To tell or not to tell: Social factors that shape the telling experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Assata Zerai


Childhood sexual abuse, Social factors, Telling, Survivors, Sexual abuse

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Gender and Sexuality | Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance | Social Psychology and Interaction


Most research on child sexual abuse is conducted with limited subject groups and relies on a psychological theoretical framework. Absent from the research literature is an understanding of the complex social processes involved in the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse. Accordingly, I use a research approach that starts with the lived experiences of survivors as a basis for understanding abuse and that considers child sexual abuse as a part of several interlocking systems of oppressions, e.g., racism, heterosexism.

The qualitative research method of in-depth, open ended interviews was used for this study with 27 survivors of child sexual abuse (15 European Americans and 12 African Americans) with varying socioeconomic classes and sexual orientations. The research methodology is located in the interactionist, qualitative traditions that view the subjective meanings of informants and researchers as important components in understanding the social world.

Informants were often silenced in childhood. Whether or not they told, to whom and what they told, and with what response can be understood in a context of social identity, social contingencies, and psychological discourses on abuse. Some informants resisted the abuse in childhood and developed strategies for coping, resisting, and shaping contact with offenders as well as telling about their abuse. The telling experiences of informants are on-going processes that are shaped by dominant, psychological constructions of "survivorship" that contribute to resilencing some informants as well as by social identity and social contingencies.

Talk about abuse has provided many adult survivors with the opportunity to heal and to feel better about themselves. But the dominant focus on psychological, individual approaches to abuse has hindered long-term change that might effectively stop the sexual abuse of children. Public talk about abuse has been, for the most part, adult talk. And adult, public talk has mostly been healing talk so that survivors can move on with their lives. Unfortunately, children are still constrained by a social system that perpetuates child sexual abuse, and child talk about abuse is mostly invisible. New types of abuse talk are needed to promote a public focus on abused children.


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