May 22, 2015

10 Things Not to Say to a Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivor



Childhood sexual abuse is vile and not something most of us can begin to comprehend. It’s certainly not something people want to talk or hear about.  I get that. Really I do. Who wants to talk about something so taboo, so horrific?

According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse I am only one of 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America.  Okay, well I’m not in America – I can’t tell you the numbers here in South Africa, where there is a belief that raping a virgin will cure AIDS.

Millions and millions of survivors worldwide.

Chances are that you know at least one survivor. These are the people who shop beside you at the grocery store, the people you work with, a neighbor, your friend, a family member.

Some of us are functioning adults; people who look like you…the struggle is invisible, inside, a secret.

Perpetrators count on the survivor keeping quiet during the abusing years. Later in life, as adults, shame keeps us quiet.

‘Telling the secret’ is one of the first keys to healing for a survivor. But telling has its problems. If a survivor’s first brave disclosure is to someone who has a negative response, they are not likely to risk it again.

I don’t go around telling everybody that I’m a survivor, but when I do, I’ve had varied responses.

Some have been loving.

Others have been hurtful. I want to add here that I think a lot of people mean well – they simply don’t know what it’s like for a survivor.

Since chances are good that you know a survivor, I decided to make a list, in case someone discloses to you, of 10 things not to say to childhood sexual abuse survivor.

Although there are women abusers, I have written the perpetrator as a man throughout this blog.

blog 10 things website


10 Things Not to Say to a Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivor

Thank you to my fellow survivors in the “Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse” Facebook page for your help and input in the writing of this list. Each one of you is brave and strong. I have grown so much by being part of the group.

1. Silence, aka Nothing.

When someone is silent after I’ve disclosed that I’m a survivor it makes me wish I could suck the air and vibration of my voice back inside.

I’ve had people change the subject (a type of silence about it), which makes me feel like the invisible child I once was.



Don’t talk about it.

Don’t get me wrong…silence accompanied by tears, a certain look, a touch, a loving hug are all good. Sometimes there’s really nothing one can say.

It’s the silence of being unable to face the fact that these horrific crimes happen, of wanting to stick one’s head in the sand that’s painful to the survivor.

Silence begets silence.

Silent is what I was about this for over 30 years.

Silence enables childhood sexual abuse.

We need to talk.

We need to be heard.

2. But it was a Long Time Ago, aka  You Should be Over it by Now, aka Why do you Have to Live in the Past?

So are wars a long time ago and in the past – would you ever consider saying any of these things to a veteran?

Unfortunately, some things can never be forgotten. That’s not to say we can’t heal, but it’s always there. Believe me, we survivors wish with everything we are that because it happened a long time ago we never have to think about it.

The truth is that the residual effects of childhood sexual abuse are varied and many (that alone deserves a post of its own), most of which last a lifetime.

3. Anything Minimizing.

“It wasn’t that bad.”  “It was only once.”  “It was only a few times.”  “At least he didn’t rape you.” “It could have been a lot worse.” “I got over it…why can’t you?”

Minimizing the abuse invalidates the survivor and what we’ve been through.

4. But He Didn’t Really Hurt You, Did He?

Anyone who was sexually abused as a child was hurt. They have gone through a severe trauma.

They live with the pain of it with every nightmare, every trigger, every flashback, every memory of the abuse.

Did you know that sexual abuse causes changes in a child’s brain? “Childhood Abuse Hurts the Brain” by William J. Cromie and “Changes in Brain Structure Found After Childhood Abuse” are a couple of interesting articles about it.

In my case, I had two perpetrators, and the abuse went on for years. I don’t remember all of the details. The mind is amazing that way – it can ‘remove’ you from a terrible event. I don’t remember physical pain. However I do vividly remember a couple of times feeling paralyzed with fear and confusion, and not being able to move.

They shredded my self-esteem and ripped apart my personal boundaries. They set the stage for a future of re-victimization.  They changed my life.

Yes, they hurt me.

There is no other answer to that question.

If a person was sexually abused, they were hurt.

5.  Get Over it, aka Just Let it go, aka Can’t You Just Forget About it?

If only we could, we would. How simple and wonderful life would be if we could wish it away, blow a dandelion flower, wish upon a star, toss a coin into the well, or just plain will it gone.

As if it never happened.

No more living with the after-effects – eating disorders, numbing with drugs, sex, food, all the triggers, nightmares, depression, anxiety, mental disorders and illnesses, shame, dissociative patterns, body memories, PTSD, self-mutilation, flashbacks, amnesia for parts of childhood, poor self-esteem, relationship problems, boundary issues…I could probably fill the page.

The italicized effects are those I have due to my abuse, and some that I used to have, but through healing, have eliminated.

We wish we could forget about it.

6. Why do You Always Have to Bring it up?

Because some days we can think of nothing else. Because it hammers on the inside of our brains and whispers its silent relentless scream from our belly out. Because most of us were silent about it for years, decades even.

And we can be silent about it no more.

As my friend and fellow survivor Adele Vorster says,

I refuse to shut up so that you can stop feeling uncomfortable.”

“I refuse to keep quiet so that you do not have to face the truth.”  

“I will not stop talking so that you can go on being numb and ignorant.”  

“I am sorry if my words might remind you of your own hidden pain.”  

“Maybe you have some painful memories of your own and maybe my story triggers your own pain. And maybe you will do anything to avoid facing that pain. But I can no longer keep quiet. For my own sanity and to take back my power I need to shout it from the rooftops.”

That’s right.

Because we need to speak our truth.

7. Are You Sure it Happened?

Umm…really? Please don’t ever ask this.

8. Just Think, Someone Else Went through Far Worse.

I used to minimize my abuse in this way. Sometimes I still do. I need to see another person who has survived “more” than I did. I cheer their achievements. I wonder at their ability to manage and go through life. I think if they can do it, then perhaps I can too.

It’s not really okay for me to compare my abuse with that of someone else…for the same reason it’s not okay for anyone else to.

It invalidates what happened to me.

Saying it does not help the survivor.

9. Life Does go on You Know.

See number 5.

10. You Should Forgive the Perpetrator.

“Forgiving is good for you.” “Forgiving is Godly.” “Forgiving will help you move on.”

I wonder often about the concept of forgiveness. People tell me that it’s not about pardoning the person, that in fact, it’s not about the perpetrator at all. I have a difficult time leaving my abusers out of a story when they are central to it; when, without them, none of it would have happened!

I don’t know. I don’t really get the whole forgiveness thing.

When people mention that I need to forgive, it leaves me feeling angry and frustrated.

My feeling today is if and when we do choose to forgive, then we will, but we shouldn’t be forced into it, talked into it or guilted into it. And I believe we can heal without it.


On a personal note, I wish that people who say they love me would educate themselves about the effects of childhood sexual abuse. I think if they did, they’d realize how inappropriate and hurtful some of the things they say to me are.

It feels as if I’m being re-victimized.


Do I sound angry?

Yes, well…I am.

Without the fear or anticipation of negative reactions, more survivors will ‘come out’.  When survivors shatter the silence and dare to speak, if the response is good, healing occurs.

I said it in the beginning of this post. There are millions and millions of childhood sexual abuse survivors.

 If survivors are not faced with the probability of negative, ignorant, or just plain hurtful responses, imagine the web of healing that would spread throughout the world.




26 thoughts on “10 Things Not to Say to a Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivor

  1. Judy

    thank you so much for sharing this. I do not know you but feel I do cause what you have said here is what ive been through. today at 54 yrs old I cannot work because my depression and anxiety have gotten so bad. there is a part of me that’s feels very guilty about it but I didn’t ask to be raped by my brother or father. I have been very strong over the years and share my story on a “as needed” basis. I sometime think that I should be more active to help the one who cant help themselves.

    i again thank you for sharing this

    1. Deborah

      Hi Judy,

      Thank you for reading my post and also for taking the time to respond. I’m so sorry you had to go through being raped by the people who were supposed to have protected you:( It makes me so sad for the little girl inside you. We’re close in age – I’m 52, and I also have suffered with depression and terrible anxiety. It got to the point a little over a year ago where I finally decided to take meds for it. I fought against it for most of my life, but now, I wish I’d done it years ago. They’ve helped me tremendously.

      Yes, I think it’s a good idea to share on an ‘as needed’ basis. Not everybody understands, sadly. And one of the worst things (as I’m pretty sure you already know) is to tell someone and have a negative response, like the things in my post. I think sometimes even people with the best intentions say the wrong things at times.

      Guilt is an emotion that is such a big part of childhood sexual abuse survivors. I think perpetrators are master manipulators and have ways to make us feel terrible things – guilt, shame, ect. It’s as if we turn all the rage and hatred inward. I’m all for letting it out! Screaming if we have to! Putting it onto the people who deserve it, which is never the survivor – me or you.

      Sending you healing light and lots of hugs. Debbie

  2. Nancy

    You never fail to amaze me!!! This is so beautifully written & so from your heart. I am so lucky to have you as a friend! Love & hugs. I’m cheering for you

  3. Linda

    Hi! Thank you for a very helpful list and an incredibly open and brave blog! I had a person confess to me of being sexually abused as a child, in fact I believe I helped a bit with the discovery of that abuse. We were talking about a related subject because apparently she already suspected something strange happening to her in the past. She said that one of the strange things that keeps bothering her is in a half-asleep state she would feel a heavy pressure and breathing issues, as if something heavy was on top of her. I said that I heard sometimes people who were raped have nightmares similar to this. This opened up our conversation and it transformed into an all-nighter which included me researching some things that she asked for and her calling some of her family members and talking about the abuse.
    This was my first “real life” encounter with child abuse and since then I have not been able to stop thinking about it. Not that I’m trying to. It’s just that I see so many articles, news, videos, radio programs about it is impossible to not pay attention to them all. May be some people don’t want to know about his difficult and “taboo” subject, but I cannot ignore it. It is here right now, and also in the past and sadly in the future so everyone has to talk about it or at least know about it if we are to make changes.
    I’m sorry some of your relatives are not being helpful in your search for the truth. I believe that constitutes further abuse on their part. I’m sure they’ve got their reasons but you are the person hurt most by those past events so they are the ones who need to get over their emotional hang ups and put your needs first.
    Thank you for your blog. I read and watch so many abuse stories, but it’s hard to find what happened to those children later. By reading your blog I get to hear about the abuse from the actual survivor and in a lot more personal way than a news story.
    I believe child abuse is the worst thing in this world. We have to work hard to end it, because a world with any child abuse in it has a negative total value impossible to be canceled out by any positive things.
    Please keep providing me and other readers with the opportunity to know you and your story.

    Thank you.

    1. Deborah

      Hi Linda,

      Thank you for reading my blog post, and for responding. Also…thank you for being such a good friend. That’s what we survivors hope for when we need to talk…someone who is there to listen, who will “hold our hands” through it, and who believes us.

      I think you’re right – it’s in all the media these days, and it’s so terrible, but at the same time, I’m glad people are becoming aware, and it’s being talked about. The more it is “out there” and open, the safer survivors will feel to open up, the more research is done, and hopefully, from it all, more education so that we can stop it from happening in the first place. A world in which we are not afraid to see that it happens all around us, and in which we teach our children age appropriate things, before it happens. I dream of that day.

      Thank you for your kind words to me. I sometimes think that the relatives who are not helpful are fighting their own ghosts and inner pain. If I can look at it that way, it helps.

      It’s people like you, who are willing to listen, to be aware, and not to put your head in the sand, who make a difference. Thank you so much for that.


  4. Sam

    All very good and true. I’ve said #3 and #8 to myself, more times than I’d care to admit… Thankfully my counsellor kept correcting me until I ‘got it’.

    1. Deborah

      Hi Sam. Thank you for reading my blog post and for sharing your thoughts. I also used to say and think those things. Sometimes I still do. For me, it also was a counselor who told me that I was minimizing my own abuse. I’m glad we both had good counselors who recognized what we were doing. I think it must be pretty common for survivors. It’s part of how we got through it, a way to survive. I imagine if we felt and realized what we went through, we (or I probably should only speak for myself and say I) might not be able to handle it. I think it’s part of denial. Sending you safe hugs.

  5. Karin Saks

    How I wish I could erase what happened to you Debs. Thankyou for yet another amazingly brave and honest blog. Such experiences chip away at the victims of abuse throughout their entire lives and being silenced surely feels like being in a never ending straight jacket. Love <3. Thought this article would be appropriate to add here. “What an extraordinary violation of someone’s basic dignity. It wouldn’t be my life. It’s hard enough experiencing that as a child, it’s a totally different thing as an adult man, being told by judges: ‘You can’t say this.’ It’s very scary.”

    1. jaklumen

      wow… what a powerful article.

      of course, I can also appreciate what James Rhodes is doing as far as “classical” music– I was a music student, and YES, classical music today is horridly elitist, horridly stagnant, horridly stuffy–
      when the composers of those genres (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, et al– “classical music” is a catch-all for many genres) weren’t anything like that at all. I mean, just the fact that Beethoven was first known for improvisation is proof– improvisation in most music schooling is taught in jazz, or showtunes– not classical training. Plus I really do know the world of concert pianists. He’s dead on.
      (please stop me before I get too encouraged– the Late Romantic period introduced many things that still stifle classical training today)

      1. Deborah

        Hi Jaklumen. No need to stop. Be encouraged…speak out! :) I also have a deep love of music – both playing it and listening can be transforming and transcendental. I agree, it’s a very powerful article, and I’m grateful to Karin Saks for sharing. I now follow James Rhodes on online media and I hope to purchase his book. I love how he fought to be heard – going to court to do it!

    2. Deborah

      Karin, thank you so much for this – for sending me love and all of your thoughts. Your support means so much to me, it really does. It helps me. What an incredibly powerful article!! I don’t know if it’s because I’m reading about it more, or there actually are more people speaking out. James Rhodes is so brave. I can’t imagine that his words were banned! So glad he persevered in his fight to be heard! From what I read in his article, he doesn’t sugar-coat anything – his writing is true and raw, which I really like. I would love to read his book. I now follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He had a book giveaway, which I tried for, but didn’t win. <3

  6. Lisa Hearndon

    We do need to be heard , and not be afraid to tell , we need to talk to children and let them know it’s not right and that they can come to us without being afraid ,before it becomes years , take the time to watch for warning signs , because as they grow they learn how to really hide it .
    Debbie your writing is so informative and so true ,each and every blog hits home . I know so many people will benifit from reading these . Thank you , I so look forward to each new one you put up .

    1. Deborah

      Thank you Lisa – for reading all my blog posts and for writing your truth. ‘We do need to be heard!’ And you’re right about teaching the children and about watching for warning signs too. The bottom line is to stop abuse by teaching children, and if we can’t stop it, make the world a place where survivors (children and adults) are able to talk about it – where they are heard and understood. <3 I love you

  7. Margie Wilson

    Sound and sage advice for those who try to ‘deal’ with another’s pain but are unable to do so. Debbie, you have such courage and such insight to share your thoughts so coherently and succinctly. Thank you for being you!

    1. Deborah

      Margie, thank you so much – for your kind words, for following my blog, and for helping me through this. Because you are. I want you to know that. Your support helps me. Love, Debbie

  8. jaklumen

    I’ve lived this.

    I would add to this list another don’t:

    Citing statistics, more especially, “Statistics say that men are more frequently the perpetrators than women.”

    I always felt like scum when someone said this. It felt like, “Hey man, your story doesn’t matter, because female perps are the minority. Public discussion has to be about the male ones, so, be quiet.”

    And it wasn’t just my imagination. People complained or bullied me as a mama’s boy– because my primary abuser was my mother. Then they went through most of the rest of this list.

    1. Deborah

      Thank you for reading my blog post, and for commenting Jaklumen.

      I’m sorry you went through such abuse – and not only your mother, but all the other people who bullied and discounted you. :(

      I wanted to make the point, and mention in my post that females abuse as well. I agree…it’s so rarely talked about. In another of my posts (I don’t remember which one) I wrote he/she as the perpetrator throughout the whole post, and the only reason I didn’t do it in this one was ease of writing. I’m going to keep this in mind in my future posts.

      Good point…number 11. Citing statistics. I wholly agree that just because statistics show one thing doesn’t mean other things don’t happen.

      It must feel invalidating.

      Another reason for you to shout it out! From the rooftops! BECAUSE STATISTICS SHOW MOST PERPETRATORS ARE MEN DOESN’T MEAN THAT WOMEN DON’T ABUSE!!!! There! I shouted it for you!


  9. Jen

    My brother was a year older than me.The “literature”,even the landmark ACES study,defines “abusive experiences” as those of a perpetrator 5 years older..What I learned is that we were having sex,specifically oral sex…and it was not my choice,I merely went along with it.It filled me with incredible shame and disgust.Disgust that my body responded.Shame and guilt that he was removed from the home(for physical abuse by my father).I couldn’t feel any feelings then…But,I feel them fact,more deeply than ever before..How can I deal with my own minimizing? This is what makes “Post Traumatic Stress”…doesn’t it,that one cannot feel the trauma then,or deal with it,and it is not over!” Nobody can decide when it is over,except the one who has experienced it and that one is me.First, believing and honoring that myself.

    1. Deborah

      Jen, first I want to say I’m sorry this happened to you. Yes, shame is so common among survivors. It’s a difficult one, and one that took me a long time to get rid of. One of the things I practiced was saying, if it were someone else, would I be disgusted, or would I want to protect them, be loving and take care of them? Minimizing is a difficult one for me too.

      For me, getting involved with a support group helped. Also it helped when I got counselling. Sometimes it takes another person to see clearly and give a survivor tools with which to deal with the after-effects.

      Sending you safe hugs. Debbie

  10. Rescuing Little L

    Yes, yes and yes!!! You hit the nail on the head with each comment not to say to a survivor. And should you be angry, hell yes! Thanks for posting this wake up call and hope it reaches deep within people. In the meantime, let’s continue talking about it, hell, let’s start shouting!

    1. Deborah

      Hi Rescuing Little L! Thank you for commenting! Yes, I just loved Adele’s words…’shout it from the rooftops!’

      I go from being angry, to feeling that they just don’t know what it’s like, when people respond in a certain way to me.

      I thought a list might help! :)


      1. Anonymous

        It did help…I posted this article to my FB page and got quite a stir….I would love to direct you to a woman who reposted it also…Linda Joy Myers who is an author, therapist and the woman who started the National Association of Memoir Writers. How’s that for a feather in your cap?

        1. Deborah

          Oh, happy day! I need feathers! :) :) And I have a memoir manuscript started! Not of the childhood sexual abuse, but of the year-and-a-half I spent as a runaway when I turned 15. Thank you so much for sharing! I saw there was a spike in views, but I didn’t know from where! Now I do! I’m going to see if I can look at your FB page. And I’m definitely going to look up Linda Joy Myers! That’s exciting! Thank you again Rescuing! I really appreciate you sharing my posts! Sending you hugs! Debbie


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