Child sexual abuse – The listener’s dilemma

With disclosure coming often at an impulse, how can the listener justify the trust the child sexual abuse sufferer has reposed in her or him?

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Pic – Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr

I was having a coffee in the canteen with my colleague who had been very quiet and disturbed in the last few weeks. She suddenly started speaking about her past. A visit to her grandmother’s house after two decades had brought up memories of her abuse at the hands of an uncle through the summer holidays when she was six.

As she spoke, I froze physically and mentally. I could see her struggling with tears as she sat opposite me, the words pouring out. I did not know what to say. What could I say? I am sorry for you? For what you went through? How could anyone do this to a little child?

My friend stopped and peered into my face. “I am sorry! I don’t know why I am saying all this to you!” She waited. I shook my head numbly. I was horrified by her revelation, shocked to the core. I blurted out: “Did it really happen? It’s not possible!” She got up and left without finishing her coffee and we never spoke about it again.

The social silence around sexuality has made sexual abuse into a common crime, and has also taken away the ability to report it. The attached notions of shame and guilt, the rampant victim-blaming and the uncertain reactions of the listener prevent disclosure. The most common reaction to it is denial and disbelief.

What makes a person speak out about the abuse they have suffered? When the thoughts of the abuse are affecting the day to day functioning of the survivor; when it seems as if the abuse will never end, or sometimes when a comment is made which is patently false such as: “Oh, sexual harassment doesn’t really happen!” Or “It’s not very common, these newspaper articles just make it appear so,”. This drives the person who has experienced the abuse to speak out. Since this disclosure is often an impulse, he or she is at the mercy of the listener. How can the listener justify the trust the sufferer has reposed in her or him?

The most important acknowledgement the listener can give is belief. Statements like “I don’t believe it! It’s not possible. How could anyone do that? Did it really happen?” are disrespectful, and add to the trauma and helplessness of the person who has suffered abuse.

The disclosure often starts tentatively as the person gains the courage to say more. It depends on the acceptance and unconditional support that he or she receives.

Never ask for details of the abuse, as this only assuages the curiosity of the listener and is of no help to the person who has faced the abuse. Where and when did it happen? How did it happen? How did it feel? Even asking the name of the perpetrator is unacceptable if the person has not disclosed it. Let them speak about whatever is relevant to them, even if it seems incomplete.

The statements may appear contradictory or implausible. But very often, the thoughts and feelings associated with the abuse are jumbled in the mind, especially if it occurred a long while ago or multiple times, and the narrative will be confused. The person may jump to different points in time depending on the emotions involved. The listener is not there to assess the facts of the abuse, but to create a space for a safe disclosure.

Acknowledge the courage to speak out, empathise with the pain and helplessness. But avoid stigmatising the abuse. The abuser is the person who has committed the crime, the shame and guilt is his or hers. Sometimes when the abuser has been a loved and respected family member, the person who has been abused still holds conflicting feelings of love and betrayal towards him or her. The listener should accept what the person says and not use harsh language towards the abuser. But do not try to make excuses for the abuser either. Eg. “He was very young and probably did not know what he was doing” or “She was in an emotionally vulnerable state herself so she did not realise the effect of what she did to you”.

On the other hand, never ask her or him to forgive the abuser or forget the abuse. Though we are all aware that by doing so the person is freed from the shadow of the abuse, they need to heal and get over the pain first before they can forgive the abuser. This will depend on the extent of the betrayal and trauma faced by the person during the abuse. It is impossible to forget the abuse!

Maintain strict confidentiality. The shock of the disclosure will sometimes make the listener run to others to talk about what they have been told, but this is unacceptable.

Be a friend and a support, but don’t attempt to counsel a person who has been abused. A person who has faced abuse may heal themselves through books, meditation, and self-awareness programs, or through a trained counsellor or psychologist. Ask them what they need from you and respect their wishes. If you feel they need help to fight the abuser, ask their permission before approaching anyone else. Without naming the person, you can speak to experts working in the field and find out what you can do to help your friend.

And finally, please acknowledge that your friend has done you the greatest honour by trusting you enough to confide in you. Do not betray that trust.

Dr. Shaibya Saldanha is the co-founder of Enfold Trust ( in Bangalore, who has conducted several workshops with children and young adults on gender and sexuality. more


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Dr. Shaibya Saldanha is the co-founder of Enfold Trust ( in Bangalore, who has conducted several workshops with children and young adults on gender and sexuality. more

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  • Preety Gurditta

    Great piece of advice for the listeners. Thank you.