When you think about it, very few things in life happen for absolutely no good reason. For example, the odds of me meeting Mister Perfect may be small because I don’t go out much. I may be more likely to die in a terrorist attack because I travel on airplanes a lot. Even winning the lottery can only happen because I decide to buy a ticket. Pure good or bad luck is extremely rare. Which makes me wonder: if not for bad luck, why did I end up being sexually abused? Or, more theatrically: why me?!
Not all children are equally at risk of being abused. What makes some children more vulnerable than others? What made me an easy target as compared with my classmates? I thought I’d share my answers with you (preliminary answers, because I’m a scientist); not as a way to burn myself or my parents down, but to show what ‘being at risk’ may look like. In my view, we can and should answer the why-him/her?-question without blaming those who suffered the abuse. In fact, all of the reasons I came up with for myself being victimised were things beyond my control. For the sake of prevention, we must move past our fear of victim- or parent-blaming. Because how can we help at-risk children if we don’t know how to recognise them? So here goes.
I was longing for love
My parents raised me and my siblings to the best of their abilities. We were never hungry, cold, kicked, scolded or late for school. Our home was a safe place. It was also a very wordless and detached place. We didn’t talk about our day, let alone about things that really mattered. We didn’t cuddle, or fight. We didn’t ask for help. We were never comforted, because we were never sad. We were never punished, as we never broke any rules. In that human machine that was my family, I never felt lonely because I never felt much at all. Then someone came along and took care of me, and I totally fell for it. He would do things for me, like drop me off at home so I didn’t have to cycle through the rain. He asked me about school and home and friends, and talked about his life in terms I had never heard before. He hugged me like grown-ups do. I never realised how much I craved for love and attention, until I (thought I had) found it. My longing for love put me at risk.
I felt responsible for solving adult problems
The abuse started when I was twelve, shortly after my parents had announced their divorce. I got caught in the middle of a very grown-up conflict involving adultery, deceit and a lot of money. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that this conflict had absolutely nothing to do with me. There I was, right in the middle of a conflict that in my eyes I had caused and I should fix. People were upset, and I tried as much as I could to make them feel better. Being in that situation put me at huge risk. My abuser took his anger out on me. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and stayed there because I felt responsible.
I was not being supervised
My parents were struggling to keep themselves together. Moreover, they always trusted my siblings and me to make our own decisions. Supervision in our household was very low-key. We simply solved our own problems. I’m convinced that this parenting strategy set us up for being strong and independent adults. Had nothing major happened, it could have worked out really well. But major things did happen. After the first time I was raped, I came home to an empty house except for my brother and sister who were already in bed. On Saturdays I would spend hours at my abuser’s house, and no-one ever asked where I’d been. I don’t blame my parents. They had problems of their own and did what they thought was best. I do think that the abuse could have been prevented, or at least stopped earlier, had there been more supervision.
I didn’t know a thing about relationships
In our disconnected family, my parents each lived on their own little island. As far as I can tell, they didn’t love each other. I do not remember a single hug, for example, between the two of them. They never held hands, or comforted each other, or did things together. I do remember one kiss on the cheek, because it was such an alien sight. I don’t think I’ve learned much about relationships during my childhood. I never knew that ‘being together’ meant something other than ‘living in the same house’. When I entered that relationship with my abuser, I felt like an astronaut on a faraway planet. When my abuser showed me his version of a relationship (a version that included rape and abuse), I thought ‘this must be what relationships are like’. I believe that education is so important. Not every child is able to learn about healthy relationships in their family environment.
When in acute danger, one either fights, flights or freezes. Our response is so instinctive and automatic that it’s almost impossible to change. The one risk factor that I believe ultimately boils down to bad luck, is that I happen to be a freezer. When the abuse happened, I sat still and waited it out. If only I had been born a fighter! I could have pushed him off me and scratched his skin. If only I had had that innate tendency to flee! I could have run out of his house and hid somewhere safe. Of course, no-one knows what would have happened had I fled or fought; I might have ended up dead. Still, I feel that being a freezer I never had a fair chance.
If what you just read reminds you a little bit too much of a child you know, please do reach out. Let them know you love them, keep them out of adult conflicts, keep an eye on them, and talk to them about healthy relationships. Thank you.
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image source: Ladybird Books