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Hard Truths about the “American Family” & the “American Dad”

By Jenny Stith, WINGS Foundation & Alexa Priddy, CCASA

You may have been like us. You grew up watching TV shows like The Cosby Show and then, a few years later, 7th Heaven. The families were funny, loving, and worked through difficult times together. However, not all families were like the “t.v. families” of the Cosby’s or the Camden’s. Many young people’s families hide a secret of incest and sexual abuse.

Throughout our work with survivors of sexual abuse, we have met many whose childhoods were full of fear, hurt, self-doubt, and self-blame, wondering when the abuse would happen next and if it would ever end. Many survivors attempted suicide, engaged in self-harming, suffered from depression and other health effects of sustained abuse.

Because of this, we may have wished these survivors had been given the loving and supportive family seen on TV. The shocking reality is that what they experienced was exactly what was hiding in the shadows of these picture-perfect TV shows that symbolized the “American Family” and the “American Dad.”

Stephen Collins who played Reverend Eric Camden, the father on 7th Heaven, recently admitted to sexually abusing multiple young girls. Likewise, over a dozen women have come forward recently to say that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them – some were as young as 15.

What we couldn’t shake over the past month was how finding out about the realities of Collins and Cosby is an analogy to the realities that children being sexually abused face in their families on a daily basis. Collins and Cosby played the quintessential “American Dad” on TV, but hid a history of sexual violence. For many sexually abused children and those now grown to adults, their dad or other trusted family member(s) and the mask of the “perfect family” was hiding the reality of abuse, fear, violence and shame. Even worse – it often takes decades for survivors to understand or talk about what happened to them. When they finally get the courage to speak, many are silenced, disbelieved and face intense victim-blaming.

It turns out that sadly, the “episode” of The Cosby Show and 7th Heaven that the “American Family” always needed to see is the one that is playing out in the media now. We think it’s important we all know what we are watching.

For those who are not educated about the dynamics of sexual violence, the denial and manipulation that accompanies sexual abuse can be hard to recognize and understand. Yet, for those who work in our field and those who have experienced it, we know that the aftermath of sexual violence is often as traumatizing as the abuse itself.

And it can keep the real truths about the “American Dad” and the “American Family” from reaching families who are looking for guidance on how to deal with “real issues” like sexual abuse – which many “good families” need to deal with.

So, here are important points we all need to see and understand:

  • 1 in 5 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
  • 90% will be abused by someone they know, trust and love – often a family member or friend of the family.
  • When it comes to understanding the behavior of those who abuse, here’s a helpful reminder: “Good people” can have very bad behavior, and they will go to great lengths to deny it to themselves and others.
  • In family systems where abuse occurs, each family member often plays a role in enabling the abuse to occur, so challenging the abusive family member would mean challenging the entire family system, which many family members do not want to do. Instead of believing the victim, they side with the abuser, because it’s easier to believe it didn’t happen than that the family might have a problem it needs to deal with or a family member they need to hold accountable.
  • Society mirrors this complicity, denial and silence. It’s called “rape culture.”
  • Sadly, families in which abuse has occurred are in need of specialized services to help work through this issue, but they are not likely to reach out for it. Sexual abuse is so stigmatized in our culture, and they are terrified of the outcome for the potential abuser, who they often know and love.
  • As a result, child victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse often do not report what they experienced, they do not get the help and support they need, and their lives continue to suffer.

It’s a very difficult thing to hold someone we care about accountable for sexual offenses. But when we can’t “picture” this reality because of an idealized view of “The American Dad” and “The American Family,” we leave victims/survivors without the belief and support they need to heal the deep wounds they’ve acquired.

And that’s an episode of rape culture we are tired of watching.

Learn more and become an informed ally.

There are resources and support for children you may suspect are being abused and for adults who experienced sexual abuse as children.

  • If a child is currently being sexually abused, call Darkness to Light’s helpline, 1-866-FOR-LIGHT to be routed to resources in your own community, or call the Child Help USA National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD
  • If you are an adult who experienced sexual abuse, call RAINN: 1-800-656-HOPE(4673). If you are in the Colorado area and are an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, contact WINGS Foundation: 303-238-8660. If you have experienced sexual assault as an adult, visit the CCASA webpage for a list of centers in your area.

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