According to a new study, half of all childhood abuse sufferers wait as much as five years before disclosing the abuse. In fact, 16% of women never tell, while a full 34% of men keep secret forever. Both genders are more likely to report the abuse if the abuser is a stranger, but the fact is that 85% of female victims and 89% of male ones are abused by someone they know.
It's clear that many victims suffer long-term effects from their abuse. In its coverage of the study, ScienceDaily mentions "anxiety, depression, troubles concentrating and irritability" as well as PTSD. Women who were abused as children are more likely to be abused as adults, and there's evidence that similar risk exists for men. Study co-author Mireille Cyr says, "The number of victims who never reveal their secret or who wait many years to do so is very high. This is regrettable because the longer they wait to reveal the abuse, the harder and more enduring the consequences will be."
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much research on how these consequences grow with time. One study showed that children who didn't disclose abuse often came from families with rigid gender roles and poor communication. Its author says, "When children are not able to disclose sexual abuse, the effects are potentially devastating." But again, the effects of keeping silent don't seem to be within the scope of the study. Another study showed that "keeping a major secret" didn't necessarily cause psychological problems, but rather that "the kind of person who is secretive" might be more prone to these issues. Presumably coming from a family with poor communication might make a child more secretive, and it seems possible that the actual secret of abuse might be less damaging than the feeling that one has no one to talk to. Now that we know so many children keep abuse to themselves, we clearly need more research not just on the effects of non-disclosure but on how an eventual disclosure impacts victims. Simply saying, "it's time to tell" may not be enough — we need to know how telling affects adults, and how to make it the first step to healing.
Of course, disclosing abuse isn't just about the victim. It's also about other sufferers, who may feel less alone, and more empowered to come forward. Gabriel Byrne's public revelation this week that he was abused as an altar boy may have brought him relief, but it also made it easier for other men and boys — who are twice as likely as women to keep abuse a secret — to come forward. If enough people realize that being an abuse victim should carry no stigma, then perhaps fewer men and women will have to wait until age 59 (like Byrne) — or 49 like Mackenzie Phillips or 40 like Tyler Perry — before they open up about their pain.