I do work hard. Yes I do. Really. But in the middle of an important meeting, I found myself considering what we really mean when we talk about a taboo. It is broadly defined as a “system of prohibitions connected with things considered holy or unclean”. I’m no social anthropologist or sociologist, but it seems clear to me that even when we collectively uphold something as a taboo, it’s not actually a prohibition; it simply stops us talking about it.

Child sex abuse is a taboo; within the confines of trusted structures – such as family or school or religion – even more so. This is quite right. Yet although we operate this “system of prohibitions” it doesn’t translate into action from us, as a society, to prevent it in the first place. This is because where abuse is concerned the actual taboo is talking about it, acknowledging and confronting it.

It’s unsurprising, I suppose. We are frightened of taboos; how they challenge us, what we might need to do to stop them. Take death. Since we left the Victorian theatricality surrounding death behind, it is high up on the list of taboo subjects. We can’t talk about it. We deny it and at best address it euphemistically. But this doesn’t stop it. It just means we aren’t prepared for it. Of course, this is where that comparison must rightly stop. Death from natural causes is inevitable, child abuse is not. However until we break the talking taboo childhood sex abuse will continue and will remain inevitable.

You see the things that start at home – private, unshared, tacitly understood – are perpetuated. A taboo, such as family abuse, is a crime committed, known about, but rarely talked about. The more trusted, tightly wrought and familiar the institution, the greater is the taboo surrounding revealing any deviation within its confines.

Recent high profile celebrity abuse cases are really helping us to peel back some of the layers here. The reporting is so often skewed, but the conversation has started however uninformed and misguided it may sometimes be. Like Sophie Heawood in her column I too punch the air when another case is revealed because some fresh air has been blown into the musty long held secret. But I also have to temper my exasperation. The bind is that a concept such as ‘celebrity’ and the notion of an ‘institution’ enable us to put a distance between these horrors and daily family life. This is what gives it license to continue, unchallenged. We speak out about the famous, but we can’t speak out about our families. The more we know about it, the more we defend against it.

The family is our smallest unit of society – many would see it as a fundamental building block of society. In so many ways it forms us, teaches us, sustains us. We are taught to trust it and everything that happens within it. The rules learnt within the family – including what you do or don’t talk about – are virtually impossible to break as a child or an adult. If you experienced something hateful, perpetuated by someone you trusted and actively or passively sanctioned by those you loved, how on earth do you know it is wrong and how on earth do you summon the resources at any point in your life to speak out? Society at a macro level can’t believe you and society at a micro level, your family, may well reject you. The talking taboo is an important contributor to this.

Twitter is alive with the fact that the Home Secretary’s long promised inquiry into historic child sex abuse has been kicked into the political long grass with the substantial controversy surrounding its new chair, Fiona Woolf. This, I believe, is a living, breathing example of my point. We know it’s happening, at scale, but we can’t talk about it, for fear of what might ensue and what it might unleash. It is, in fact, too close to home for everyone.

The inquiry matters for all sorts of reasons: first it was promised by the Government and the Government needs to follow through. Second it would send a message to those who have suffered and are suffering abuse that this issue will be taken seriously. Third, and most importantly, it would mean talking about abuse. Although the inquiry will focus on institutions, it should shine a light on the fact that it happens inside families, outside families, in institutions, by those we trust and don’t trust, in every class, faith, colour, and household, and make it part of our discourse. Only in this way can we take some small, firm steps towards putting an end to abuse.

I am not living embodiment of what I say here. I am not out of that particular closet: I was abused for a long time as a child. I write about it, think about it, have opinions about it, take medication because of it, feel huge empathy for others who are suffering and admiration for the struggle of survivors. However talking openly is still a taboo for me – I blog anonymously and I share my experiences with very few people.

In my family the abuse is known about but not talked about or acknowledged. It remains a silent, living secret…although the perpetrator is dead.

So, the taboo of talking is created and reinforced in families from the bottom up. I’m usually of the opinion that small scale action leads to big scale change. But in this case I believe a top down, national inquiry, signed up to by politicians of all persuasions and supported by all agencies, with survivors and their representatives at its heart, would start to create a discourse that might help permeate every layer of society. This could outlaw the taboo of talking about childhood abuse and enable us to focus on stopping the real taboo – the abuse itself.


  1. Yes! This is an important topic! This needs to be talked about! My friend can talk about how she had a hard day because her tire went flat…. but I cant say… “I had a hard day because I had a flash back”…. Taboo’s everywhere!


      • As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and one who has worked for years to work through the damage caused, and heal and finally be a whole healthy person, and now I work with women just like I used to be in my Trauma Recovery & Wellness Coaching Practice it is disheartening that despite your desire to talk, write, and tweet about this Taboo epidemic, the fact you have not voiced or gone public with the abuse regardless of the situation voids any credibility you have…choosing to stay silent is being a direct participant in keeping the secret. Therefore I see no value in this blog unfortunately the message you are actually sending is Shame instead of being an example of healing. If you REALLY are passionate about revealing this taboo then I would think you’d come out and own it but obviously you aren’t able too at this point. So until you do all this is really is another victim’s story.


      • Dear KT – Thank you for reading my blog post. I understand what you’re saying with your comment (which is why I decided to post it) but I have to say that I am disappointed that you feel that my position (speaking anonymously) undermines my credibility.

        Some of the things that I have found so encouraging about the survivor community that I’ve been in touch with over the past few months is the lack of judgement, the shared understanding and the support.

        We clearly differ – I don’t think that I am perpetuating my own victimhood or perpetuating the taboo by not being able to reveal my identity and speak out openly (I so wish I could). I am still identifying there is an issue and my own position highlights the complexities of everything surrounding abuse.

        There are two things I find very surprising: that you choose to highlight the fact that you are a therapist and working with victims/survivors (I wonder if you would judge their actions or inability to be as open as they would like so directly?) and that you have not revealed your identity. Why not?

        However all in all I respect your right to comment – just as I’m sure you respect mine to voice my views (however I choose to do that).

        Best wishes.

        Liked by 1 person

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  3. I think you make a very important point and I read with interest…

    Nobody who hasn’t experienced it, can understand what survivors are going through. I hope you are right and that we will see a culture shift when it comes to listening and being aware. It’s also true that the response to reports of abuse is often a kind of stonewalling. It is part of a spectrum of cruelty that a lot of people tune out.

    You were kind enough to say, on Twitter, that you’d like a response from me… thank you, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate this openly. Reporting is a forensic process, so to a certain extent, I have to step back in terms of my emotions.

    But I do have a few thoughts prompted by what you have said. I am unsettled by how quickly people forget their own experiences of being powerless – regardless of whether they were abused themselves.

    Everybody remembers children who were bullied, for example – either by other children, or by a vindictive teacher, or at home – whatever it was. No matter how sheltered we were we have been confronted with suffering or with a kind of ‘pack’ or violent mentality, at some point.

    The most sheltered adults might leave that behind and find themselves in this luxurious position where they can just put cruelty like that out of their minds – put it in a box marked The Past, and they might forget what it was ever like to feel vulnerable, or to be confronted with violence. A lot of adults care deeply about protecting chlidren – and a lot genuinely don’t care – but I believe the enduring aversion to feeling vulnerable is partly why there’s a willful blindness. But it’s just a thought.


    • Thank you so much for your really thoughtful comments and for taking the time to read and share my blog post. Reporting is forensic – but if you have the emotion and sensibility it will influence what you write and clearly does. I wholeheartedly agree with your points around vulnerability. THe are either internal or external reasons that people don’t let their vulnerability show – but it’s precisely what is needed to connect or reconnect with any kind of suffering. Very best wishes


  4. You are entitled to keep what has happened to you to yourself or your intimate circle until you feel comfortable enough to proceed further. There are reasons why societies have taboos – the consequences of confonting a naked truth can be difficult to deal with and even to assess in advance. There are no simple rules or answers, a situation has to be judged on its merits.

    A book that I read it a long time ago which you might find interesting is Mary Douglas’s “Purity and Danger”. It’s a social anthropological analysis of the nature of taboos, drawing on many relevant specific examples. I haven’t read it recently so some of her ideas may have been challenged since then but you might find it interesting as a help in understanding the topic.

    In the meanwhile just take your own time, you’re the only person who knows when the time is right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and helpful comment, Owen, and for taking the time to read my blog. I will get hold of a copy of the book you mention and have a read. It is an issue that interests and impacts me. Very best wishes.


  5. Those who discourage anonymity ignore the unpleasant fact that abusers have allies, recruit more, and often run their own bully gangs. These are the people who pressure others to make social testifying taboo.
    These organized packs operate by rape culture rules: the victim must be perfect in every respect; any imperfection of appearance, behavior, or social/employment history can and will be used against the survivor. It’s the Miranda rule of rape and abuse culture.
    Organized bullying also operates sub-rosa to remove/destabilize unemployment and relationships and to stalk/invade privacy. I was an outspoken child, had a sibling to protect; years later, the abuser clan is still slinging mud.
    OTOH, breaking anonymity might save a child elsewhere in the abuser family.

    Liked by 1 person

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