Read a powerful essay by Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year and a survivor of abuse, who is using her voice to advocate for survivors and ensure their stories are heard.
[TW: sexual assault]
The literal definition of “silence” is the complete absence of sound. In the context of child sexual abuse, however, it is something far more complex and sinister.
It is the complete absence of truth. The deliberate suppression of information. A weapon of mass psychological destruction; of disempowerment, disengagement, distraction and division that fuels society’s collective confusion.
On average it takes a survivor of child sexual abuse 23.9 years to speak about their experience. Such is the success of perpetrators at instilling fear and self-doubt in the minds of their targets. Such is the reality of shame-induced silence.
Silence is the very reason why child sexual abuse still remains ubiquitous in our society.
He made me watch The Graduate. The film’s soundtrack was almost always playing in his office. Thus it was ‘The Sound of Silence’ – haunting and unending – that both literally and figuratively underscored my experience of prolonged abuse at the hands of a paedophile.
I was 15. He was 58. The physical abuse went on for months. I have permanent, albeit invisible, scar tissue on the inside of my body.
So too will the untraceable psychological impacts last a lifetime.
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
“Why didn’t you just say ‘no’?” I hear this question all the time. It is born of the false belief that if you appeal to an abuser with reason, they’ll respect your wishes. But to predators, reason, respect – even words – are meaningless. Including “no”.
Where we often go wrong in the discussion of child sexual abuse is in attempting to examine it through a rational lens. We assume that the traditional values of human decency are upheld and that the unwritten laws of social interaction apply. They don’t.
I remember lying on my back once in a hotel room. He had just raped me. “You weren’t into that,” he said. He was right. The pain had become too much to hide. My usual methods of disassociation had failed me. I didn’t say anything, not that it would have helped. And in fact, he responded to himself: “No matter, we’re going to do it again.”
What you say and do in the face of abuse makes no difference. You learn to tolerate the pain once you realise it is inevitable, and that resistance only leads to more suffering. As a result, you resign yourself to helplessness. You resign to silence.
“Why didn’t you tell anybody?”
Silence is both a form and function of the grooming that underpins prolonged sexual abuse. Grooming refers to the calculated implementation of six concurrent phases of psychological rewiring. These are: targeting you, gaining your trust, meeting your perceived needs, isolating you from your genuine supports, gradually introducing sex to normalise abuse, and maintaining control over you. The entire operation hinges on the last one.
Maintaining control involves striking a perfect balance between causing pain and providing relief from it. These two opposing conditions keep you bound by cognitive dissonance. You become programmed to feel guilt at the thought of even questioning your abuser, let alone dobbing them in.
The pain they cause drives the belief that there is no hope or escape. Through overt displays of physical dominance and intimidation, combined with veiled but very real threats, the abuser instils crippling terror. This results in a total loss of self-esteem. This is the truth you live inwardly.
The relief the abuser provides drives a false confidence in you that tricks your conscious mind into believing you still have some control. This explains your appearance of security; why you hear yourself assuring your friends and family that nothing is wrong even though deep down you know it is. This is the lie you live outwardly.
All of this plays out behind closed doors, in carefully orchestrated silence.
What’s more, predators benefit not only from the silence of their targets, but also from the silence of the wider community. They rely on collective discomfort to continue to operate uninterrupted. They fill the void with lies, taking whatever measures necessary to perpetuate the culture of victim-blaming, to re‑traumatise us and discourage us from speaking out.
Impervious to guilt and embarrassment, they smugly charm and manipulate our families, friends, colleagues and even strangers. And thus, they groom all of us, not just their individual targets.
My abuser is a prime example: from openly bragging on Facebook about having the opportunity to abuse a 15-year-old, to participating in a 17-minute online interview in which he claimed to be the real victim. He has even attempted to defend his possession of 28 multimedia files of child pornography by claiming they arrived mysteriously on his computer after downloading an illegal font.
The power predators stand to gain from our silence does not end there.
When we do share survivor stories, but omit certain details with the intention of protecting ourselves from that which is “too disturbing”, we are again ultimately empowering perpetrators instead. They are the only ones who benefit from softened, censored accounts. By minimising their behaviour we shield them from the shame which is so often then misdirected towards survivors.
Sadly, our current culture, and the systemic practices by which they are both driven and reinforced, continues to bolster the confidence of abusers. Legislation and policies such as victim gag-laws – which place no such restraints on perpetrators – send a dangerous message. A message of tolerance of sexual abuse.
As Tanya Hosch, Indigenous leader, AFL executive and South Australian of the Year, told me: “We cannot solve a problem we don’t talk about.” Evil unspoken is evil endorsed.
Unsanitised history is our greatest learning resource. Unless people are confronted with the uncomfortable realities, they will not be moved to act.
But survivors have so much more to offer than their abuse stories. We have unique insights imbued with profound catalytic educative potential. Lived experience inspires and informs change.
It is important to understand that listening to survivors is one thing, but repeatedly expecting them to recount and relive their trauma without their consent is another. The latter is exploitation and commodification of pain – an unfortunate tendency of mass media.
To truly end the silence, we survivors must grant both ourselves and those around us permission to be vulnerable and to speak on our own terms, in our own time. We must continue empowering and encouraging each other to take a stand, and share the platform to normalise the conversation.
Open communication breeds understanding. Understanding is the foundation of education and progress.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the process. Often, individuals are deterred from action because we believe we are unwelcome or unqualified. This is simply not true. Fight the fear predators are desperate to hold over us. Lean into love. Listen, with a view to learn and grow.
We are all human. This issue is far too important to be politicised. We are all welcome at the table. When we heal as a community we heal as one.
I’m representing a community who’ve been silenced and stigmatised for such a long time.
Having been named Australian of the Year for my advocacy as a child sexual abuse survivor is a pivotal symbol of progress. We’ve been included among our nation’s most inspirational, accomplished and respected change-makers, proving that every voice does matter. And our chorus is growing louder. We’re all in this together.
By Grace Tame.
First published in Edition #631.
Photo by Kishka Jensen.