most of us work with sexual abusers in some capacity, fewer of us also work
with victims. We may have the opportunity to help a victim confront his or her
perpetrator and that can give a sense of closure or finality in treatment. The
bottom line for a survivor of sexual abuse often is feeling validated by family
members, a therapist, or other significant people in his or her life and, when
possible, acknowledged by the perpetrator that it wasn’t his or her fault for
the abuse. For many survivors, disclosing the abuse and being supported is very
important. Confronting the abuser can be empowering for many. It is also
helpful for the abuser to acknowledge his responsibility for the abuse and
perhaps helping the survivor with his/her healing.
many sexual abusers have a history of sexual victimization, it is important to
address these issues in treatment. The abuser may not have disclosed his own
victimization until he was caught for abusing another. This article can provide
the clinician with tips as to how disclosure and, if appropriate, confrontation
can enhance understanding of the effects of abuse on abusing clients as well as
victim(s). This is excerpted from my book, Evicting the Perpetrator: A Male Survivor’s
Guide to Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse. It is written primarily
for survivors, although clinicians and others from his support system can also
is the act of telling someone about secret or private information. With victims
and survivors of sexual abuse, disclosure may occur immediately after the abuse
or years later. Sometimes it is a planned or purposeful disclosure. Other times
it is forced or accidental, or may come out in a therapy session where there
was no intention to discuss it or any conscious recollection of the abuse. Disclosure
may be made to a partner or spouse who is unaware of the abuse, a non-offending
parent or relative, sibling, friend, teacher, or other person the survivor
believes should know.
is directed at the person who hurt you. It lets the person know that what
he/she did is unacceptable and attempts to get the person to acknowledge that
the abuse was his or her fault and responsibility. Confrontation is a serious
step for the survivor and should be taken only with careful planning and
support to avoid potentially damaging consequences.
two acts, disclosure and confrontation, need to be well thought out to ensure
success and reduce the possibility of additional trauma for the survivor. In
most situations, a survivor who is considering a confrontation with his abusers
should disclose the abuse to someone first. There are reasons why disclosure
should precede confrontation – if confrontation is going to take place at all.
In many cases, confrontation is not recommended (but more on that later).
may wonder whether disclosure or confrontation will have possible legal
ramifications. Although most states, provinces, and nations have statutes of
limitation defining how long after a crime is committed one can press criminal
charges or sue in civil court, many laws are changing due to the widespread
challenges from victims of abuse. Generally speaking, criminal charges are
subject to shorter periods of time when such actions can take place, and civil
lawsuits (for financial compensation rather than prison sentences) have a
longer time frame to initiate litigation.
noted above, disclosure can be planned, forced, accidental, or therapy-related.
Forced disclosure occurs when the victim or survivor has no intention to
disclose the abuse; it may come about if, for example, the perpetrator is
arrested for another offense and confesses that he has also abused someone else
who did not want to be identified as a victim. This may be the case when there
are multiple victims, such as with abused siblings or where the perpetrator has
abused several children and gives up the names of children who did not want to
disclose the abuse.
disclosure may also come about when a victim knows of others who were abused
and names them to authorities. Sometimes the disclosure comes about when there
is an investigation, such as at a school or church, and the authorities talk to
others who were there at the time. A disclosure of this kind may likewise come
about when a victim’s diary or journal is discovered; the abused boy may talk
about the abuse, but not with any plans of disclosing. The problem may also be
brought to light when someone suspects abuse after seeing the victim’s drawings
or behaviors and raises his or her suspicions with a therapist or the
authorities. It may also happen if someone walks in on the adult and child in a
sexual situation and the child has no choice but to admit or report what
happened. The same situation would arise when a parent or physician discovers
physical signs, such as blood on a boy’s clothing or an injury caused by the
semi-accidental disclosure might be the drunken confession of an adult
survivor. A woman began seeing me because her younger brother, while
intoxicated, tearfully told her that their uncle had molested him years ago.
Later, when he was sober, he said that he never intended to tell her, and
although he tried to portray the disclosure as “the alcohol talking”, it was now
out in the open and she had to deal with her feelings and desire to comfort and
take care of him as well as her upset with their uncle.
disclosure occurs when the person is in therapy for some problem other than
sexual abuse. It may come out when the person is in treatment for depression,
substance abuse, sexual problems, or some other issue. The person has no
intention to disclose, but the therapist puts “two and two together” and asks
the client if he was sexually abused.
the abuse is disclosed, the information is now out there and it is up to the
survivor to begin the process of healing or continue to avoid dealing with it.
disclosure we are talking about here is the planned kind. In this disclosure, the
survivor has decided that someone should know about the abuse, and he has
certain goals for sharing the information. He should, in fact, have goals or
reasons for disclosure before telling others. Some of the reasons expressed by
gaining acknowledgment and support from significant others. It may be helpful
to the survivor’s healing to know someone believes him. This may also help
elicit additional information not consciously known to the survivor, such as
confirming that the perpetrator had also abused others in the family, or
details that can confirm that the abuse memories are true.
Explanation of Past or
Present Behaviors – giving others a better understanding of why the
survivor may display sexual dysfunctions, trust issues, avoidance of certain
family members, depression, or seemingly irrational fears.
Protecting Others – letting
someone know that his/her children may not be safe around a particular person
who abused the survivor years ago. Many survivors are willing to maintain the
secret until there are vulnerable children who might be at risk by the abuser.
Frequently a survivor will decide he needs to disclose when the person who
abused him, a sibling, for example, has children. Or it might be an undisclosed
abusive parent who would be babysitting for a sibling’s child.
Perpetrator/Revenge – getting
back at the perpetrator (“You made me suffer, now it’s your turn”).
Ventilation – just wanting
to let it out and tell others because it breaks the secret and helps the
survivor to deal with feelings of shame.
Support – disclosing
the abuse in a therapy or support group, on a discussion forum or chat room may
help the survivor develop a sense of community when his own family isn’t ready
or able to hear about the abuse and be supportive to him.
Sympathy – this is a
little different than just explaining past behaviors. This is more of a “poor
me” approach. It may also be a means of justifying the inability to do certain
things. It may also be used to create an identity of being a victim. A person
who indiscriminately tells everyone about his/her abuse may be disclosing to
Preparation for a
– is the planned act of disclosing to a key person or people who will be
available to support the survivor in an eventual confrontation with the
There are other reasons, some positive
and others possibly self-defeating, that survivors have for disclosing the
abuse. Unless the disclosure is being done to protect children from an
unrevealed perpetrator, the disclosure should be for the benefit of the
survivor and not part of someone else’s agenda (and that includes therapists
who insist that a survivor disclose or confront). The decision to disclose and to
whom to disclose should be the survivor’s. It should not be the decision of the
therapist, family, or friends.
The act of disclosure may be liberating
and supportive for the survivor, or it can have some negative consequences.
Disclosure poses a serious dilemma where control is concerned. While the
survivor keeps the secret, he has control of that information because the
offender is not likely to tell anyone, but the price he pays for that control
is often high. He has to live with the consequences of the abuse, and family and
friends may have no clue that some of his behaviors or problems have their
roots in the still-secret abuse. Disclosing, on the other hand, gives others
that information, which is now no longer under the survivor’s control. However,
in weighing the reasons for disclosing or maintaining the secret, it is most
often in the survivor’s interest to disclose; the trick is how to do so
Disclosure is usually most successful
when the survivor has good reasons to tell someone and has planned his disclosure
with these reasons in mind. For example, a survivor who wants to announce to
the family at Grandmother’s 90th birthday party that Uncle Bill
abused him 30 years ago may have good intentions, but the timing might be
What, Where, When, How, and Why
you tell, what you say, where and when you say
you bring it up, as well as why you are disclosing, are all important considerations to this
decision. Some survivors have considered disclosing to a significant other for
many years. If the survivor considers these six factors, he can lay the
foundations for a purposeful disclosure that can give him a greater chance of
do you want to know? Select a person who is most likely to believe and support
you, even if the most important person you want to tell will have to wait. For
example, if you need to tell your mother that your father abused you but you’re
unsure of her reaction, disclosing to a partner, friend, or other relative may
provide you with support before addressing the issue with Mom. It will also
give you another perspective on how to best address the person you primarily
want to tell. So, running it by Aunt Martha first may be a better way to bring
it up to Mom.
you decide to disclose can be a difficult area for survivors. What you tell them can be difficult, with either too much
information or not enough. For some people, insufficient information may lead
to speculation that the worst possible abuses occurred while, for others, too
much information can put terrible images in the listener’s mind for years to
come. Generally, it might be best to ask whether the person you are disclosing
to wants graphic information (if you are willing to share that) or just the
you disclose is important. As a general rule, private places are better than
public places, but if you fear a negative or perhaps threatening reaction to
the disclosure, a public place, such as a restaurant, may give you more safety.
In general, it is better to be on turf with which you are more comfortable or
familiar (your therapist’s office, for example).
you choose to disclose is a consideration. You will want the person’s full
attention and time to process the news. Telling someone who is going out the
door to work is probably not a good idea, for example, and late at night may
not be the best time to disclose. If you do not have nearby contact with the
person to whom you plan to disclose, you may want to factor in some
post-disclosure time. For example, suppose you are visiting your parents, who
live hundreds or thousands of miles away. Telling them about the abuse on the
last day of your visit might deprive them of face-to-face time that they will
need to process their reaction and share their feelings with you in person.
is about identifying your goal(s) for disclosing. It is also about why you are
disclosing to this particular person, and “why now?” Sometimes disclosure can
be made to multiple people. When a celebrity discloses his/her childhood abuse
in the media, it may be to focus attention on the problem of sexual abuse and
bring it to the public’s notice.
to tell may be face-to-face, over the phone or in a letter. Each method has its
advantages and disadvantages. Many people feel that breaking serious news needs
to be done face-to-face. However, in some situations, particularly where there
might be a negative reaction or the person could divert you from the direction
you are trying to go, a phone call or letter may be better. The letter may be
the best choice in cases where the survivor has difficulty expressing himself
with words while feeling pressure, or the person he is telling has a tendency
to interrupt or side-track the conversation.
If you choose to disclose in a phone
call, writing out what you plan to say before you make the call is generally
preferred to speaking off the top of your head. If you want to go with a script
or notes, you may want to tell the person on the other end of the phone to let
you speak uninterrupted and you will answer questions later.
The letter format or writing out what
you want to say ahead of time can be very helpful in that it will allow you to
state clearly and precisely what needs to be said. It can be revised numerous
times, if necessary, until it communicates just what the survivor wants to say.
The recipient of the letter also has the advantage that he or she can re-read
the letter and process it with someone else, if necessary. There is also little
chance that the recipient will hear you incorrectly or misinterpret what you
have to say, as can happen if you disclose verbally. It also keeps the
discussion focused on what you want to say; that is, there is less chance that
it will turn into an argument or provoke the refutation that it could not have
happened as the survivor remembers, or other diversions that the listener may
Having helped many survivors with both
disclosure and confrontation, I believe the letter format, even if seen as
somewhat impersonal compared to a phone call or in person, is a much better way
Once you have gone through this process
of looking at the purpose and target of your proposed disclosure, you can
disclose with a greater assurance that you will be successful. It is generally
helpful that you discuss this with a therapist experienced in working with
survivors, preferably one who knows you and your background. The therapist can
be available for critiquing or playing Devil’s Advocate, practicing for the
disclosure as well as being a source of support should the process not go well.
Disclosure to a family member can
inadvertently involve others. In many cases of sexual abuse within the family,
disclosure can create a major upset that may force family members to take
sides. Where the family secret has been in place for years or even generations,
disclosure can have serious consequences, including blaming the victim or a
uniform denial that the abuse ever took place. The decision to disclose abuse
in a dysfunctional family system must be weighed for the potential good it may
do for the survivor and future potential victims, versus the family’s need to
deny the truth and maintain destructive secrets.
There are several kinds of negative
responses the survivor can receive from family members who are unwilling or
unable to believe or fully support the survivor. One kind would involve calling
the survivor a liar or questioning his memory or interpretation of events. The
person hearing the disclosure may flat out deny that this could have happened
in the family or by that person. They may question whether the memory is just a
dream or misinterpretation of affection or physical contact. Or they may insist
that they were always around and would have known if something like that had
happened. I have heard many parents claim that the abuse could not have
happened because they “were always around”. People sleep, do chores, go to the
bathroom, or do other activities that could allow abuse to take place.
Another type of response is a minimization
of the events. This can happen with statements like, “That was a long time ago.
You should be over it by now.” Or they may try to put a guilt trip on your
statement by stating that this should not be spread around because people will
become upset (the concern more on the others rather than the survivor). Another
example of a minimizing response is the one sometimes encountered by survivors
abused by women who, when they disclose, are told that they “just got lucky”. A
similarly minimizing response is the one that labels the abuse
“experimentation” on the part of the abuser, or assumes that the victim “wanted
it” to occur because he never told anyone while it was going on.
A third type of response is one that
shows a distorted sense of priorities, with the survivor’s situation and needs
being acknowledged but set aside in favor of other concerns. A parent told by
his or her son that the other parent has abused him may recognize the victim’s
need for support, but still find it difficult to provide this, fearing the
collapse or disintegration of the family. Family members and partners may also
be apprehensive about damage that could be done to the reputation of the family
or themselves if the survivor decides to take public or legal action against
Yet another kind of response is one that
feels judgmental. It may truly be judgmental or it may feel like judgment.
Statements like, “Why didn’t you say something?”, “Does this mean you are gay
now?”, or “I would have done something if you had told me” likely will feel
like judgments. Being prepared for negative or disappointing responses from
those to whom you disclose can reduce the impact that such statements have for
Even in families that are not
dysfunctional, otherwise supportive people can say things that feel or actually
are not supportive of the survivor. The survivor should be prepared to hear
statements and questions that may indicate the lack of knowledge and
understanding of sexual abuse or its effects on males or the individual who is
disclosing. That is, a statement like, “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell
me years ago,” may sound judgmental or critical. It may just be coming from a
caring person who is trying to let you know that s/he would have done something
if s/he had only known at the time.
You may need to be more understanding of
the person’s apparent lack of consideration, assuming the comments or questions
are not malicious. In this connection it’s worth remembering that even today
most people know very little about sexual child abuse and its impact on
survivors; a response to your disclosure that may strike you as negative or
disappointing may well just mean that the person you are telling has no idea
what to say or how to help. Here is another reason why your support system
needs to be in place; you may receive a negative response, even from those you
In families where such a disclosure
would be unwelcome and create animosity towards the survivor, it may not be in
the survivor’s best interest to disclose to them. Many survivors have come to
the conclusion that they cannot expect any support from a dysfunctional parent,
relative, or family. So, if your family is that “toxic”, or if they are going
to punish you for disclosing, think about someone else you can disclose to who
will be more supportive and understanding.
Disclosure works best when it is well
thought out, has clear purposes, and increases the sense of empowerment for the
survivor. Even if the abuse is not disclosed to anyone in the abuser’s family,
disclosure can be very beneficial to the survivor and his support network.
Disclosure to a supportive community such as a therapy group or survivor
bulletin board or chat room can be more therapeutic and safer than disclosing
to members of the abusive family system.
Remember, disclosure is really about
empowerment. If the intended target for disclosure is not going to be
supportive, find someone else who will be.
Confrontation with the Perpetrator
Confrontation can be healing and
empowering, but it also has the potential to cause additional emotional and
possibly even physical harm to the survivor. It should not be taken lightly or
done impulsively. The survivor who plans to confront his perpetrator should go
through the disclosure process and
have a competent therapist review and help him plan for a safe confrontation.
Confrontation is usually best done in a letter format and should not be done
without sufficient planning. In particular, it should consider contingency
plans should something go amiss.
Most abusers fear confrontation from
All the fear you have had over the
years, all that shame and anger, refer to someone who is likely afraid of the
power you have now. Like bullies, abusers are effective in their power only as
long as the person they are controlling is unable or unwilling to fight back,
stand up, or reject their demands. In my years of working with adolescent and
adult sexual abusers, I have worked with many abusers who would welcome a
confrontation with their victims because they are truly sorry for what they
have done. This generally does not occur until they have developed some
understanding of the effects of their abuse on the victim and have really
looked within themselves to recognize their total responsibility for the abuse.
It is amazing at times to have a
conversation with a survivor who goes back and forth between being his
emotional child and his rational adult. It was, after all, the child who
experienced the abuse, and his insight, feelings, understanding, etc. were all
from a child’s perspective. The adult survivor, however, can use his now-adult
intellect, knowledge, and emotions to process the experience from the adult
The survivor may be stuck in the
childhood emotional state or go back and forth between this state and that of
the rational adult. If the survivor can examine this totally in the adult
state, he may have actually resolved the abuse or can defend himself well from
all the emotions he previously experienced. Remember, the abuse created an
emotional wound for the child. The fear, confusion, betrayal and other feelings
associated with the abuse rest in the emotional part of the brain.
The adult has the resources and
knowledge he did not have as a child. He can process the memories without
reliving the actual abuse again. When he analyzes the safety he now has as an
adult, he can recognize the emotions are coming from the child within. At least
that is the adult understanding. The emotional part of him may still feel
vulnerable and scared. There is no real danger today, but it may feel dangerous.
Survivors who are still experiencing
strong emotions from their abuse are like the child who is still controlled by
his emotions. It is this childhood emotional reaction, rather than a rational,
logical adult response to the situation, that controls many survivors.
Moving from the emotional to the
rational is not usually a simple leap. It is more likely a gradual process that
occurs in therapy or perhaps with supportive people in your life.
Remember that when the abuse took place,
the abuser was almost always more powerful than the victim. For many survivors,
the decision to confront an abuser might take place many years later and the
survivor is likely physically stronger than the abuser by this time. But
however more physically powerful the survivor may be now, the abuser may seem
to be just as powerful in the survivor’s mind as s/he was when the abuse
In other words, the survivor may be
stronger (including having more knowledge and other resources), but emotionally
he may feel just as vulnerable and weak as when he was a child. It is
through the planning process, writing the letter (and rewriting it until it
says what needs to be said), and directing what the survivor wants the abuser
to do, that the confrontation can be empowering for the survivor. On a physical
level, the survivor is often stronger and has more resources now. I’ve often
said to survivors, “Could you kick his ass today?”, as a reality check that he
is no longer the weak child who had been abused.
As with a disclosure, there are several
methods to check readiness to confront a perpetrator. One way to test the
readiness of a survivor for confrontation is to ask how old he feels when
imagining the confrontation. While a survivor may feel like an adult, it is
very possible that he will revert to the age he was when he was victimized.
When the survivor feels like an adult when imagining the confrontation, he is
more ready to have an actual confrontation. Bear in mind that the survivor may
feel competent and strong enough, but it is possible that when face to face
with the abuser, he will revert to the powerless child again. That is why the
letter writing process and practice is so valuable in preparation for a
Most people think confrontation must be
face to face. This is potentially the most rewarding but also the most risky. I
strongly recommend writing a letter to the abuser as a means of clarifying the
abuse and its effects on the survivor. The letter (whether sent or not) will
help the survivor better understand the effects of the abuse and sort out any
ambivalent feelings he may have towards the abuser.
You could see the confrontation letter
as having two goals. One goal is to help the survivor clarify the extent of the
abuse and the effects it has had on him. This process can bring up powerful
feelings and allow for venting emotions that may have been stuffed back or
allowed to emerge only in the form of unwanted behaviors. Another goal is to
help organize the thoughts and feelings that may be expressed to the abuser,
should the letter actually be sent. It permits a safer confrontation that puts
control back in the survivor’s hands.
The confrontation letter should first be
written as if it will not be sent.
That is to say, if the survivor writes it as if it is really going to the
perpetrator, he may self-censor his text. If it is written as if it will be for
the survivor’s own use, it will likely be more honest and raw. This is a useful
exercise for many survivors. Since the abuse carries so much impact in
different areas of the survivor’s life, it may seem like the abuse is a huge
cloud of feelings, experiences, and confusion.
This is really the primary goal of the
letter, which consists of five parts in order to provide some organization for
the writer. The abuse experience is so pervasive and confusing for most people
that it is a cauldron of emotions – guilt, fear, uncertainty, hurt, anger, etc.
– as well as the adult’s attempts to make sense of it all. The five-part format
for a letter of confrontation provides structure to this mess of feelings,
memories, and thoughts.
I suggest this format to give the
survivor some direction in preparing for a confrontation, whether in person or
not. Be prepared to rewrite the letter a number of times, writing, once again,
as if you are not going to send it. When it is seemingly satisfactory to you,
seek feedback from a trusted support person or therapist before sending it. I
can’t overemphasize that this is not a “do it yourself” project.
I caution survivors I see to send the
letter only after we agree it is ready to be sent. Sometimes a survivor will
write a powerful letter on a first draft and pop it in the mail (or hit the
“send” button on an email) prematurely.
- “What you did to me.” This
should be written with some specific detail. Abusers generally rationalize
their abusive acts and deny to themselves or others what they actually did.
They may conveniently forget that what they see as “touching” may have been
forced masturbation, or minimize that it only happened once when it took place
more frequently. They may assume that the victim was sleeping and unaware of
the abuse, when in fact he was really pretending to sleep and remembers all
that was done to him.
Abusers need to be confronted with
specifics, not generalizations, such as “you stole my childhood”, “you ruined
my life”, or “you took my innocence”. It is more real to the perpetrator to
read or hear “you made me suck your penis” or ”you put your penis in my butt”.
It is important to convey sufficient detail to confirm what really happened
without making it so graphic that it sounds pornographic.
This section can also focus on the
deficiencies in the relationship, particularly where there was a close
relationship, such as with a parent, relative, or family friend. The misuse of
relationship, where sex was substituted for caring and nurturance, can be
documented here. To tell the father that his parental role was perverted by his
sexual abuse not only addresses the wrong behavior, but also can speak to his
failure to be the kind of father he could have been.
- “How it has affected my life.” Abusers will frequently minimize
the impact of the abuse on the victim. They may also attribute known problems
the survivor is going through to other sources, such as believing that the
survivor’s struggles with substance abuse were caused by the parents’ divorce
or other events in the survivor’s life.
Stating, “I abused drugs and alcohol to
try to block out the feelings and memories of what you did to me” is more
direct and specific than saying “You messed up my life”, and any effects of the
abuse, such as confused sexual identity, inability to trust others, fear, or
preoccupation with sexual gratification, should be tied to the abuser in order
for him/her to take responsibility for his actions. Where the survivor is
bisexual or gay, the abuser may try to attribute blame for the abuse on the
child’s sexual orientation. The abuser who blames the boy’s erection as proof
of his “homosexuality” does not justify his abuse of that child. He needs to
hear that you don’t buy that rationalization for his wrong behaviors. Your
sexual orientation is not a reason or cause for the abuse. Even if a child is
“seductive”, it is up to the adult to set a proper boundary.
Taking a thorough self-inventory can
help put the blame for the survivor’s problems on the abuse and the abuser;
that is, it assists the survivor in the task of breaking free from self-blame. At
the same time, however, for many survivors, this section can generate feelings
of profound grief over lost opportunities and relationships, years of
self-defeating behaviors, and other effects. It may also lead to a lot of anger
as the inventory emerges.
The process of compiling and reading a
lifetime’s worth of negative consequences and lost opportunities can be very
sad and upsetting for survivors. The effects of sexual abuse are intense and
real. You have every right to your anger and grief, but it’s important to do
something constructive with the feelings and negative thoughts that might
emerge. Channeling all this into your letter can help you put the blame and
responsibility on the one who deserves it – the abuser, not you.
For many survivors who write this
letter, the inventory of damage and negative behaviors and thoughts for so many
years can be overwhelming. I tell survivors who engage in this process to back
off if they feel that their emotions are getting out of hand. It also makes
sense to have your therapist or a support person aware of the work you are
doing so you have more safety and assistance if needed. More than the other
four parts of the letter, this effort to inventory the damage in your life can
be truly upsetting. But, it can also be clarifying and empowering. Remember to
use the energy productively, and remind yourself that writing the letter does
not mean you will be sending it.
And, most importantly, if it becomes
overwhelming, walk away from it and come back when you feel stronger. Some
survivors who have gone through this process will take months of writing,
putting it aside, coming back weeks later, working on it for a while, setting
it down, etc. before finishing up a draft. It may take months and numerous
attempts before you complete your letter, but that’s okay. You are on no one’s
Three - “How I feel about what you did.” Some survivors may have mixed
feelings about the abuse and the abuser, especially when the abuser was someone
close to the survivor, such as a parent or relative. One can love the abuser,
but hate the abuse. It is helpful to let the abuser know how you felt about
what s/he did to you. This is often difficult for male survivors who may have experienced
physical pleasure and had erections or orgasms during the abuse. Many survivors
may feel guilty or somehow complicit in seeking or allowing the abuse. Just
remember that your physical reactions were normal and were exploited by the
You may have also experienced positive
or pleasurable sensations from the abuse that you attempt to recreate today or
perhaps did years ago. That is often quite normal and does not mean you wanted
or initiated the abuse. Even in cases where victims went back numerous times
for the physical pleasure, gifts or special privileges the abuser gave them, or
sought emotional closeness with the abuser, it does not mean they wanted the
abuse. They may just have wanted the relationship or the gifts without paying
the price of sexual abuse.
Abusers who have used the physical
arousal of the victim as “proof” that the child enjoyed the sexual activity or
somehow wanted it may need to hear what the truth was for the survivor. Whether
it felt good or resulted in unwanted physical stimulation, it was beyond the
child’s ability to fully comprehend and consent to what was going on.
Since many abusers rationalize what they
did and do not want to see themselves as bad people, they tend to minimize the
damage. This can take the form of wishful thinking that the abuse was less
harmful because they didn’t do this or only did that. Despite how much you are
aware of the negative effects of the abuse on your life, others around you will
likely have much less awareness of your personal problems, and the abuser
probably will have even less knowledge of your issues.
If you think back to when the abuse was
happening, did you let the abuser know how it was affecting you? Were you able
to tell him/her about the pain or confusion you experienced? Likely, you did
not or could not. And that is not a criticism of you or what you did or
“should” have done at that time. Very few victims are able to tell their
perpetrators how they feel about what the abuser is doing to them at the time,
and few are able to express their feelings about the abuse even years later.
This is the section of the letter that allows the survivor to let the abuser
know that, now that the survivor is stronger and not controlled by the abuser.
- “How I feel about you.” This
can address the conflict (if any) between the abuser and what s/he did. If the
relationship was completely negative and there was no positive feeling towards
the abuser, it may well come out as, “I hated what you did and I hate you as
well.” It may also be a way to let the abuser know how you truly feel about
him/her. Remember, this is about empowering yourself.
For the survivor abused by a stranger,
the abuse and the abuser can be one. The person is really unknown to the
survivor, and perhaps all one could conclude would be that only an evil person
could do such a thing to a child. Therefore, the feelings about the abuse and
the abuser are the same.
For survivors who have positive feelings
for the abuser, this part can help separate the abuse from the person. For many
survivors, regrets or anger may dominate feelings about the abuser. This may
come from a realization that it could have been a fulfilling and joyful
relationship but was damaged or destroyed by the abuse. It can also help
address how the relationship could have been, had the abuser not done what s/he
did. For some survivors, the thoughts of “what could have been”, in terms of
the relationship, can lead to sadness as well.
Since the overwhelming majority of
victims know or are related to the abusers, many survivors may have ambivalent
feelings about the person and what he did. This is especially true,
particularly in cases where the abuser could have been a role model,
friend, or mentor.
- “What I want you to do about it.” Some
survivors request money to pay for their therapy as a means of restitution for
the abuse, or direct the abuser into sex offense-specific therapy. The survivor
may insist on an apology or have the abuser confirm to other family members
that the abuse did indeed take place. Others have used the letter to establish
boundaries with the abuser. This may mean the abuser is told not to call or
contact the survivor without the survivor’s request. Establishing boundaries is
important for many survivors who have or could have a relationship with the
abuser, especially if he or she is a family member.
It is important that the letter-writer
go through the first four parts before deciding on an appropriate action from
the abuser. Going through all five parts provides opportunities for clarity and
reexamination. Sometimes the survivor will have an idea of what he wants the
abuser to do when he first begins work on the letter. Many times this section
changes as the survivor works through the first four parts and experiences a
sense of empowerment and clarity. What he may have thought would be fair and
just when he started the letter can change by the last draft. Even if the
letter is not sent, the process of writing it will likely bring changes to the
survivor’s perspective of the abuse and possibly the abuser.
My preference is to have the abuser
write a letter in response to the five-part letter. As opposed to an “ambush
confrontation” in which the situation passes out of the survivor’s control as
soon as he speaks, a letter can be read in private by the perpetrator,
contemplated and responded to in a process over which the survivor remains in
control. Telling the abuser, for example, that you want a written response – with
no phone calls or visits in person – sets limits that the abuser will hopefully
Remember, the abuse remains a secret
only as long as the parties involved keep it a secret. It is highly unlikely
that an abuser will expose himself as a sexual abuser to denounce you and the
letter. Some survivors fear that the abuser will show the letter to others.
Consider this: how many people would show such a letter to others, even if they
were to say, “Look at what that lying grandson of mine wrote about me?”
The abuser has the opportunity to think
about what he wants to say. Of course, the perpetrator who has no relationship
with the survivor may not care to respond. One survivor I worked with sent his
letter to the perpetrator and did not get a response. However, rather than
being disappointed, he said he fantasized the man sweating he might be exposed
in the community or even possibly worrying that the survivor might attack him. Generally,
the closer the relationship between abuser and survivor, the greater the
likelihood is that s/he will respond appropriately. Abusers who are family
members, particularly as they age, are more likely to be amenable to this
One survivor whose father had abused his
sister, who then went on to abuse him, confronted his father with a letter but
got back religious mumbo-jumbo peppered with denial. The survivor cut off contact with him
and denied him access to his two young children, so his father had now become a
grandfather who could not see his grandchildren. It took
a few years but, eventually, the father’s declining health and inability to see
his grandchildren caused him to drop the religious trappings in his emails (a
condition that the survivor requested) and allowed the survivor to set the
conditions for a possible future reconciliation. I believe it was a combination
of aging, fear of death with unsettled family issues, and the firmness of the
survivor to set the conditions that led to a turn-around.
A survivor I worked with recently wrote
the letter to his older brother who had molested him nearly 40 years earlier.
Although they had frequent contact with each other over the years, they never
talked about the abuse. Perhaps the abuser thought or hoped his younger brother
had forgotten about it. When the survivor sent his brother the five-part
letter, the brother did not write back as requested but instead, called and
said he accepted what his brother had written. The younger man felt partially
vindicated, but felt there was still more that needed to be discussed.
We invited the abusive brother to come to
a therapy session where the unstated issues were discussed. The good thing
about this face-to-face meeting was that the older brother was now on the
younger one’s turf (my office) and he could not control the therapy process. The
survivor presently felt strong enough to confront his brother on many issues
that had bothered him for years, but which he had been reluctant to discuss
with him. After two clarification sessions, the survivor felt sufficiently
healed and resolved that he could discontinue therapy after many years. His
brother was sufficiently remorseful and wanted a better relationship with his
survivor brother, so he was willing to accept responsibility and make changes
in their relationship as requested by the survivor, including not calling him a
childhood nickname the survivor hated and being more dependable when he
promised to help work around their parents’ house.
but not sending the letter
Writing this letter can be healing in
and of itself. I worked with a male survivor who had a number of issues with
his mother about the childhood abuse he endured from a friend of his parents
and a cousin, both of whom are now dead. He had issues of anger towards his
mother for not protecting him or seeing the need to find him help for emotional
problems he had as a child (even though he did not disclose to the abuse by
either perpetrator to her). In writing the letter to his mother, he found his
sense of anger greatly reduced and felt a better degree of control in his life
without even sending it to her. Though she was not his perpetrator, he carried
negative feelings towards her for somehow not protecting him. As she is now
elderly and suffering from dementia, he does not see a reason to confront her
with his abuse history, but was able to gain some relief from his ventilation
in the letter that was never sent. Being able to clarify his thoughts and
feelings while being validated by his best friend (with whom he shared the
letter) was sufficient for him to let go the anger he felt towards his mother,
whose ability to respond appropriately would have been questionable were he to
actually confront her.
One consideration in doing this exercise
is that if you get too emotional and can’t write the letter, it is probable
that you are not yet ready to do an actual confrontation with the perpetrator.
However, if the letter, after being rewritten as needed, says what the survivor
wants to say, it may be time to send the letter. If the perpetrator responds
positively to the letter, it could be an indication to meet in person or talk
by phone. Generally, it will take a series of letters to achieve sufficient
resolution before initiating a face-to-face meeting.
It is important to keep control of as
much of the process as possible. His father had abused one of the first
survivors I worked with for years. We worked on his letter for months. When it
was finally “good to go”, he wrote in Part Five that he did not want his father
to call or stop by unannounced, as he sometimes did. He asked his father to
respond to his points in writing within a few weeks. He had no reply for about
a month, but then received a postcard from his father, who was on a business
The survivor sent a short terse reminder
that he was waiting for his father’s written response. His father sent back an
apologetic and appropriate letter in which he accepted blame and responsibility
and advised his son that it was not the young man’s fault for what he – the
father – had done. While there were some issues that the father did not discuss
in his letter, the son was able to reply to the father’s letter and requested
he address those points. Eventually, enough was resolved through the written
process that the son offered a face-to-face meeting in a location that he
selected for safety. They were able to have a meeting that led the way to a
more normal relationship that was essentially on the son’s terms. For the first
time in his life, the son felt empowered and validated by his father and no
longer lived in fear of seeing him.
If the Perpetrator is Dead or
letter can also be done for a perpetrator who is dead, missing, or whose
identity is unknown. In this case, the purpose is symbolic and may just be a
way for the survivor to vent. Again, the involvement of a support group or
others who are aware of the situation can give additional encouragement that
can provide the survivor a sense of completion. The support group can provide
an audience or a designated surrogate perpetrator for the survivor to confront.
In other words, there are things you can do to confront a perpetrator you can’t
There are also other ways to
symbolically confront an abuser who is unavailable for confrontation. Visiting
the grave of a dead perpetrator and speaking to the headstone has been healing
for some survivors. One client of mine took a few personal effects (a scarf and
seductive photo) of his deceased mother/perpetrator and burned them on her
grave. Many therapists are experienced in the use of symbolic acts for healing
and can be a resource for this kind of confrontation, even if they are not very
familiar with male sexual abuse issues.
The important point is that the
confrontation needs to be empowering for the survivor and not a re-enactment of
old abusive patterns. There are protective measures that need to be put in
place, such as having the abuser come to the therapist’s office or another
location that provides a sense of safety and support for the survivor. Remember
that confrontation can be a powerful tool for healing and should always be
undertaken with consultation from a trusted therapist.
Some survivors have used surrogate
abusers in confrontation sessions. Both the adult sexual offender prison and a
juvenile sexual abuser residential treatment program in my state have used
carefully screened groups of survivors meeting with offenders. The meetings are
usually very powerful healing opportunities for both sides. The survivors have
the chance to confront surrogate abusers who are in well along in treatment
(and therefore less likely to say something that could feel like a
re-victimization), and the abusers see and hear the results of victimization in
adult survivors who were not their victims but represent the effects of sexual
abuse. These confrontation sessions, if carefully done with consideration for
safety and adequate preparation work on both sides, can be very powerful and
facilitate healing for both abusers and survivors.
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