he or she trusted and ultimately cared about them. The second variable was the degree to which the victim believed he or she had been emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator or “taken in” by the situation.

Once victims of sexual assault discover that they have in fact been abused, the most frequent feelings reported are ones of betrayal. These kinds of feelings can often depend and more often than not be a result of how close they were to the perpetrator, and in turn how much he or she cared about them. Furthermore, it also needs to be considered just how much the victim felt they had been manipulated, either emotionally of physically, or captured by their situation. Adam Johnson allegedly met the girl in question through social media. He was her favourite Sunderland AFC player, an England international and occupied a role which should have seen him be something of a role model to people her age. Rolf Harris, meanwhile, was something of a “national treasure”, hardly off of our screens in decades, and supposedly adored by thousands of children. His victims ranged from participants on his shows, to competition winners, even to friends of his own daughter. Yet this appeared to count for nothing when you consider their actions. This process of betrayal affects not only victims’ feelings of security and trust in others, but also their self-worth.

Human nature often intervenes once terrible events such as sexual abuse have happened, which leads to a questioning, a search for answers from their victims as to why this happened, why they were abused, and, significantly, what this now means for them and the rest of their lives. Perhaps this is where the lack of discussion and the real awkwardness around the subject stems from- the fact that those who weren’t directly involved don’t want exactly that- to become involved. And while those who often suffered in silence wish to confront it, they are met with rebuttals, or even worse, nothing. There are endless answers to why it happened. And as it would appear to be in the case of the likes of Johnson and Harris, an abuse of the positions of relative power and almost authority they had over their victims. A process of publicly highlighting the true dynamics of sexual abuse is needed, which is also, undoubtedly, also the most difficult thing to do. In my opinion, and I know just how controversial a subject this is to discuss, even in a comment piece such as this, the only way of helping victims feel less stigmatized is to communicate what happened, to talk about it, to spread awareness so that it happens to no one else. This information needs to be highlighted, but until that happens, victims will continue to feel alone, and the stigma will remain.