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24 'Harmless' Comments That Actually Hurt Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

“That was so long ago… Why are you talking about this now?”

“Kids can’t molest other kids…”

“You need to move on and forgive.”

These are some of the things childhood sexual abuse survivors sometimes hear after opening up about their traumatic experiences. While someone who says comments like this might be trying to be helpful, the reality is, these comments are untrue, and can be incredibly damaging.

Victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse deserve better. We must learn to respond better.

So how can we respond well to someone who opens up about childhood sexual abuse? Well, part of it involves learning what not to say. To open up this discussion, we turned to survivors in our community. We asked them to share one “harmless” comment they heard that was actually incredibly harmful in their recovery. You can read their responses below.

If you are a childhood sexual abuse survivor or victim and have heard any of these comments, we’re so sorry. You absolutely did not deserve what happened to you — or any of the harmful comments you heard after. Here are some truths we need you to know.

It wasn’t your fault. 

We believe you.

You are worthy of support and healing.

If you want to support a loved one who experienced sexual assault or abuse, head here for tips on what to say.

Here are the “harmless” comments childhood sexual abuse survivors in our community have heard:

1. “Why are you bringing this up now?”

“’Why are you just saying this now?’ That one hurts the most because it completely invalidates what I’m feeling about it. I was very young, and I didn’t even know what it meant until I was older. Just because I was too young to tie my shoes doesn’t mean I can’t remember.” — Shayna K.

2. “If it really happened, you would remember the details.”

“I have huge gaps in my memory and don’t know for certain that I was sexually abused, but after talking with my therapist about some things, she says it seems highly likely. My mother is convinced that nothing happened and tells me, ‘You weren’t sexually abused, you’re just sensitive.’” — Nicole P.

3. “At least you’re still a virgin.”

“’It’s not like he popped your cherry…’ Said to me by my sister-in-law — I thankfully have zero contact with [her now]. What makes it worse is she was talking about her own husband.” — Samantha W.

4. “I wouldn’t call that rape…”

“’I wouldn’t call it rape, maybe ‘took advantage’ of a situation you put yourself in.’ It hurt because I ended up blaming myself for years, brainwashed and ashamed that I must’ve brought it on myself. I have since learned to stand firm in the truth — he raped me.” — Sonny G.

5. “You need to forgive if you ever want to heal.”

“’Forgiving him will release you from this pain and make you a stronger warrior for Christ.’ I got many variations of this verbatim or implied from family members to church members.” — Izzy P.

“’You have to forgive him if you’re ever going to heal.’ Forgiveness is not something you give to someone who sees no issue in what they did. Healing does not require me to forgive him for all the things he did to me. I was a child. I was innocent. He was an adult who was supposed to protect me from the bad people, to guard me and keep me safe. What he did is unforgivable. The fact that even now, sitting in prison, he still sees nothing wrong with what he did… forgiveness is not an option.” — Jennifer B.

6. “At least you were just molested, not raped.”

“’At least you were just molested, he didn’t actually rape you.’ Well I was 8 years old, he was supposed to be my dad, he was a police officer. Minimizing the experience because it could have been worse doesn’t help a child heal.” — Melanie H.

“’Yeah, but you weren’t raped.’ No, but I was still repeatedly violated sexually over months and I was 13. It’s like because I was groomed then manipulated and blackmailed into being too scared to say anything… my experience is irrelevant because I was not raped… Combine that with: ‘If you’d spoken sooner, he wouldn’t have had chance to do it to your sister.’ Yup, thanks. Now I’ll carry that blame forever.” — Anna R.

7. “Well… you are an attractive young girl.”

“’Well you’re an attractive young girl.’ Implying I was asking for it because he was ‘attracted’ to me.” — Sukanya G.

8. “That happens to a lot of people.”

“My mother told me, ‘It happens to people all the time, so get over it.’ That was a hard pill to swallow.” — Tammy C.

“I was raped at 16 by my stepfather. My father said, ‘You have to understand it started with your grandmother who got raped as a child by her brother and as an adult by her husband. She didn’t know any better and it got passed on.’ As if to make out that it was bound to happen because it happens to every female in our family.” — Toni B.

9. “Stop being a victim — be a survivor instead.”

“’Stop being a victim, be a survivor.’  They meant good when saying this, but it hurts because I feel invalidated. It takes everyone different times to heal and it felt like my emotions weren’t important. Also the classic, ‘That’s not rape,’ ‘You weren’t raped’ — it completely destroys my progress when it comes to guilt and self-doubt, leaving me feeling more broken than ever.” — Marissa G.

10. “Shame on you for saying those things about such a nice man.”

“’Shame on you for saying those things about that fine man. You should be ashamed of yourself for coming in here (human resources) and talking about him like that. Shame on you girls.’ I was there by myself. Then I knew there were others he was terrorizing.” — Mary S.

11. “It’s time to move on.”

“When I finally had the courage to tell my dad I was sexually abused, he told me, ‘It’s in the past now, so move on.’ It made me realize not even my family members seemed to care.” — Nicole J.

“People have often used ‘spirituality’ to gaslight me. Whether intentionally or not, it is very hurtful and actually quite harmful for my recovery from the complex PTSD that it caused. Saying things like, ‘It’s time to forgive’ or ‘It’s time to let it go’ or ‘You attract what you focus on’ or ‘Maybe you just need to change your perspective.’ It’s harmful and re-traumatizing.” — Lulu B.

12. “I know other people who have had it worse.”

“’Oh, well that’s nothing compared to other people.’ That statement was said to me from a family member several years after the incident occurred. My sexual abuse should not be taken any less seriously.” — Taylor C.

13. “Stop acting like you are the only one with issues.”

“’We all have issues too, stop acting like you’re the only one.’ I was abused for many years as a child and sometimes it’s hard to keep it together. When I break down sometimes or I’m not mentally OK about it, that is something I don’t like being told.” — Carlene R.

14. “This will ruin the family. You don’t want that, do you?”

“’Can’t you let it go? Are you sure it’s not a nightmare? This will ruin the family.’ I’ve heard all of these and they make my stomach and heart hurt. No, I can’t let it go. Yes, I’m sure it wasn’t a nightmare, however it’s now become one I have almost every night. Ruin the family? It ruined me. I didn’t have the choice. He did. He ruined the family. I was just a kid!” — Courtney H.

15. “You’re successful now… Why does it matter?”

“’So what? You had trauma. Yeah, it sucked but look at you now. You’re successful, you’re going places. You need to let that sh*t go and move forward. Quit being so negative and stuck in the past.’” — Cristina E.

16. “Are you sure that wasn’t your imagination?”

“’That didn’t actually happen, it was probably just your imagination.’ For so much of my life I questioned my own perception, sanity and understanding as one after another perpetrator, many family or close, continued assaulting me. I began to think this is what love is and if it’s not, it’s a story I made up in my head.” — Chelsea A.

17. “You enjoy sex now, so it couldn’t have been that bad…”

“’Well you obviously grew to enjoy sex with random people, so it couldn’t have been that bad.’ It hurts because I often used sex as a means for control in my life. It wasn’t about enjoyment much at all…” — Tanika C.

18. “Kids can just be curious about sexual things…”

“My child came to me telling me of an attack on her by a 13-year-old girl and the investigating officer told me my daughter was probably making some of it up as she may have been curious and then embarrassed… I was her best advocate and pursued justice. It was very hard and disheartening because this girl’s step-father was molesting her. And this girl projected what her stepdad was doing to her on at least three other children, including my daughter.” — Barbara R.

19. “Oprah was raped, but look at her now!”

“’Oprah was raped, look at her now.’ Really? That’s what a friend said to me about a year ago. Oprah! Holy hell! I mean Oprah is great, but each individual’s experience can’t be compared and shouldn’t be. It’s not harmless.” — Nicole S.

20. “It made you who you are today.”

“’It made you who you are today — you’re an amazing person.’ Trying to see the glass as half full, I get it… But what could I have been without all this PTSD and trust issues?” — Mellissa J.

21. “Have you tried being grateful?”

“’Others have had it worse. Try being grateful’ and ‘What we do in this life happens to us in the next’ translated in my mind that I deserved everything that happened to me. The toxic shame I developed from that alone was and is [debilitating].” — Lily W.

22. “Do you have proof?”

“’Wheres’ your proof?’ My mum last year — months after I had finally told what had happened. Yeah I’m not Doctor Who and don’t have a time travel machine, nor did I take pictures or videos.” — Lisa M.

23. “It’s in the past now.”

“’I hope in your healing you will find it in your heart to accept that while some have hurt you in the past, none of those [things] matter anymore.’ Or variations of that, like ‘It’s in the past.’ ‘You still haven’t moved on from that?’ ‘But that was so long ago.’ It feels very invalidating to hear that. Repeated trauma has changed my brain in such a way that I don’t know what ‘safe’ is. I’m a pendulum eternally swinging between suspicious vs. gullible, careful vs. careless, intrepid vs. hesitant, fearless vs. fearful, passionate vs. numb, hyperaware vs. oblivious. My brain is still healing. Every invalidating reaction reopens the trauma.” — Lennie G.

24. “You’re lucky you were young. Kids are so resilient!”

“This one may be triggering, but… ‘You’re lucky you were so young. Children are so resilient.’ Yep. Lucky. That’s how I feel about it. I was raped when I was 5, the summer before kindergarten. But, sure. I was lucky.” — Bonita G.

Want to know how to support someone who experienced sexual abuse or assault? Head here for suggestions from RAINN, the nation’s largest sexual violence prevention organization.

Getty Images photo via ruddy_ok

Originally published: October 11, 2018
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