Dedicated to all the men and women who are survivors of sexual abuse sitting in the shadow of their shame; to the children we once were.
Being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is one of the most isolating and shameful experiences, even more so in religious communities. I know that there are thousands of Muslims, both men and women, from all cultures and backgrounds who are experiencing this same isolation, as well as the immense shame and guilt that comes with this trauma.
When I was going through a very rough time, curled up in my dark space, I wish I had something like this to give me some sort of validation in that I’m not the only person (or Muslim) who’s been through what I endured. When we’re experiencing immense emotional pain, especially due to sexual trauma, we tend to think we’re the only ones who are experiencing this pain; any form of validation can be therapeutic. I hope that through my writing, I can reach out to you wherever you may be, that you find whatever it is you’re seeking, and that I hopefully soothe your pain by validating it, even if just a little…
“Hello, Samaritans, can I help you?”
I had sat in the middle of the park and just moments before I was staring at my phone in my hand and psyching myself up to dial those digits. I broke into silence – a deafening silence. My brain was moving at 100 miles a second. Hearing that sentence, I knew things just got real.
I was torn; part of me was petrified of this reality, but another part knew that making this call was such a huge step. Deep down I knew I’d come too far to go back and that it just had to be done. The calm before the storm. I knew in that moment that this was the start of a long agonising journey into the unknown. It was real. Oh no. Could I do this? How long will this nightmare last? Will I ever be normal? Can I ever be normal? Will I always have to keep this a secret? What man would want me after all this? So many questions, but nobody to answer them. However, I knew that acceptance was my only choice at that point, and I reached deep within myself to find it.
Although every part of me was filled with fear and anxiety, I reluctantly surrendered to the unknown that was ahead of me. I couldn’t hold my tears back any longer. I’d been holding it in for so long and I burst into a very heavy sob. I could barely breath and was talking in between my short breaths. I felt like I was confessing a crime.
“I’m sorry. I’ve just never said this out loud to myself before…”
“Has someone hurt you in the past?”
I was amazed he had picked up on why I was calling. Was this all too common, or did he hear the pent-up pain in my sobbing?
“Was it a man or a woman?”
“How old were you?”
“12. I think…”
Now, let’s go back a few years to what led up to this moment…
It was roughly a month before my 20th birthday and I was approaching the end of my first year at university. I was sat with my mum watching TV late in the evening, feeling tired after a long week. At this point, we were too tired to even change the channel after the show we had been watching finished. Instead we sat there and accepted whatever show came on. The moments that followed this acceptance was nothing less of traumatising.
We were watching a reality TV show where a group of young men would pose as children online to catch paedophiles. They had managed to catch a man in his 40s attempting to meet up with a “14-year-old” they had posed as online and called the police on him. There was a commotion, and one of the young men shouted, “You’re in your 40s! You can’t have sex with a 14-year-old! It’s illegal!”. This was the moment the penny dropped. I sat there. Stunned. In that moment it felt like everything around me froze, just like I had. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I felt incredibly confused and the only thought that could cross my mind was “It’s wrong for a man in his 40s to have sex with a 14-year-old?!?!”.
My world around me had crumbled. The ‘normal’ life I was living fell apart. It all vanished in that second. Gone. Just like that. Then came the denial trying to protect my brain against my harsh reality, “No, but that was different, he said he loved you and cared about you. He was doing it to help you”. I had always heard statistics and stories about children who had been sexually abused and felt sympathy for them, and suddenly I was one of those children; I was a statistic. Although my natural reaction of denial was my brain’s attempt to protect me, a very small part of me knew that what had happened to me those years ago was wrong and abusive.
But I didn’t want to be a helpless victim or a statistic; those weren’t my identity. I was a daughter and a sister, a friend, a British Muslim, and a university student, so where did victim of childhood sexual trauma fit into that?! The grieving process began then and there and from that moment on, it all went downhill. I was grieving my identity and the “normal” life I thought I was living. For the next few years, I constantly rejected the “victim” or “statistic” identity that was suddenly forced upon me. The more I pushed the trauma to the back of my mind (at least I thought I did), the worse things got for me.
I’d tell myself lies: “I’m fine. I don’t need help”, “It doesn’t affect me”, “He loved and cared about me, so it doesn’t count anyway”. But it always managed to find its way into my life in so many different forms; anger outbursts, emotional eating, weight gain, migraines, flus, lack of sleep, bad relationships, self-hate, guilt, shame, mood swings, childish behaviour, the list goes on. The best way to describe it is that it was like forcing shut a cupboard full of junk that kept on bursting open with the junk flooding out, but you forcefully shove it all back in and close it again hoping it’ll stay that way. Although you know the best solution is to open it, sort through this junk, and throw things out, no matter how tiring or tedious it may be, you choose to avoid it and pretend it’s not an issue to begin with.
You may (or may not) be wondering how as a young adult I didn’t know that it was wrong for a fully-grown man to have sex with a child. If you’re thinking that, you don’t know the deep and long-lasting impact grooming has on survivors of abuse. It’s like a spell or brain washing, you’re unaware that someone is affecting your thoughts and behaviour.
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) explains on their website that most callers who contact them were sexually abused by someone they knew. This increases the likelihood that they had an existing emotional connection with the abuser, or that the abuser established this emotional connection with the goal of sexually exploiting them.
This process of building a connection with the intent to sexually abuse a vulnerable person or child is known as grooming. This is when the abuser pinpoints what the victim lacks in their life to meet those unmet needs. These needs may include food, material items such as toys, attention, or anything the child needs or desires, be it a tangible need such as clothes or an emotional need such as affection or understanding. They go on to explain that children gravitate towards those who meet their unmet needs in order to survive, and abusers use this need manipulatively to become physically close to the child. In sum, abusers first gain emotional proximity with a child by filling in any gaps in their life and then use this to manipulate their way into getting physically close to them.
The gap in my life at the time of the abuse? The lack of presence of a decent and consistent father figure. Although I didn’t recognise this ‘gap’ in my life at the time, because it was ‘normal’ for me, and I was still a child, he (the abuser) very easily picked up on it. It took me many years to realise that my [toxic] ‘emotional attachment’ to him at the time of the abuse, and me thinking I cared about him and was in love with him wasn’t because I was seeking the abuse or enjoyed it like he made me believe at the time, but because I was seeking my unmet needs (having a father figure who understood my emotional needs) to be met.
This is where the line is blurred for survivors of childhood sexual abuse; because abusers groom their victims and use the emotional bond to get physically close – we think we had a choice in what happened. We think we were seeking the abuse from them, when in fact they manipulatively drew themselves close to us through our unmet needs, thus extremely blurring the line between what we ‘need’ (i.e. our unmet need/s to be met, at least what they think we need), and what they make us think we wanted or needed at the time (i.e. the abuse).
This is one of infinite reasons survivors blame themselves and feel confused, guilty and ashamed. We struggle to realise the depth of the abuser’s grooming and how much of an impact it had and continues to have on our thoughts and feelings about the trauma. I have always thought about it as a continuation of the abuse, even years after it has ended; a thought I’ve always absolutely resented with a passion! It’s intrusive to my healing and adult self who wants to feel safe and empowered. I hate the moments when I feel ashamed, guilty or angry because it feels like I’m still allowing him control over me, and in a way re-creating the powerlessness that was experienced during the abuse.
From my experience, grooming also controls how and what you think about what’s happening to you. Whilst they build that emotional connection with you, they also spoon feed you whatever thoughts or beliefs they want you to have about this connection and the abuse. Abusers are master manipulators, and as an innocent child, you’re inclined to believe what they say and go along with it: “I’m doing this because I love you”, “I’m doing this to teach you how to be a good wife”, “Practice with me, I won’t tell anyone like other guys would”, “I’m doing this to meet your sexual needs so you won’t do it with guys who would expose you”, “You’re beautiful, how can I stay away from you”, “It’s such a shame you’re not older, otherwise I would’ve married you”.
It also keeps the victim silent. The man who sexually abused me is my dad’s friend. At the time of the abuse, he made it seem like we were having a secret romantic affair, and that if anyone found out I’d get in trouble because as a Muslim woman I’m not allowed to be having sex before marriage or (using his exact words), my mum “will be upset”, or he’d get in trouble because he’s married. He used the emotional connection he established with me to keep me silent and feed me these false beliefs and information, which led me to think I cared about him or that I was in love with him (something apparently not uncommon in cases of sexual abuse).
Till this day, as a 25-year-old woman, I struggle when I have feelings for someone, or even just a slight interest because I equate love (or being ‘in love’) and trust with sexual abuse and lack of control. Associating something that’s meant to be positive and beautiful to something so traumatic and toxic is confusing and draining to say the least. You always feel like you are being held back and like the abuser is still taking from you, even years after the abuse has stopped.
I find myself panicking when someone shows a romantic interest in me or wants to be romantically [emotionally] close to me. My mind “short wires” and immediately thinks of the trauma. The only thought that tends to cross my mind in situations like this is “He’s not actually interested in you; he only wants to use and hurt you”. It’s times like these when I try my best to rationalise it in my head and focus on the differences in the situations, but even that is a lot of mental effort and stops me from enjoying what’s supposed to be a positive experience. This is one aspect that’s still a work in progress, but it’s comforting to know that I’ve come a very long way.
Most importantly, I’ve come to learn and accept that life after sexual abuse will not be the same, but it’s also not over. You can either still allow the abuser control over your life by suppressing your trauma and allowing it to impact your life in so many ways, or you can take that control away from them and face it head on, at whatever pace is comfortable for you, so long as you’re moving in the direction of healing. So, which will it be?
(Under “Why do I feel guilt and shame?” heading)
Contact details of helpline mentioned in article
Samaritans: 24/7 confidential emotional support (not specifically for survivors)
Tel: 116 123 (Free from UK and ROI)
Email: [email protected]