Surviving in Silence: Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in Academia

I remember being a young teenager and hesitatingly explaining from my school desk why – uncharacteristically – I hadn’t produced any homework. It was my favourite lesson on a subject that held such fascination for me that it would later become the focus of my academic work. All I could say was that my family had had guests visit the previous evening, and that there just hadn’t been time. My teacher said that I needed to take a long, hard look at my priorities.

What I couldn’t say was that one of those family guests had sexually abused me, and that he had done so since I was seven. What I couldn’t say was that the previous evening I had finally been brave enough to confront this guest, and spent the remainder of the night defending myself against accusations from my family that I was ‘mistaken’. Emotionally exhausted, I left my homework undone. So much for priorities.

child_abuseLooking back, this small defeat was the first time that I compromised my studies to cover my tracks as a survivor of sexual abuse. There was uneasiness that I had lied, there was frustration that I had felt I had to, and there was infuriation about the injustice of it. But, most of all, there was guilt that I had done wrong. My recovery from the trauma of sexual abuse has been marked by almost perpetual guilt, even in situations that appear completely unrelated to the events that never had been my fault. It often feels like you lose autonomy in more than sexual consent. Speaking honestly about my circumstances would have involved further exposure of intimate and distressing experiences, something I felt I had already endured more than enough. So I lied.

I suspect that many survivors have faced similar situations. Now, as someone working in an academic setting, I am tired and dismayed to find myself continuing to make small but personally significant compromises. Earlier in my career, I attended an interview for a doctoral research position at an institution that excels in my field. When I entered the room, I was astonished to find that the panel standing between myself and a PhD place was composed of four male academics. They were courteous and welcoming, and utterly oblivious to the fact I was disintegrating. I was locked in a room with a group of men who had power over me. After the interview I was so shaken that I fled the city altogether. Years later, I still haven’t quite found it in me to get in touch with the department involved to point out the issue.

Taize-SilencePart of what attracted me to this kind of work is the emphasis on openness and discussion of difficult ideas, particularly when that includes considering underrepresented perspectives. Yet, some universities are institutionally decades behind practicing what they teach. When I keep quiet about my early exposure to sexual abuse, I often feel that I am compromising the values that I admire the most about working in the humanities, and that I am actively preventing improvement. That isn’t to say that I ought to out myself as a survivor. Out of empathy for my childhood self, I am fiercely protective of whatever sexual privacy remains to me.

However, looking at chilling yet sadly unsurprising statistics on childhood sexual abuse, I can’t help but feel that I’m far from alone in this. The NSPCC reports that ‘there were a total of 23,663 sexual offences against children recorded by the police in the UK in 2012/13’. It is very likely that I have colleagues who have survived similarly nightmarish experiences, both in terms of sexual abuse and in terms of being exposed to institutional practices that serve as barriers to recovering from that trauma. We may be silent, but that is borne out of an often-necessary compromise.

For me, teaching has put an ever-increasing strain on this compromise. When discussing rape culture and victim blaming in the seminar room, I am struck by the hypocrisy of speaking in abstract terms about something that is anything but abstract to me. The result, I think, is in an unsettling othering, one that centres more often on the victim than the perpetrator of sexual abuse. Professionally, I hold my tongue, but wonder privately about the consequences of allowing the reality of things to go unacknowledged: particularly for other potential survivors in the room. I feel guilty, but also that the cause of the problem is bigger than me, even where I am in a position of authority. Plus ça change …

fearIn the meantime there has been some reprieve, at least for me. Unlike my former teacher, my supervisor is aware of my history and has been more than supportive. She understands, I think, the small things that can be done to help me feel sufficiently secure and in control to focus on my research. Against my counsellor’s advice, I trusted my judgement in this instance and risked the exposure. But for subsequent positions I worry that I will fall back into the semblance of ‘moving on’ through remaining silent, and returning to a series of uneasy compromises.