Margie was in the process of becoming a nun as she sat in a convent thinking “If they knew, they wouldn’t want me here.”
When asked about vivid recollections of their childhood, some girls may reminisce about grade-school achievements, playing sports or family vacations. Others, however, can be plunged into dark memories of sexual abuse.
In 2018, Utah ranked 29th among states in reported sexual abuse cases, with 1,753 reports, according to Statista. Unfortunately, the actual number of assaults is probably much higher. A report by the National Research Council revealed in 2014 that the vast majority of sexual abuse cases go unreported.
“Rape and sexual assault are highly injurious, and accurate information about them is difficult to obtain because they are seriously unreported to law enforcement,” the report says.
One such case is Margie’s. She said she was sexually abused by two family members for six years, a secret she concealed as long as she could. Only after her sixth grade teacher began questioning Margie did she reveal her abuse for the first time.
When Margie, at the encouragement of her teacher, confided in her mother, her mother slapped her.
“I think she slapped me because she couldn’t cope with it,” Margie said. “It meant that she would have to address it. It had a lot of implications and ramifications if it was true, and so she slapped me and told me not to tell those kind of terrible lies.”
The negative and dismissive response from her mother shattered Margie’s confidence in others’ desire to help. It also increased the deeply-held sense of shame her abusers had instilled in her, and she decided not to disclose her situation to anyone else.
Unreported cases of sexual assault usually center around shame, according to Chris Yadon, the executive director of The Younique Foundation, a nonprofit that helps sexual abuse survivors.
“The perpetrator uses shame to silence them,” Yadon said. “That shame often really overcomes a survivor’s life.”
Margie’s perpetrators used this tactic liberally to alter her mindset and keep her quiet.
“My (abusers) would tell me that I was a bad girl or that I deserved it, that my parents wouldn’t believe me or that they would hurt my little sister,” Margie said. “There were just a multitude of threats that were used to keep me quiet as a child.”
Such manipulative gaslighting can have a deep and lasting pshycological impact on victims of sexual abuse.
“I’m 58 years old now and I still feel that way sometimes — like you don’t deserve what’s good and right and wonderful,” Margie said.
Younique’s non-profit branch is dedicated to helping adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. They call this type of woman the “forgotten survivor,” someone who was abused and “it got swept under the rug, it got hidden or she never disclosed it.”
“We felt like we needed to be the champion for her,” Yadon said.
According to Yadon, survivors of sexual abuse are the largest group of survivors worldwide, and the most underserved. He says the majority of these “forgotten survivors” become experts at masking their pain and suffer in silence.
“It’s your sister. It’s the lady behind you in the grocery store that smiles at you. It’s your mom. They’ve learned to cope with life and get on with life — to their credit — but inside there’s a storm going on, and they’re constantly being triggered by their environment,” Yadon said.
As survivors grow up, the feelings of shame and unworthiness initiated by an abuser can be compounded by society’s impulse to shy away from sexual issues, Yadon said. “Historically, anything to do with sex or sexuality has been a taboo topic societally, and that sends the message to a survivor of sexual abuse that it’s not OK to talk about it.”
Margie said the taboos of discussing sex and the stigmas surrounding sexual abuse fed her fear of speaking out.
“It was not something that was really talked about, or even dealt with much. It was brushed under the rug for the most part,” Margie said.
Stephany Marguia, education director for the Rape Recovery Center in Utah, said opening up conversations about these issues plays a key part in decreasing victims’ feelings of guilt.
“I think every community still has a stigma around sexual violence,” Marguia said. “I think until we get really, really comfortable as a society speaking about the issue and also speaking about sexuality in general, there’s going to be a stigma.”
There has been more normalization around the topic of sexual abuse in recent years, thanks to better education and awareness campaigns like the #metoo movement. Marguia said the Rape Recovery Center saw a 70% increase in overall clientele after #metoo became popular. The movement opened up the conversation surrounding sexual abuse and encouraged survivors to tell their stories.
“You see more families coming with their youth. You see more partners coming in with their partners. So I think it’s definitely shifted some of the shame, although we have a lot of work to do still,” Marguia said.
Penny Evans, executive director of the New Hope Crisis Center of Box Elder County, said that while the center hasn’t seen a huge difference since the #metoo movement, she has noticed increased education and awareness over the past few decades.
According to Evans, increased education has been not only an important prevention tool but also a catalyst for exposing ongoing abuse, like a mother seeking help at a child’s encouragement after having a lesson on sexual abuse. “The more we can educate the kids, that’s the most important thing we can do.”
As the conversation has slowly opened up in recent decades, more centers around the country have opened up to help survivors work through their trauma, find resources and heal.
Margie said one of the greatest contributors to her own healing has come through the connections she’s built with compassionate friends.
“Having someone who knows you and knows what you think is the worst of you but still loves you was crucial to me,” Margie said. “We don’t need someone to pity us or to feel bad for us. We just need to know that we are respected and loved and appreciated as we are.”
Yadon encourages survivors of sexual abuse to share their story and find resources to work through their trauma. “The effects of sexual abuse are real,” she said. “You are not broken. Hope and healing are possible.”
Below is more information about the resources mentioned in this article:
The Younique Foundation | 801-341-2308
The Younique Foundation offers free retreats to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The retreat focuses on educating women on the psychological and physiological effects of trauma, providing a community of support and introducing different coping practices.
New Hope Crisis Center | 435-723-5600
The New Hope Crisis Center offers 24/7 victim advocates, a sexual assault nurse examiners team (for recently abused victims) and works closely with law enforcement and prosecutors to help women through any legal proceedings.
The Rape Recovery Center | 801-467-7282
The Rape Recovery Center offers a 24/7 crisis line, a 24-hour hospital response team (for recent victims who would like an advocate to come with them to the hospital), advocates who stay with the victim through the legal process and short-term and long-term therapy. Survivors can come after any amount of time following their abuse to receive help.