Former Miss America, singer, actress, and mom, Vanessa Williams, revealed that she had been molested as a child in her new memoir You Have No Idea. Williams recalls that a family friend – a woman she trusted – touched her inappropriately during a sleepover when she was just 10 years old. One might wonder why an accomplished, mature woman like Williams would reveal such a personal and painful detail from her past many years after the fact. In an interview with People Magazine, Williams said, “For years I kept Susan’s visit to myself. I didn’t really understand until college. “I was with my boyfriend and it hit me and I blurted out: ‘Oh my god – I was molested.’ ”
Unfortunately, Williams’ experience is not at all rare – neither the molestation, nor the decision not to report the incident. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN),
- 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.
- 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.
- 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.
- 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.
The National Resource Council estimates the percent of the U.S. population which has been sexually abused to range from a low of 20-24% to a high of 54-62% of the population (the higher estimate includes sexualized exposure without touching, such as masturbating in front of a child).
It’s happening but it’s not always being reported by the victim or by others who have reason to believe abuse has occurred. Less than 10% of sexual abuse is reported to police. Fear or shame in revealing victimization, repressed memories of abuse, refusal to participate in studies or denial that what happened was “real” abuse can all account for underreporting.
It’s often hard for adults to understand why some children stay silent about abuse. Presumably, a 10-year-old child knows the difference between “good and bad touch,” at least enough to notify a trusted adult that something is awry. In her People interview, Williams remembers feeling that something was not quite right at the time of the encounter, yet something held her back from relying on her intuition. Although different for every child, there are indeed reasons not to report abuse that make perfect sense to young minds at the time. I don’t have to cite a study here, but there are many. I know this because I was molested for several years beginning at age 9 by a close family friend often entrusted with my care.
While I told my high school boyfriend, I didn’t reveal my abuse to my family until I was a sophomore in college. They were surprised, shocked, and sorry – sorry that they didn’t know and therefore did not protect me. One family member was particularly distraught because she was this man’s entry into our family. Their reaction and feelings of blame, shame, worry, and regret were all things I was trying to protect them from back when I was 9. Like many other kids, I thought that I could shoulder the burden of what was happening to me in order to prevent the people who cared for me most from getting hurt.
Other reasons young people might choose to remain silent about abuse include:
- Fear of Losing a Loved One. As mentioned above, most victims of sexual abuse know their abuser. He or she probably has an important role in the child’s life and a connection that is positive notwithstanding the abuse part. There can be conflict when contemplating reporting that individual – you want to stop the abuse but you want/need the positive things he or she contributes to your life.
- Fear of Being Harmed. It is not uncommon for an abuser to threaten a victim or the victim’s loved ones in order to secure his or her silence about the abuse. Loyal and vulnerable, the child victim feels responsible for their family’s physical safety or financial well-being.
- Fear of Being Blamed and Not Believed. This is a fear that, more often than we’d like to believe, is justified. Abusers tell children that no one will believe them, wielding their authority and credibility as an adult over the victim. In some cases, especially where the child is encouraged to take an active role in the abuse, they might feel complicit and assign blame to themselves.
- Fear of Being Shamed. Like Vanessa Williams, young sexual abuse victims know that what is being done to them is not right. They feel bad, dirty, and ashamed. Reporting the abuse would just let more people in on the fact that they are bad and dirty children.
I don’t know that my family could have done anything else to make me more likely to report my abuse at a time when they could have protected me. I was a smart kid, very aware of the impropriety and illegality of what was happening to me but I had made my decision. I thought I was stronger than the rest of them and I could endure the ordeal better than they could. I guess what would have made a difference is if they had been able to notice it themselves. There were always four-five people living in our two-bedroom apartment but with some folks working nights and others working days, I was either left to fend for myself or under the supervision of my abuser. While I really don’t want to blame people who need to work long hours to support their families, I do want to stress that keeping a vigilant eye and being sensitive to the feelings, moods, and vibes of children is very important in keeping them safe. We as adults can’t rely on kids to tell us when they’re vulnerable. I just hope that Williams’ story, my story, and the countless others serve as a caution.