When it comes to things that hurt us in an abstract sense, we tend to think of words and actions – lies, insults, betrayal. But it is silence that will choke the life out of victims of sexual violence.
"This is our little secret."
"I’ll kill you if you say anything."
"No one will believe you."
It is easy for perpetrators to convince young children that they will get into worse trouble if they divulge what happened to them.
Quite often, they are not believed – particularly if the perpetrator is someone close to the family, such as a grandparent or uncle. And, as has long been established, the majority of victims know the people who hurt them.
When older victims – teenagers, adults – speak out, they are often accused of lying ("He would never do that!"), "asking for it" ("Why were you drinking?") or being mistaken ("Are you sure you really said no? Are you sure you’re not just regretting it?").
And so, because this is what you see around you every day, you keep quiet. You doubt yourself. You think, it must have been my fault. You try to swallow your anger and fear and live your life like you think a normal person would.
This is devastating and toxic and it has to stop.
Recently, the Duggars have been in the news. They’re the fundamentalist American "Quiverfull" family who has 19 kids, and it turns out that when the oldest son, Josh, was 14, he molested several underage girls. Including four of his sisters.
This was in 2002. His parents found out in the same year; he was "disciplined". And yet, according to Gawker, the Duggar family follows a "cult-like homeschooling program" that concentrates on "public image, and lays heavy blame on the victims of assault". It includes the question "What factors in the home contributed to immodesty and temptation?"
In other words: keep quiet, or you will be blamed.
Although usually less explicit, this kind of attitude is common, and the victim-blaming questions I noted above are powerful deterrents against reporting in the first place.
But even when victims do speak out and are believed, there is another factor at play.
A few weeks ago, British pianist James Rhodes won the right to publish his memoir, which includes his account of being raped as a young boy by a teacher at his school.
Rhodes’ ex-wife had caught wind of the memoir and brought an injunction on behalf of their son. In a moving article from The Independent, Rhodes writes of his experience:
"It was made clear that my past history of sexual abuse and mental illness was so abhorrent, shameful and ‘toxic’ (their word) that it should never be talked about except privately with close friends; and that, as far as the world at large was concerned, my past should in effect cease to exist."
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could be so cruel as to try and force a survivor by litigation not to speak of the most harrowing thing they have ever experienced.
The legal battle had such a devastating effect on Rhodes that he became suicidal: "Before all this started, I was happier than I had been in years.
I was engaged to the woman of my dreams, fulfilled in my career and friendships. I smiled at people on the Tube, and woke up excited at life.
By the time of the final court hearing, I was on anti-schizophrenic medication, with a shot immune system and an adrenal system on its knees."
It is a matter of urgency that we tell victims and survivors, loudly: "It is not your fault. You do not have to be ashamed or afraid." We need to create an environment for them to speak up without fear of backlash.
We need to say, "I believe you."