Why is a common crime the most underreported? Why do so many victims of sexual abuse not tell anyone at all, ever? Gabi Lardies explores the systemic and insidious factors keeping sexual abuse victims silent.
“I’m amazed that the victims come forward at all with the way the system treats them,” says Carrie Leonetti, associate professor of law at AUT. She is referring to the police and justice systems, which she thinks are retraumatising victims, who are treated “like crazy people making up these allegations”.
In New Zealand, sexual violence is the most underreported crime. Fewer than one in every 10 victims is thought to report to the police, with the rate even lower in younger victims. Of the victims who did report in 2020, over half were children or young people at the time of abuse, and 15% were now adults reporting historic crimes. On average, it takes about 16 years for a victim of abuse to come forward – that means that while some do it straight away, others wait decades (and some never do it at all).
Perhaps more troubling than the lack of reporting to the police is that many victims don’t tell anyone at all. Research on high school students in 2013 found that of the teenage girls who had been sexually abused, half had not told anyone. They hadn’t told friends, family, teachers or support services. Even fewer teenage male victims had told someone – only three in 10.
We might not talk about it, but sexual abuse is common. Young people between 15 and 24 years old are at the highest risk of sexual assault, with one in five teens reporting unwanted sexual touching and activity. Estimates put the number of victims under 16 years old at one in five females and one in 10 males. Why are so many not coming forward, and why are others taking years to do so?
It sucks and there’s no good legal outcome
Reporting to the police is never going to be a pleasant experience, and it’s statistically unlikely to result in justice. In just under half (46%) of reports, police take no action. Only 42% make it to court, and of those, only 13% are convicted, and 8% of convicted offenders get a prison sentence. For many, there doesn’t seem much point in going through the horrible and lengthy process, though some heroes may want to give it a shot to stop reoffending.
“Perpetrators try to make it so that the victims won’t be able to tell, that they won’t be believed or that they won’t protest the abuse,” says Emily Thomas, therapy services manager at HELP.
The face of sexual abuse isn’t what we like to think it is – the ill-defined stranger in the dark alleyway. We would like to think that because then if we keep ourselves and our kids out of that alleyway, we will be safe. But in reality the perpetrator is usually someone the victim knows. Someone in their family or community. Someone who they have some sort of relationship or social entanglement with. This is where that word we all know, but maybe don’t understand very well, comes in. Grooming.
Thomas notes that “part of the grooming process is to develop this ‘special’ relationship. So they cultivate that – the child is made to feel really special, that the relationship is special. They’re really gradually gaining a child’s trust, but alongside that they’re gradually pushing the child’s boundaries about what’s OK. It’s little increments.” When boundaries are pushed little by little, a young person is like the metaphorical frog in the boiling pot of water. It is suffering, but it hasn’t noticed how hot the water is, or at what point the water started boiling. “Grooming can make them feel like they might have said yes to this, that it was their choice, but actually it wasn’t. Groomed consent is not consent.”
Catherine Gallagher, clinical practice manager at START, says, “Grooming can look like lots of different things. In some cases, grooming can be quite violent and bully-ish. But grooming can also feel like love. It can feel like: here’s someone who sees you, someone who is paying you attention, you’re special.” Grooming can make what may by all logical measures be abuse be thought of as a relationship, or as love, by the victim. Then, “a reason why someone wouldn’t come forward, is because actually, this is my boyfriend,” says Gallagher.
Paulette Benton-Greig, senior law lecturer at AUT, says she sees lots of cases in court in which grooming played a key role, yet isn’t well addressed. The victims have been “entrapped or predated on by older men, using techniques which isolate them, flatter them, and generally distort how they feel”. In one case, the judges noted the grooming, yet ultimately ruled that the victim had consented. Benton-Greig thinks a societal under-conceptualisation of what grooming is and how it functions fails to meet the needs of young people. “We can’t expect young people to see how they are being misused. They are emerging young sexual subjects, and they are very vulnerable to exploitation at those moments. The moment we put the responsibility onto them, as a society, we are failing to protect them from that exploitation.”
It’s not just the young people who are directly involved. “They don’t only groom the child. They groom everyone around the child. So often, everyone else around the child just loves this person and thinks that they’re wonderful. So that’s another reason,” says Thomas.
In Dear Jane, award-winning writer and podcast producer Noelle McCarthy and The Spinoff Podcast Network present a powerful series that explores one woman’s experience of what she believed as a teenager to be a loving relationship in an Auckland church community during the 1990s. It was a sexual relationship with a man who was not only ten years her senior, but also her youth group leader.
Cultures of silence and shame
“Shame is a huge reason why people don’t disclose, it really keeps survivors silent,” says Thomas. “What happens is that the abuser can make the child feel like they’re bad, that they’re ultimately responsible for what’s happening to them, that can be so deeply ingrained that it creates a deep sense of being bad at their core and feeling deeply ashamed of themselves, even though we know rationally that there’s no way it could have been their fault.”
Shame is an outcome of grooming, but also of wider society. Sexual abuse is “such a taboo topic, you know, it’s so difficult to talk about”. Because it’s so rarely discussed, “there isn’t permission for survivors to talk about it,” she says. “The more we talk about this stuff the more we can lessen shame. That shame shouldn’t have to sit with them.”
The reception and social consequences
Often, people make tentative attempts at disclosing, which fail. “They might have disclosed little bits and people have reacted really strongly, and they’ve worked out that it doesn’t feel safe any more,” says Gallagher. They can be met with off-putting reactions like not being believed, minimisation, anger or shock.
Thomas says there are still social consequences of coming forward – victim blaming and a lack of social support. “People just don’t know what to do,” she says. She thinks there needs to be more education to help people know what actions to take if their friend or family member has been through this. Adults need to learn how to be safe adults for young people to disclose to.
For young male victims of older women, it can be even harder to come forward because of pervasive cultural myths which paint them as lucky for having sex with her. Leonetti says, “I think it’s usually problematic for male victims. It would be horrible to be victimised, but especially if when you tried to tell people they wanted to high five you – that attitude of, ‘Oh, come on, it’s the best thing that ever happened to you.’ I would at least like to think we don’t do that to girls.”
They feel a responsibility to their family
Perpetrators are often family members or someone known to the family of the victim. Victims sometimes keep quiet out of a sense of duty to keep peace. “They can often feel a real sense of responsibility about keeping family together,” says Thomas.
They don’t have the words and they don’t even know
Victims might not realise they are being abused through the process of grooming, or because they are too young to know. “Children might not have the words to describe actually what they’ve been through, you know, what’s actually happening to them. They might not even know that what is being done to them is wrong,” says Thomas. It could take years or decades for them to look back and realise that what happened wasn’t their fault, and that it was wrong.
Why should victims come forward?
First and foremost, to get help in stopping the abuse, if it’s ongoing.
Afterwards, by coming forward to a service like HELP or HEAL, people can access therapy, free through ACC, to help with the symptoms. “We often find that clients will tell us that they feel so safe coming along to our service and that it’s such a relief to be able to share with someone what they’ve been through and to have the disclosure received well – to be believed, validated, just that aspect is so incredibly healing,” says Thomas.
Once it’s happened, sexual abuse can impact people in so many ways – depression, anxiety, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, post-traumatic stress disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol misuse. Gallagher says there are a range of different activities to support people to heal. “They can learn to live alongside this experience and incorporate this experience in a way that doesn’t break them.”
Support services aren’t the only way to heal, says Gallagher. “A lot of people have had these sorts of experiences and have found ways to manage them that may not have involved telling people. And that doesn’t mean they’re broken or wrong. But it means that they’ve had to do it on their own.”