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Here’s What Many People Say When They Hear the Words “Childhood Sexual Abuse”

How do people respond to you when you say, “I was sexually abused as a child,” or when you say, “My wife was sexually abused as a child?” I am curious and sometimes saddened by peoples’ responses when the topic of childhood sexual abuse is mentioned. If someone close to you is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, or if you are a survivor yourself, I’m sure you’ve been saddened at times too.

I’ve chosen four expressive sounds indicating four types of response when people hear “childhood sexual abuse.” Let’s begin with perhaps the most favorable type of response.

  1. Ooooooh – Expresses interest, wonder, and admiration

I recently received this response from an audience of about 100 people. I was at the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference, an opportunity for me to have some face-to-face time with acquisition editors for the book I’ve now finished. In one of the workshops, we, as participants, were to state the purpose of our writing in one sentence. I volunteered my answer when the workshop instructor asked for examples. In a bold voice I said, “To guide husbands in developing empathy for their wives who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”

The 100 participants in that workshop became a united chorus as they sang out, “Oooooooooh!” The workshop instructor noted that the audience response was exactly what an author wants to hear because it is “music to any publisher’s ears” – it expresses interest and wonder, making a book very marketable.

A few months ago, I received a similar response in a one-on-one conversation. At the end of an appointment, a nurse at a medical clinic asked me, “So what do you have going on the rest of the afternoon.” When I told her that I was going to work on my book, she asked me what the book was about. I gulped and said, “I’m writing a book that addresses ten common questions from husbands whose wives are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” Without any hesitation, she said, “When you’re done with that book, I want a copy.” That’s an “Oooooooh” type of response. (The logistical details of this story were altered to protect confidentiality, but the dialogue is an actual account).

There is perhaps one downside to this type of response. If you have any insecurities as the husband of a survivor or as a survivor, you might feel as though you are some sideshow. You’ve revealed the childhood sexual abuse and now it might seem as though people are looking through a window at you saying, “Oooooh! Look at that!” It’s okay if people are interested, but you are not sure if you want them to be intrigued.

  1. Hmmmmmm – Expresses some thought with hesitation

This response reveals that the person does not know what to say in response to the information you’ve just given them. They might be experiencing confusion because they were not expecting to hear about childhood sexual abuse. They might also experience consternation because they don’t know what to say. Therefore, “Hmmmmm” is often followed by silence.

The downside is that you don’t know how to respond to their response. While “Ooooooh” indicates interest, “Hmmmmmm” introduces awkwardness. You were willingly vulnerable in sharing yourself. But now you’ve received the sound of silence. You don’t know whether your revelation has been received with approval or disapproval. It’s like the response I hear at a retail clothing store when the clerk looks at me and is trying to guess my size. Hmmmmmm. I don’t know if that is approval or disapproval.

Before looking at the next response, let’s keep in mind that the individual giving this response of “Hmmmmm” has been invited by us into a subject matter that they’ve rarely or never ventured into before. So let’s not blame them. At best, they are simply uninformed, and we have the opportunity to help them understand how healing can come out of trauma.

  1. Awwww – Expresses sorrow and pity for someone

This type of response requires some discernment on the part of the survivor. It is a response that might be affirmative, or it might be very unsafe.

Saying, “I am so sorry,” would be an affirming form of this “Awwwww” response. It is a common response when someone hears of a trauma or tragedy. It expresses feeling and compassion. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, this sorrowful expression acknowledges the tragedy that something which never ought to have happened did happen.

On the other hand, “Awwwww” might express pity. This response warns us that the person might be gearing up to give advice or uninvited showering of unwanted help.

We as husbands of survivors and those who are survivors do not need people to feel pity for us. Some of the most courageous people I know – and my wife leads the pack – are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Injured? Yes! Weak? No! Deserving of love and understanding? Yes! Needing someone’s pity? No!

  1. Whoa – Expresses a desire for the conversation to stop

This response can be disguised with other words. Here’s a scenario of how I most often hear this response. When I tell people that my wife and I are involved in a ministry that helps husbands and wives rebuild marriages that are affected by a wife’s childhood sexual abuse, I often hear, “Oh that’s wonderful!” And then they change the subject. Essentially, they are saying, “Whoa!”

This statement, originally used to make horses stop, is an appeal for the immediate conversation to stop. This can be a hurtful response. When a person verbally or nonverbally communicates, “I don’t want to hear anymore,” it can feel like, “I don’t want to hear you anymore.”

So how might we respond to the Ooooooohs, Hmmmmmms, Awwwwws, and Whoas? Next week, in Part Two, I’ll offer some perspectives that I hope will help us process these responses in a constructive manner.

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