Why Child Sexual Abuse Survivors May Defend Their Abusers

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
In one of the most harrowing scenes of Leaving Neverland — a documentary that explores Wade Robson's and James Safechuck's accusations of child sexual abuse against Michael JacksonRobson explains why he defended Jackson during the 2004-2005 trial in which he was charged with sexually abusing then-13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. Robson also testified in Jackson's defense in 1993, when then-13-year-old Jordan Chandler’s family accused Jackson of sexual abuse. (Jackson's estate has denied all accusations.)
“I can’t imagine if I was Gavin, or if I was Jordy at that time. No justice being served, and not being believed by so many people,” Robson says in the scene. “For Gavin, I wish I was at a place where I could tell the truth and be a comrade with him, stopping Michael, and stopping a lot of other kids from being abused. I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t able when I was 11, and when I was 22.”
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Although the Michael Jackson estate has said that Robson’s earlier defense of Jackson makes the documentary a case of “tabloid character assassination,” experts say that it is common for survivors of child sexual abuse to defend their abusers, even as adults. “It’s totally normal,” says Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Adults who sexually abuse children intentionally confuse them, mixing up messages of love and friendship and abuse.” This confusion can last long into adulthood. Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that empowers adults to prevent child sexual abuse, notes that only 38% of child sexual abuse victims disclose the abuse while they are children. And only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported to authorities, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
There are many other reasons why survivors may defend their abusers. First, they may fear retaliation if they come forward, either from the abuser or from others. Abusers often threaten children or their families; Robson said Jackson claimed they would both go to jail if the truth came out. Robson also says he was afraid that if he came forward, his career as a choreographer and his relationship with his future wife, Amanda, would end.
Second, survivors may not want to cause harm to their abusers. During grooming, which Darkness to Light defines as "the deliberate process by which offenders gradually initiate and maintain sexual relationships with victims in secrecy," abusers provide attention, material benefits, and positive experiences, building affection and trust with their targets. “It’s very hard for young people, even young adults, to take the risk of losing all the good stuff, and withstanding the public criticism that often comes when there’s a high-profile case,” Houser explains. “So they do what they know best, which is to keep up the story.”
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In Leaving Neverland, Robson explains that he initially refused to testify in the 2004-2005 trial, but eventually gave in after facing pressure from his family and Jackson. “I didn’t believe or understand that the sexual stuff that happened between Michael and I was abuse,” Robson explains in the documentary. “I didn’t feel like I was hurt by it, that it was anything bad that happened to me. At that point, it was: I loved Michael, Michael loved me, this was something that happened between us, that’s it. But I still had absolutely no understanding that I was affected, or any feeling that I was affected negatively.”
This lack of understanding is common among survivors. When they begin the abuse, abusers may frame their actions as an expression of love. Throughout the documentary, Robson speaks about his relationship with Jackson in romantic terms. “There’s no question, I was head over heels in love with Michael,” he says at one point. Robson says that when Jackson was brought to trial, he was worried about Jackson. He didn't want Jackson to be hurt or killed in jail, and he didn't want Jackson's young children to grow up without their father.
Katelyn N. Brewer, president of Darkness to Light, explains, “Many times, there is confusion around what happened. People don’t think that what happened to them is actually abuse. You hear a lot that they felt love.” She points to the example of The Tale, the 2018 HBO movie based on writer/director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences of child sexual abuse. “The young girl considers this a relationship and her first real love.”
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Robson says that Jackson abused him from ages 7 to 14. During the first investigation, Robson was 11 and still being abused by Jackson, and he says that Jackson coached him in preparation for his testimony: “Michael told me that I had to lie. And that’s what I did. I lied.” Even though the 2004-2005 trial happened when Robson was in his early 20s and the sexual abuse had ended, he says that when Jackson reached out to him to ask him to defend him, it felt like no time had passed. “The first conversation after he arrested was like a continuation, picking right back up from the phone conversations when I was 11 and the Jordy Chandler investigation was going on.”
Mic Hunter, a clinical psychologist and the author of Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims Of Sexual Abuse, names another reason why survivors of childhood sexual abuse may not come forward: they’ve either tried to talk about it before and weren’t believed, or they’ve seen others come forward and not be believed. “If somebody sees the first person come forward and say, for example, ‘the Boy Scout leader did this to me,’ and they get banned from the Boy Scouts, or people say, ‘that means you’re gay, then,’ or ‘you’re a troublemaker,’ then the next kid will be like, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about it.’” By the time Robson defended Jackson for the second time, he had seen intense press coverage in support of Jackson, as well as crowds outside the courthouse chanting, “Michael’s innocent!” He had seen Jordan Chandler attempt to come forward and not be believed.
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Robson says that he didn’t truly begin to process the abuse until he became a father — something else that experts say is a common occurrence. “Many times, abusers say things to children that make children feel like they are participating in some way, which is not true, it’s manipulation on the part of the abuser,” Houser explains. When child sexual abuse survivors have their own children, and particularly when the child reaches the age the survivor was when the abuse began, “it is often an eye-opener to how vulnerable children really are, and how easy to manipulate they are, because they’re trusting,” Houser says. “It suddenly takes off the blinders and gives people a lens to see clearly what was done to them. That is a very, very common touchstone in how people approach their recovery.”
In the documentary, Robson says that when his son Koa was about a year and a half old, he began having intrusive thoughts of Jackson sexually abusing Koa, even though Jackson had died the year before Koa’s birth. “My immediate emotional reaction to having those images was just this rage and disgust and this violent feeling, like I would kill anyone who did anything like that to Koa,” Robson says. “What I started thinking was, How can I have such clear feelings — negative, horrible feelings — about the idea of that sexual stuff happening to Koa, but when I think about Michael and I and all that stuff going on, I don’t feel anything?” Robson decided to speak to a therapist about what had happened; it was the first time he told anyone about the abuse. He told his wife and siblings the same day he told his therapist, and went public with his accusations in 2013. “I had to defend the lie for so many years, and I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he explains in the documentary. “I was trying to declare this whole new life for myself based on the truth.”
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Dr. Hunter says that, given how society reacts to survivors who come forward, especially in high-profile cases, “what’s amazing is that people do disclose, not that people don’t disclose.” He compares reactions to Michael Jackson’s abusers to reactions to R. Kelly’s abusers. “Musical ability does not prevent people from criminal activity,” he says. “Just because you like his music doesn’t mean he couldn’t do this. And now, of course, if you're one of those people who’s accusing him, you’re going to go to court, and you’ve got to wade through 80 people screaming at you that you’re a liar. You might say, ‘This isn’t worth it, I recant, it didn’t happen, leave me alone.’”
“People always ask me, ‘Do people lie about sexual abuse?’” Hunter adds. “And I say, ‘Yeah, all the time, constantly. They say it didn’t happen when it did.’”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
For information on preventing child sexual abuse, please visit d2l.org.
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