The Term “Historical Abuse” – From The Viewpoint of an Abuse Survivor. (content note)
(cross-posted with permission from 'From the viewpoint of an Abuse Survivor')
The term “historical abuse” has been used for several years, but the recent surge in victims coming forward (partly due to the Jimmy Saville abuse scandal) has caused its popularity to increase. We probably cannot go a week now, without various parts of the mainstream media referring to “historical child sex allegations”. It is good that more survivors are feeling confident and strong enough to come forward with their stories, but today, I aim to explain why referring to their abuse as, “historical” is actually considered quite offensive to many survivors, including myself.
Why do we place special emphasis on how long ago these horrific crimes took place? Surely it doesn’t matter how long ago a child was abused? The point is, people are bravely coming forward to tell us that, as a child, they were abused. It doesn’t matter when the abuse took place. All that really matters is that there are several people coming forward to tell us that it did. Abuse is abuse, irrespective of whether it happened 1 year ago, 5 years ago, ten years ago or 50 years ago. It will always be a crime and it will always be worthy of proper investigation, no matter when the victim comes forward.
We don’t ever see the mainstream media use the term “historical murder”. We don’t ever see a newspaper refer to the potential abduction of a child years ago as a “historical abduction”. So why must we refer to allegations of childhood sexual abuse as “historical”?
The recently established, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) often uses the term “non- recent” instead of “historical”, but the same questions apply. Why do we feel it necessary to make a distinction between sexual abuse that happened 30 years ago, and sexual abuse that happened recently? Abuse is abuse and a terrible crime has been committed. The use of the word “historical” could be seen by some as an attempt to suggest that the crime is less important if it happened X amount of years ago.
The use of the word “historical” also serves to minimise the severe impact that this crime has on a victim. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing “historical” about the abuse I endured as a child. To this day, decades later, I still suffer with flashbacks of my abuser trying to shove his penis down my throat as a little girl. It might make you feel uncomfortable to read that, but it is important that we do not skirt around or “sugar coat” the subject of abuse. There is absolutely nothing “historical” about those awful crimes. I have nightmares, panic attacks, and several other symptoms as a result of this trauma. As do many other survivors. When you refer to this trauma as “historical”, you are minimising the disastrous effects of childhood sexual abuse. The trauma stays with a person, and it can destroy lives. It is not just a crime of the past for many survivors of abuse, but it feels like a crime of the present too.
When you use the word “historical”, you are also failing to take in to account the fact that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse attempted to disclose the abuse at the time (or shortly afterwards) but were not believed. You are ignoring the fact that many children have actually been let down by the very professionals who were supposed to protect them. These people deserve to have their voices heard and referring to their abuse as “historical” can be incredibly offensive to them, when you consider that they tried to tell us about it years ago.
“Historical” is also a word that implies the danger is somehow now over. It implies that childhood sexual abuse is a crime of the past, therefore encouraging society to avoid thinking about whether or not a child might be in danger of abuse now, by the same person accused of “historical abuse”. If we are to work together to tackle abuse, we must first face up to the fact that thousands upon thousands of children have been abused and are being abused now. Childhood sexual abuse is everywhere. Constantly referring to it as “historical” could be seen by some as a way to divert attention away from this fact.
There are some people who would say that it doesn’t really matter if we use the word “historical”, but use of this word also leads to some dangerous opinions being aired in the mainstream media and in society in general. An example of one such opinion goes something like this:
“We shouldn’t be wasting police resources investigating historical abuse, when there are children being abused today who need our help.”
This is an opinion that I have seen aired a lot in recent times. For example, last year, a leading psychologist stated, in a newspaper article, that “the thing about historic abuse in the main is that the abuse has stopped, there are not children at risk now who need to be removed from the situation.” (Guardian article: “Historical abuse cases ‘diverting attention from children at risk’
Society are failing to see the connection between abuse happening in the past and abuse happening today, in some cases, by those very same abusers. The use of the word “historical” also often wrongly leads to the assumption that the alleged abuser is dead. It detracts us from the fact that many of these people accused of abuse are still alive today, and potentially abusing children NOW. Ask yourself this: Do you not consider it important to investigate whether person X or person Y sexually abused a child? Are you saying you would rather ignore this? It is not a waste of police resources to investigate whether a person could have committed one of the most horrible of crimes, against an innocent child.
As a society, we are also failing to see how abuser’s work. They do everything within their power to ensure that their victim will stay silent at the time the abuse is taking place. They also work very hard to ensure that their victim will stay silent long after the abuse has stopped, and well in to adulthood. With this in mind, we will potentially always have “historical allegations” to investigate.
A lot of people are forgetting that if we do not properly investigate “historical allegations” now, then the children of today who are currently being abused, will potentially continue to stay silent. We need to show them that we take this crime seriously, and that justice can be served.
Remember that some of the children who are being abused RIGHT NOW, could end up walking in to a police station in twenty years time to tell their truths. Will you insult these victims by referring to the abuse they endured as, “historical”?
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Very good thoughtful article,its a good point that the very same abusers are still offending years later.Thank you
Thanks for this excellent article. I agree with all the points you make, and am glad to hear you make them.
Another point I have found myself making in response to the argument that ‘it was a long time ago, so let’s not waste resources there’ is that childhood trauma lives still in the body, the mind, of those who survived such events. And there are many who did not survive, whose sense of self was fractured so badly before it was fully formed that they felt unable to sustain a sense of safety in this world, which led to them taking their own lives. That is, tragically, not an unusual occurrence for those with such events in their formative years.
I point also to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study – easily found on internet search – which indicates with startling clarity the many after-effects which continue to plague people with early trauma in their lives riggt through to adulthood. Children caught in these situations tend to internalise their conflict, and that learned survival behaviour gets in the way of trust and confidence and ability to relate successfully with others, to accept or even to recognise positive regard from others in their adult lives.
So the speaking up about what happened, what’s at the root of all that, is tremendously important. It can be life-saving, for someone to break through other people’s denial of their suffering, to begin to internalise a trust for oneself and for one’s experience, beyond a lifetime of misplaced shame and guilt and emotional isolation.
Our story is real and now just trying to get back to normal with nothing