‘everybody knew…you knew that they knew and that it was my fault’ Lynne
Abuse exists and thrives in silence. Indeed, in most cases, it depends it. That silence can extend across the entire life of those affected. Many people who have experienced CSA will try to disclose the crime, but evidence suggests that the response may well not be positive. Children are socialised into being victims of CSA and into protecting abusers by keeping it secret. Then the perpetrator, family members and wider society reinforce this secrecy through techniques of neutralisation.
The theory of neutralisation was proposed by Sykes and Matza in 1957. It was developed to explain how teenagers became delinquents despite societal pressure to conform. Following on from this, it has been applied to many deviant behaviours, including paedophilia. The theory lists five rationalisations used by individuals or groups to overcome objections to deviant behaviour: denial of responsibility, denial of harm, victim blaming, questioning or blaming authority and, finally, arguing that the individual should be loyal to the group.
What I found out is that, as expected, perpetrators of abuse use these arguments to justify what they do (‘it doesn’t cause any harm,’ ‘they wanted it,’ ‘they won’t remember it’ etc). More surprisingly, when people started talking about the abuse that they had experienced these neutralisation techniques were also utilised by their family, friends and professionals (‘it was just experimentation,’ ‘why didn’t you tell anyone straight away?,’ ‘what did you do to make this happen?’, ‘you’ve brought shame on the family.’ etc). Such responses create shame in the victim and silence them.
Silence and shame are fundamental to the experience of CSA and, therefore, of recovering from it. When asked what hinders recovering, the most common answers were ‘family’, ‘understanding’ and ‘support’. It is crucial to note that the actual effects of abuse, such as depression or anxiety, were not mentioned so frequently. This indicates that human interactions, particularly with those closest to us can significantly mould the experience of CSA and recovering from it.
‘I wish that there had been people that I could have gone to, not necessarily when it was happening because I was terrified of them finding out but afterward to have to have people I could go to who didn’t see me as dirty, or soiled or broken or unworthy or any of things I thought about myself that were reinforced by family members (pause) to have someone say to me ‘no you weren’t the one, it wasn’t your fault and we love you.’’ Ruth
Sykes, G. M. and Matza, D. (1957) ‘Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency’, American Sociological Review, 22(6), pp. 664–670.
Picture ‘Silence’ by Howard Hodgkin. © Estate of Howard Hodgkin. Photo credit: Victoria Art Gallery