Why Some People Don't Confront Childhood Sexual Abuse Until Later In Life

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Tale.
In HBO's new original movie The Tale, Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a woman whose life is upended when her mother discovers a short story Jennifer wrote in middle school about a troubling relationship she had with her adult coaches. Throughout the movie, Jennifer is forced to reckon with the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, and to reconcile her own memories with what really happened.
Her journey is devastating, but it's not an uncommon one for survivors of child sexual abuse. Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, says that often survivors don't confront the repercussions of their abuse until later in life. This can happen for several reasons, but for the most part, it stems from the fact that the abuser is usually someone that a survivor trusts, which makes abuse confusing, especially for a child. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a child is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every eight minutes, and 93% of those survivors know the perpetrator.
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"Whenever there’s abuse happening with children, there’s always two parts: There's the abuse itself, and the conditions that allow it to happen and perpetuate or be covered up," Lundquist says. "There’s an agenda of coercion and/or manipulation which is often very sophisticated."
And there are plenty of ways that an abuser's "agenda" can make it difficult for survivors to confront assault. Ahead, we talked to experts about what can keep survivors from grappling with abuse.
Based on the filmmaker's own story, THE TALE is an investigation into one woman's memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual experience and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. THE TALE will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand from May 26th onwards. More info and full list of nonprofit partners can be found at thetalemovie.com.
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).
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illustrated by Anna Sudit.
They feel ashamed.

Whether they're children or adults, many sexual assault survivors may be shamed out of speaking out or even acknowledging the assault to themselves.

"Shame is an under-appreciated mechanism of control," Lundquist says. "It can be [the abuser] creating a narrative with the victim like, 'You wanted this,' or 'You asked for this.'"

He adds that, if the abuse came from someone of the same gender, the abuser can make a survivor feel ashamed of their sexuality. Or, the the survivor might be worried about other people, not themselves.

"The survivor might have learned to keep the abuse a secret because they were abused by a relative or prominent person, and were threatened to be harmed if they told the truth," says Susanne Babbel, PhD, MFT, author of Heal the Body, Heal the Mind: A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma. "If someone they love inflicted the abuse, they might also have felt that they needed to protect the abuser as well, as most children do."
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illustrated by Anna Sudit.
They have difficulty seeing their experiences as abuse.

Lundquist says that, in situations of sexual abuse, there are different kinds of relationships that might allow an abuser to shame survivors into silence. And those close relationships can also complicate how someone views their abuse.

In The Tale, for example, Jennifer initially believed that she was in a mature, special relationship with her abuser — he was a running coach at her summer camp who seemed vetted by a glamorous female riding instructor that Jennifer looked up to. It's only when the veil is lifted and Jennifer realizes how young she was when it happened that she begins to confront the fact that it was assault.

A teacher-student type of relationship can definitely confusing for a child once it turns into abuse, and so can relationships where the child is related to an abuser or where the abuser is a trusted family friend. In those situations, a survivor might be worried that they were complicit in their own abuse, even though it's not their fault.
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illustrated by Anna Sudit.
They're confused about what really happened.

Part of what makes child sexual abuse especially devastating is that it's happening to someone who isn't yet in a developmental stage where they can really process what's happening to them.

"The individual who’s trying to make sense of this is a child, so they’re going to bring a complicated, conflicted, child-like intellectual capacity to making sense of it, which makes them incredibly vulnerable," Lundquist says.

And that's at least part of why some survivors don't confront the full reality of abuse until later on.
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illustrated by Anna Sudit.
They've blocked out the memory as a coping mechanism.

While some people aren't able to process their experience as abuse, other people block out memories that they aren't able to comprehend. For them, blocking out those memories is a way of dealing with them, of coping with painful experiences.

Dissociating is the clinical term for cutting that memory out, or at least trying to. And Lundquist explains that when someone dissociates, the person doesn't necessarily forget what happened, it's more that they have a "half-way forgetting," as he put it, where they compartmentalize a painful situation away from their primary consciousness to be able to live their day-to-day lives.

And because of that, they might not allow those memories to resurface until later in life.
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