A Call for De-stigmatization by Edda Olsson

It’s late. The sky outside is dark but gloomy, the surrounding skyscrapers serving as a constant reminder that somebody is always awake. Your arms are holding on tight to your teddy bear, as they have been so many nights before, permanently denting a line of fur, from where you’ve grasped on for life. Where you’re grasping on for life. You can’t sleep. 

The sun is shining after a long and dark winter as you’re on the way to work. Despite longing for the sun, physically craving it, you walk around the light avenues, past the closest bus stop: a conflicting force of habit. You need sunshine to warm your skin, but shivering is better than the alternative. You’d rather freeze to your bone and feel nothing in your body as the numbness overtakes you than the alternative. You feel it all the time anyway. Avoidance is always the safest bet. 

Your hand feels like it is tangled into the chair, your right wrist left with little place to move. It feels cool and heavy, almost as if it’s grounding you and the world around you, but the handcuff is just as much a painful reminder. Where it all went wrong. That it all went wrong. That it really wasn’t your fault. Or was it? It probably was. It should never have turned out like this. 

You carry it around with you like a burn mark, forever etched into your skin. It’s funny how a little scar, a single hour of your life, can leave you feeling so naked and alone and like nothing at all. Your therapist says this isn’t really funny. You’re using humor to cope again. She’s right, you really do, do that a lot. Among other things… The stigma is no longer a stigma when it becomes your way of life. 

The stigmatization of child sexual abuse and exploitation effects everyone and will continue to do so until we depower it, putting people before issues, victims before oblivion. Stigmas can be understood as “characteristics that are devalued in a particular social context and affect people in negative ways” (Association for Psychological Science, 2018). These can be external and internal, impacting not only how the world perceives us, but also how we perceive ourselves. Historically, stigmas have been defined as physical marks, such as one from a pointed instrument or from burning the skin with a hot iron. These stigmas marked a person as inferior, such as a slave or a criminal, as to let everyone know just from looking at them that they aren’t equally worth (ibid). The stigmas from the past and those we are faced with today are not so different however, as although not physically burned on, stigmas attach themselves to us just like scars and can be just as hard to remove. This is a reality that children that have been sexually abused or exploited have no choice but to face.  

Approximately one in ten children will have been sexually abused before the age of eighteen. Of these children, around sixty percent of victims never tell anyone about what they have been subjected to, and consequently, how this trauma has, or still is, impacting them (Darkness to Light, 2015). Not only can this be detrimental to their mental health and overall wellbeing, but silence on child sexual abuse and exploitation, exacerbated and induced by its stigmatization, perpetuates a vicious and ugly cycle of abuse that needs to be discussed in order to be prevented.

Stigmatized issues, such as mental health, are increasingly being challenged, with various people and institutions speaking up about the importance of it as well as the importance of actually talking about this. Although still faced with many barriers, tackling the stigmatization of mental health has alleviated public and, just as pivotal, private discussions on such topics, a trend which we need to follow when dealing with stigmas on child sexual abuse and exploitation. After all, how can we prevent children from being sexually abused if we can’t even talk about it? Although a stellar example in itself of what the destigmatization of an issue can entail, there is also a vital connection between mental health and child sexual abuse that needs to be highlighted. What many people don’t realize, in fact, is the extent to which being abused as a child impacts not only the child’s own mental health and well being at the moment, but how this can deeply affect them as adults as well. With associated consequences such as dissociation, posttraumatic stress disorder and much more, the ways in which traumas from being abused as a child express themselves is inevitably linked to mental health. 

As a consequence of sexual abuse, many children are affected by sleep disturbances and intrusive symptoms as well as tendencies of avoidance, in which they consciously (or not) avoid instances or places associated with the abuse. They may be up all night unable to sleep, distracted by flashbacks or perhaps walking a longer route to the bus stop avoiding a specific location associated with harm. Children who have been sexually abused sometimes reenact the abuse they have been subjected to on other people. This is also the case for adults, as the trauma is truly intergenerational. Not only does this entail another abused individual but this embodies the issue of the stigmatization in and of itself: until we recognize the immense affect that sexual abuse has on children, and the ways in which this harms them and may cause them to harm others, we cannot prevent it. 

Although it is honestly quite sad and disappointing that its relation to the stigmatization of another issue may be what actually enables people to speak up about this problem, it is an opportunity that needs to be seized. Although another platform should ideally not be necessary for people to recognize the importance of destigmatizing child sexual abuse and exploitation, we have a chance to build onto another strong growing movement, and we need to grab hold of this and ensure that it becomes understood how this cycle really affects us all. 

 With that being said, a key difference is important to take note of. Destigmatization does not mean normalization. Unlike certain other movements where key political figures have contributed to the normalization of certain unacceptable actions, when others have been attempting to work against this, it needs to be made clear that shining a light on child sexual abuse and the extent to which people are impacted, does not leave any room for its normalization. Here it is also important to note that a child is a child, whether she/he be three years old or sixteen years old. Normalization, regardless of age, cannot be tolerated. 

In spite of the pessimistic tone of this message, the urgency that has hopefully and rightfully so been conveyed, it must be mentioned that regardless of the heavy stigmas on the matter, various organizations, such as Childhood, work tirelessly to protect children from abuse and to prevent this all together. It is thanks to organizations like Childhood that we can see what child maltreatment looks like and how this is tackled in different countries to understand what the gravity of the issue really is, as for example seen through its work with the Economist creating the Out of the Shadows Index. As long as there are people striving to work against such atrocities there is hope, but we cannot neglect our role in this. Destigmatization would entail open and honest dialogues, understanding about what this issue is and therefore also how we can prevent it. But for this to be as open as possible, there needs to be a cultural shift in how we speak of such matters, what we associate with such matters and the way in which we listen. Perhaps that is most important of all: we need to listen and act on what we hear.