The Pain from Secrecy about Sexual Issues
A Call to Action

By Peggy Vaughan
(Posted 3/19/2011)

Although my primary focus on this website is on the issue of extramarital affairs, I also recognize that this is only one aspect of a much larger issue: the general secrecy about all kinds of sexual issues. One of these issues, which has been in the news a good bit lately, is child sexual abuse.

Several months ago, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry both spoke out extensively about their childhood sex abuse experiences, including one show where 200 men who were sexually abused as children openly acknowledged their experiences. (In many cases, they had never even shared this information with their own families.) And more recently, a growing number of "regular people" have been going public about their own experiences with sexual abuse as children.

Just this week I watched an interview with a young woman named Stacy Lannert who was regularly raped by her father from the age of 9 to 18. Shortly after her 18th birthday (when she announced that she was leaving home), he said her younger sister would be her "replacement." On the day her father raped her younger sister, Stacy killed her father—and subsequently spent the next 18 years in prison. A couple of years ago she was granted clemency, and she has now written a book about her experience in dealing with the pain of the secrecy of her childhood: Redemption: A Story of Sisterhood, Survival, and Finding Freedom Behind Bars. One of her primary messages is that children should "tell, tell, tell... tell anybody and everybody." Unfortunately, the secrecy about sexual issues that is so prevalent in our society makes this almost impossible. But it's something that needs to change—in order to give children like Stacy a chance of being able to speak up.

Another story in the news recently is that of the 5 Mormon siblings who came forward to expose their father of having abused all 3 of the daughters for many years. They are now accomplished adults who became famous as "The 5 Browns," child prodigies who played 5 pianos all together at one time. Their father is now in prison.

Then there's also the story of Tracy Ross who was abused by her stepdad. Now at the age of 40 she has made peace with him, but she has written a book about her experience titled The Source of All Things: A Memoir.

In all these instances, the initial abuse was compounded by the fallout from the secrecy they felt was required when they were children. Only when they were adults were they able to speak up about what had happened to them.

I have written about this issue in the past, first posting a long piece on the site about 15 years ago titled Preventing Child Sexual Abuse. Another posting that has been on the site for a long time is one that challenges everyone to Do Something! I want to revisit this issue now in light of the fact that more adults are coming forward to publicly discuss their experiences as children.

Of course, it's not just child sexual abuse that can create trauma for children when it comes to dealing with sexual issues. There are many aspects of dealing with sex that affect young children—sometimes even before they know what "sex" is. The following is an example of another kind of struggle children can face when sex is a taboo topic.

A Child's Story

Picture a little girl—bright, happy, and full of life. Her mother and father want only the best for her, so they talk to her about lots of important things: family, friends, and "right and wrong." But they're silent when it comes to talking about one important area of life: sex.

The little girl, however, discovers sex on her own. In fact, she thinks she "invented" it. She eagerly shares with her little friends her discovery of the good feelings she can get by rubbing a pillow between her legs. By about age six, she and her friends are playing "show and tell" and engaging in some childhood sexual experimentation.

A few years later, the little girl's mother decides it's time to tell her more about "where babies come from" and to alert her to the fact that she will begin menstruating in a few years in preparation for being able to have a baby. This is not an in-depth discussion, just a conscientious effort on the part of her mother to give her "the talk." The little girl, of course, recognizes that this is an awkward conversation and concludes that there is something basically bad about sex.

She is filled with questions—and anxiety, and she sets about trying to figure it all out by herself. She "reasons" that since she has done something like what she believes causes babies, she will be pregnant as soon as she begins menstruating. And, further, that since she is so young, she'll be too small to have a baby—so she will die. She concludes that this will be her punishment for being "bad."

This is the best she can do at putting together the bits and pieces of information, partly because her nine-year-old thinking is already affected by the guilt feelings she has picked up about the whole subject of sex. Most of this guilt is based on her religious upbringing in a "fire-and-brimstone" Southern Baptist Church. She becomes convinced that she is a horrible "sinner" and will be punished for her sins related to sex.

Despite living in constant fear for several years, the little girl doesn't confide in anyone. She does, however, begin praying each night, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul will take." This is very serious business, since she thinks a failure to say this prayer would result in her dying. So she conscientiously gets on her knees every single night, sometimes falling asleep there. This fear and anxiety about dying continues for several more years, while she's gradually getting a little more information about pregnancy and childbirth.

By the time she actually begins menstruating, she has learned enough to think that she probably won't automatically be pregnant, but she isn't sure. She has lived for so long with the fear of dying, that she can't set it aside. Even though she no longer thinks she'll die because of physically being unable to have a baby, she still thinks she will die as punishment for being so bad. For some reason, she decides she will die when she's nineteen.

For the next few years she continues to live with the fear of death. But at age sixteen (still without talking to anyone else about this), she goes through an emotional upheaval and confronts her fears and beliefs, finally rejecting the idea of dying as punishment for her sins of sex. It is not, however, until many years later that she tells anyone about her childhood of fear. When she is twenty-four years old (after being married for five years), she finally confides in her husband.

Even now, many years later, she still has told very few people, but she wants to speak out now in the hope that others will join her in breaking the silence that leaves too many children suffering alone with their fears. This little girl's story is not as horrendous as that of many children who suffer incest and other forms of childhood sexual abuse, but it's a story I know well—because I am that little girl.

Note that the above references to my religion-based fears of dying were briefly and obliquely mentioned in Beyond Affairs, our first book in which we tell about our personal experience in dealing with affairs. At that time I wrote:
"There's a lot more to my feelings about religion than I can go into in this book. Someday I may write about my early experiences in the church and the changes in my perspective through the years."

Only now, 31-years later, have I written more about this experience in my childhood. I'm a 75-year old woman, and it has taken me more than half a century to break my silence. I, and countless other children, suffer silently because of our fear of speaking up about our experiences. And although it can be difficult to acknowledge our pain and fears, it feels good to contribute to the growing numbers of people (like those at the beginning of this piece) who are speaking out—in hopes of helping others.

For each of us, our efforts to address this issue start with just one step, probably right in our own home. For me, it was breaking the cycle of secrecy about sex that had existed in our family for generations. My own mother married at age 15, and had so little information about sexual matters that my parents were unable to consummate their marriage for several months—and too embarrassed to turn to anyone for help. (Is it any wonder that my mother was not able to provide the kind of sex education that might have allowed for more open discussion between us when I was a child?)

And my mother-in-law suffered the trauma of thinking she was bleeding to death when she first began menstruating—because she had been given no information at all. When I became a mother, I was adamant about changing this pattern of silence in our family. So I dedicated myself to having ongoing open, honest communication with our kids about sex.

I've had several pages on the site for a long time about the need for more openness in talking to our kids about sex. Here are some of them:

This one provides information that many parents don't want to face—but which is critical.
Sex Secrets: A Wake-up Call for Parents.

This one provides a detailed overview of the steps involved in having an ongoing dialogue with your kids. For Parents Only: Providing Sex Education for your Children.

This one was written by sex therapist, Dr. Laura Berman.
Now more than ever, kids need effective sex ed.

This one provides more perspective on the "quiet crisis" due to the lack of honest communication.
Teens: Sex and Secrecy

While early sex education is where it all begins, there are other interconnected issues that we must face if we are to address the pain from so much secrecy about sexual issues. Consider this sobering picture:

Very few children get good basic sex education at home—and sex education at school
   is primarily aimed at "plumbing" and other technical aspects of sex.
Almost no young people get education regarding healthy sexuality and loving sexual
An alarming number of both girls and boys are sexually molested as children.
Teenage pregnancies in the U.S. are the highest in the Western world.
AIDS and other STD's are epidemic, affecting every segment of society.
Those openly choosing a homosexual lifestyle face discrimination, both openly and
Women who spend any significant period of time in the workforce are likely to
   experience some form of sexual harassment.
Rape (especially acquaintance rape) is one of the most prevalent of crimes—with the
   lowest incidence of reporting.
Domestic violence is rampant—and often becomes deadly.
A secret extramarital affair (by either the husband or the wife) happens in the
   majority of marriages.
First marriages have a 50/50 chance of ending in divorce (and second marriages fare
   even worse), a strong contributor being the inability to clearly and directly address
   sexual issues that arise.

These problems are so all-encompassing that it's unlikely any of us can escape being directly affected; yet they continue to thrive because of the general atmosphere of silence and secrecy that surrounds them. Our failure to promote responsible honesty about sex has damaged far too many lives, lives that never fully recover from suffering the feelings of shame that come from "keeping the secret," regardless of which particular secret it may be.

Since the pain of the secrecy compounds the pain from the initial experience, this cycle of secrecy must be broken. See Breaking the Code of Secrecy.

It's time for responsible honesty—both by those of us who have experienced these consequences personally and by all who want to help eliminate the pain from so much secrecy and dishonesty. What's at stake goes far beyond sexual and emotional well-being. The economic repercussions are staggering, and factors like AIDS threaten life itself.

Despite the dire circumstances, there are some encouraging signs. A growing number of incest and rape victims are confronting their perpetrators and speaking out about their abuse. And more women are openly acknowledging their experience with sexual harassment or domestic violence. But large scale change will not come quickly, and it will not come at all unless and until we have a collective will to confront the secrecy that is causing countless people to suffer alone with feelings of guilt and shame.

We may be tempted to think that we're more open than we really are about sex because of the changes that took place during the "sexual revolution" of the 1960's and early 70's. On closer examination, it's clear that the sexual revolution did create some changes: It raised our awareness of lifestyle options we hadn't thought of; it stimulated our interest in sex and caused us to reexamine what we wanted in our sexual lives. But what it did not do is break down the inhibition against simple, honest communication between spouses and between parents and children. Straight talk about sex and sexuality is still sorely lacking in most families.

Meanwhile, sex is a prominent feature of life outside the home. Madison Avenue thrives on it. It saturates the entertainment media and captures big headlines in the news. It's the constant subject of jokes and titillating gossip. But this focus on sex is superficial instead of substantive. We are not the sexually sophisticated society we like to think we are. Where it really counts, in our personal relationships, there's an incredible lack of honesty and directness.

It does no good to simply bemoan society's sexual problems. We need to consider them in a new light, one that recognizes the role each of us plays. "If we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem." More people need to join in speaking honestly, openly, and directly about these issues—and back up their honesty with action.

A Call to Action

What we really need is a societal commitment to honesty about sex.
—No more collusion in maintaining sexual secrets to protect those who have behaved irresponsibly.
—No more leaving our young children to figure things out for themselves.

We need to make "sexual issues" a topic that is more openly and honestly discussed so that ALL the interconnected sexual problems we face can be addressed in a more responsible and effective way. So I want to encourage each of you to consider what you can do to help shed more light on the whole issue of secrecy about sex and the added pain it causes beyond the initial damage.

We have all played a role in building and maintaining the walls of our invisible prison. Now is the time for all of us to join in tearing them down. In doing so, we will not be creating a society where anything goes. We will be creating a society in which people are expected to be sexually responsible and will be held accountable if they are not. We will also be creating the real possibility of more people getting enjoyment from sex because they have good information and the means to communicate about whatever issues arise.

For more about "responsible honesty," see:
Honesty! What it is and What it can Do
Learning and Practicing Responsible Honesty

Finally, I want to reflect a little on the progression of my sense that all sexual issues are interconnected—and that we can't realistically address the issue of extramarital affairs without recognizing the role of secrecy as the underlying common thread in all the issues discussed.

Here's a brief overview of my past thinking and writing on this:

It was 1980 (31 years ago) that I wrote in Beyond Affairs:
Affairs are not as "personal" as we have made them by our secrecy. If you've "been there," you're part of one of the largest groups of people in this country. In this sense, you're not alone.

Then in 1989 (22 years ago), I wrote in The Monogamy Myth:
One reason affairs are everybody's business (regardless of whether or not they are directly involved) is because all of us are responsible for the factors in society that contribute to them... Another reason for gaining a greater understanding of monogamy and affairs is to make things better for our children and the generations to follow. We need to question what we're teaching our young people about honesty as long as we perpetuate a belief in the Monogamy Myth... The most immediate reason we need to be informed about affairs is because no one is immune from having affairs disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about; they happen to all kinds of people, in all walks of life.

In 1992 (19 years ago), James and I wrote in Making Love Stay:
Contrary to popular belief, ours is not a monogamous society. While society appears to uphold monogamy, there are many societal factors that actually serve to support and encourage affairs.

And in 2010 (just last year), I wrote an Epilogue in To Have and To Hold on "The Special Roles of Society and of Parents:"
This section focuses on the larger context within which affairs take place, with emphasis on the role of society as a whole, showing the many ways all of us can support couples in successfully preventing affairs.

It also points out the special role of parents in preventing affairs for future generations. The patterns of dishonesty and deception that are inherent in affairs get established very early in life—as teenagers hiding our sex lives from our parents. We bring this experience with deception into our marriages and use it in hiding our affairs from our spouse. So regardless of what steps a couple may take to prevent affairs, they're fighting an uphill battle if they were raised in the typical way—where parents fail to talk openly and honestly with them about sex when they are growing up.

For generations, we have not been prepared to deal honestly with sexual issues. Our parents are seldom honest with us about sex when we're young. Very few children get good, clear facts about sex, and almost none of us get sound information about sexuality and sexual love. In fact, we're actually conditioned to be dishonest about sex when we're growing up. We're all well-trained in deception and dishonesty about sex, starting when we're born and continuing throughout our childhood and teenage years.

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