I run a rape crisis center. Our philosophy is simple. We believe victims. We empower them to make their own decisions about their healing. We respect their privacy. Belief, power, respect - these are all things that have been stripped away from them. We want to make every effort to restore them.
This is why we never pressure a victim to file a police report. We never advise them on what they should or shouldn't do. We merely provide all the possible options, and we stand by them and their decisions. That is, unless the victim is a child - especially if the abuser is someone living within that child's home. We still fiercely advocate to restore belief, power, and respect, but doing so for a 25-year old living in her own apartment and paying her own bills looks VERY different than doing so for a 7-year old whose entire emotional and physical existence is dependent on her abuser. How do you restore belief to someone whose entire belief structure was created for them by their abuser? How do you restore power to someone who never had any to begin with? How do you begin to challenge the definition of "privacy" for a child victim of incest, when they've been taught that sexual abuse is normal, a family matter, a private matter?
Since the Duggar sexual abuse case came to light, I've been called out by several friends and even colleagues for "naming" the victims by referencing the incest. I've joined the ranks of other victims advocates to publicly hold ourselves, as a society, accountable to: empathizing with the plight of an abuser more than a victim; continuing to frame incest and child sexual abuse as a private family matter; ignoring the powerful impact religion has on the way we address sexual abuse. While I have never actually named any of the victims, I have discussed these matters in the context of sexual abuse that happened by a family member, within the victim's own home. And when your family is thrust into the limelight and watched weekly by millions of viewers, it's not hard to figure out who the victims might be. This has caused several people to accuse me of disregarding the privacy of the victims. I would like to offer you three reasons why, as the director of a rape crisis center, a mom, and a member of society, I've chosen to do this.
1. It is not possible to dismantle childhood incest without first confronting the complex power dynamics of the abuser/abused relationship that allows it to exist. While all forms of child sexual abuse can have negative long-term effects for the victim, incest is especially damaging because it disrupts the child’s primary support system, the family. The victim has been told that what is happening is normal or happens in every family, and doesn’t realize that it is a form of abuse. The victim may care about the abuser and be afraid of what will happen to the abuser if they disclose. When a child is abused by someone outside the family, the child’s family is often able to offer support and a sense of safety. When the abuser is someone in the family, the family may not be able to provide support or a sense of safety. Since the children (especially younger children) often have limited resources outside the family, it can be very hard for them to recover from incest. (Excerpts from RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website)
2. In our efforts to protect the privacy of the (now) adult victims, could we possibly still be shaming them as children? When media outlets commit not to name adult victims, it is because historically, we as a society have further shamed victims by blaming the sexual assault on them, by letting perpetrators walk with little to no consequences, and by questioning the truthfulness of their claims. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often continue to carry with them confusing feelings of intense shame and self-blame. Because I don't have direct access to the victims in this case, I want to shout it from the rooftops: It's not your fault. Not even if your own parents and the world around you have done very little to hold your abuser accountable. Not even if your faith taught you that you are somehow responsible for tempting the action of others.
3. It is a scary slippery slope when we attempt to "protect" the privacy of a child at the cost of perpetuating the dangerous notion that incest is a private family matter and that child victims have no voices. Of course I believe that every child has the right to grow up without forever being defined by their sexual abuse. Of course in my daily professional practice I diligently comply with mandatory reporting, confidentiality, and disclosure laws and policies. But when media outlets are already reporting that this is a case of incest, it is irresponsible for us to frame it otherwise. Because by doing so we are sending the message that there are different standards for sexual abuse if it happens in your home, by someone who should be protecting you. We are perpetuating the message that incest couldn't possibly happen, and even if it did, it's too taboo of a topic, too difficult for us to stomach, much less talk about. My main motivation here is to increase public awareness of the problem in order to encourage other victims to disclose and seek help.
All States require appropriate agencies to report child abuse. 18 states, including my home state of Kentucky, require any person who suspects child abuse or neglect to report the abuse as well. Please become informed of your state's reporting laws here: Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.
If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.