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Shame, Complicity and Intimidation

February 2, 2014

While there are many reasons persons maintain the secrecy of their sexual abuse, chief amongst them may be shame, a sense of complicity and intimidation.

With regard to shame, many persons who were victimized by childhood sexual abuse come to believe that the abuse is somehow a reflection on them. They come to mistaken beliefs that owing to their victimization, they may be less of a person. How this can come about is understandable even though misguided.

It is understandable in that the experience of childhood sexual abuse leaves the child with the mistaken impression that their worth and value are limited to or reduced to that of a sexual object for the gratification of others. They as a person beyond their availability for the sexual gratification of the other are of limited value and they are tainted in the eyes of others, the outcome of being spoiled goods by virtue of their exploitation. It is sadly misguided, because a person’s worth simply isn’t determined by factors so outside their control and certainly not by their victimization/exploitation.

As for a sense of complicity, there are those persons who also have a mistaken notion that they were complicit in their abuse. Again, these outcomes are understandable yet also misguided.

An understanding of sexual behavior, from an adult perspective is simply beyond the cognitive ability of the child. However, some children may feel lonely, abandoned, lost, not cared for, or they may feel unable to tell their parents or guardians with the fear of wrongdoing attributable to themselves for lewd, inappropriate or despicable acts perpetrated against them. These children are vulnerable and in these circumstances, the child feels their own vulnerability as complicity for either not speaking out in the moment, shortly thereafter or in part appreciating the attention in the circumstance, albeit not the activity.

That a lonely child can be exploited by the lure of caring and attention, does not make that child complicit with their exploitation. It makes them but a child, used and abused by the other for inappropriate gain and gratification. Being lonely does not mean your vulnerability should be exploited. Not being able to tell your parents or guardian may be more reflective of an ambivalent belief in your care and safety with what should be trusted adults. If you felt you had to keep a secret for the wellbeing of your parents, who might be upset, even if appropriately at the target of your abuse, this is also topsy-turvy and a reflection of something amiss in the parenting.

Intimidation is a very potent silencer and probably the easiest to understand. This is the one reason for secrecy that is understandable and may not be misguided.

Intimidation comes in many forms from overt threats of violence to the child, threats of being separated from one’s family if the secret is unveiled, to threats of projecting culpability upon the child by distortion of facts, to threats of undermining the person’s credibility in childhood or even later in adulthood. There is a trajectory for the child as they grow into adulthood. The trajectory is to continue to feel that sense of intimidation even as they age and even when the real threat is not as great as the perceived threat.  That wounded and scared child remains at the core of one’s being, now enveloped by their adult body. As such, the intimidation begun in childhood follows into adulthood.

The role/goal of therapy is realistically examine misguided beliefs. No child is complicit in their abuse and no child is shameful for any reason, certainly not for having been abused. Even in adulthood, the secret is still not cause for shame once we understand the potent and long living effect of childhood abuse.

As for intimidation, the role/goal of therapy is to realistically appraise the threat of intimidation. The benefit of this reappraisal in adulthood is that the adult part of one’s being can stand up for and be self-protective in appropriate ways of the wounded child within. Whereas the child within may yet feel intimidated, the grown up self can take ownership of an adult understanding of abuse as a reflection of the abuser and not oneself as a child. It may have been easy to intimidate the child, but more difficult to intimidate the empowered adult.

If you are an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse please know, it cannot have been your fault. You cannot be held accountable for the insidious exploitation by those who betray your trust. This is not a reflection on you and hence no cause for shame. Now as an adult, you can learn to not only protect yourself, but own these experiences as a reflection of the abuse by another, independent of your value and worth as a person.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

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  1. I was abused as a child . I never seen my abuser since the day I was kidnapped by my mother, until !!! the passing of my father, who I come to find lived directly across the street from me for years?
    How to say good bye to a person who is your father in name only while your child hood abuser stands in wait. Wooo the emotions ran high ! For five weeks , each and every day he was there. How to support a person passing on and dealing with my abusers presence each day was too much

    We are coming up to the one year anniversary of my fathers passing and as an adult I had so many questions, questions that will never be answered, not by my dad anyway

    My abuser , my dads brother was his care giver at the end!!!! This abuser not only sexually abused me as a child, but abused my Aunt who had to take shelter for safety purposes ! Needless to say I had grave concerns he was abusing my father. I did speak to this with my dad and his reply was this : He is doing what he can ! really.

    Once an abuser always an abuser ! I have struggled for years ! I was married 15 years and could not take my cloths of in front of my own husband unless I was drinking , drunk. It became much easier to live alone.

    I know its is not my fault , however I want others to know How important it is to reach out and get professional help as SECRETS KEEP PEOPLE SICK.

  2. Again Gary, right on. Recently I worked with a young man who was abused by his aunty at the age of 12. Sadly he enjoyed it and didn’t realize the harm it did him – basically identifying with the aggressive, looking at child porn and believing he was a “perp”. Luckily he has a strong family and was able to move through the fear of harming a child to a place of peace relatively quickly, but in order to do so he had to tell his mother, the aunt’s sister, with the fir the molestation would become public. Both parents – father already knew – were very supportive of him, but it was telling his mother that took him over the edge of fear. He is now in his first trusting relationship with a “woman”, not a “girl”, and regaining trust in himself. This was a particularly harmful molestation because he didn’t realize till therapy that what he felt was enjoyment really twisted his whole sense of self.

  3. Another comment received from another chat group:


    What I hear primarily in your article, as I am also reminded, is that normalizing a victims thought process (as it may have been misguided and formed during childhood) is key to helping them change and move from shame and guilt toward healing in their recovery from child sexual abuse.

    The guilt and shame that any victim of child sexual abuse carries needs to be remedied by that survivors understanding that they were “never complicit” in their abuse as a child, and that their reactions were actually normal and not their fault, though unfavored by people around them who often merely pass judgment or who tend to criticize these outward behaviors.

    I believe that what you’ve brought forth in this writing is also very “timely” as we look at today’s statistics in child sex trafficking. Often these youngsters go out on their own with whoever the adult offender is. These are authority figures over these children. This is a therefore form of intimidation, and regardless of what the child’s outside behavior is, they are still children, not at fault. And these perpetrators (exploiters) need to be stopped.

    I appreciate what you have brought forth here for every child but also for any adult who has felt guilty or ashamed of what has happened to them.

    Thank you so much Gary for enlightening us!

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