Most of us regard grief as an emotion exclusive to mourning loved ones who have passed away. But survivors of child sexual abuse also experience a range of significant losses from their trauma — loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of friendships, loss of trust, loss of self-esteem, and loss of identity, to name a few.
That’s why on November 18, Grief Dialogues is partnering with the nonprofit Reimagine to host What Happened to You? Creating Space to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse, a live virtual Q&A with YouTuber Sebastian Scales and author Darcy Harris, Ph.D., FT, an international authority on grief in the context of non-death losses.
I believe it’s vital that we create space to talk about this difficult topic. While non-death loss is new territory for Grief Dialogues, our goal is the same: to start the conversation and remove the stigma.
Think of this event as a mini therapy session, where participants can ask questions and share their stories.
Scales, who was molested when he was 8 years old by his best friend’s dad, took his abuser to court at age 10. The verdict was a hung jury — 6 jurors said the abuser was guilty; 6 did not. Now 25, Scales is raising awareness one mic at a time, as both a Stand-up Comedian and Podcaster who unabashedly tackles child sexual abuse in an unusual but cathartic way: with humor.
Scales recalled being in high school and watching Louis C.K. joke about molestation on Saturday Night Live. “It felt good to laugh about it,” Scales said. “It was the first time I’d experienced a positive emotion with the topic.”
After performing at an open mic in New York City, Scales was hooked. “Doing stand-up for the first time, combined with speaking openly about getting molested, was the most cathartic feeling I’ve ever had,” he said.
His podcast, titled What Happened to You?, is cathartic for his listeners, too. Ever since Scales confronted his own trauma by tapping into the lighter side of this serious issue, each subsequent episode features informal interviews with others about what they’ve experienced. The show’s open, unstructured format enables him to listen with compassion, empathy and patience, allowing the guests to share their stories at their own pace.
“Child molestation doesn’t have to be this thing that’s swept under the rug,” Scales said. “These episodes are strangers, who have never talked before, candidly sharing their trauma. People are looking for an outlet that isn’t so heavy, and laughter is a great way to process what you’ve been through.”
“Sebastian’s approach to his experiences is novel,” said Dr. Harris, an associate professor at King’s University College at Western University and author of the book Non-Death Loss and Grief. “‘Living losses,’ or losses we encounter in everyday life, play a key role in shaping our lives.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, humor sustains resilience. Using laughter as a coping mechanism is effective because by stepping back and laughing at a horrific experience, victims can bring their experiences back to earth and take back some of its power.
Strength in Numbers
Most people avoid the taboo topic of child molestation like they avoid someone coughing during COVID. And while Scales’ brand of stand-up can make audience members uncomfortable, he sees it as a conversation starter.
“You don’t have to be defined by the events that happened to you. Opening up about your experiences allows you to begin healing. Bringing up the fact that you got molested is often times awkward, and the podcast is removing the stigma around these conversations,” Scales said. With more than 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in America, the people he is most trying to reach with his podcast are the victims who have yet to laugh about it.
Listeners are responding in courageous ways. Not only is the podcast gaining momentum — each episode receives thousands of listens — but people are messaging Scales directly to talk openly about their own abuse.
One person said listening to the podcasts and seeing his posts has really helped her open up about her molestation and rape from when she was a child. “You’ve brought light to a situation I hid from for so long,” her message said.
Scales was also amazed by and grateful for those who have reached out to say that they were going to commit suicide, but watching his stand-up and podcast made them decide to give life another chance. Others said he inspired them to speak up for the first time about being abused.
“I was molested by my grandfather as a child,” one message said. “You’ve really given me the strength to confront this. I plan on telling my parents.”
Another listener said Scales’ made her realize there’s an army of people who have gone through what she went through, when all along, she thought she was alone in this.
“That’s the thing,” Scales said. “Whatever it is that you’ve gone through or are going through, you’re not alone. There are so many others who know exactly how you feel.”
In a COVID World, We Are All Grieving
These days, grief is universal, as people from all corners of the globe grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, where there has been no shortage of loss: of life, of jobs, of personal agency, of autonomy, even something as inconsequential as the loss of a work commute can affect a person’s psyche, especially if that time was reserved for decompressing through reading or listening to music.
But perhaps one of the most devastating effects of COVID is the major decrease in child abuse reporting, like in one Texas town where the number of cases reported has decreased by a staggering 50 percent. Rather than being evidence of less abuse, it’s a sign of environmental factors causing a major spike in non-reported abuse.
“We’re cooped up, we’re not at work, we’re at home with our children and we’re stressed out about money. That’s a recipe for child abuse and domestic violence in general,” said Lubbock County Child Protection Court Associate Judge Kara Darnell.
With 30 percent of sexual abuse never reported, Scales sees the writing on the wall. He knows that by removing the stigma and getting more people to talk about their abuse, the more abusers can be brought to justice, and the more victims can receive services to help work through their trauma. He recently filed for nonprofit status, creating the WHTY Foundation, short for The What Happened to You Foundation, where users can share their stories and interact with other people.
The foundation’s goal is to create a space where people can speak openly about what’s happened to them without shame, and have access to resources. One major initiative is advocating for legal reform regarding how child abuse cases are handled.
“The law states that people have the right to confront their accuser, so when I went to court at age 10, the guy who molested me was in the court room, which was terrifying,” Scales said. “Having to recall 2 years of molestation in front of 50 adults — and my abuser — was bananas. We’re hoping to change that, and allow kids to record their answers in a safe space, rather than needing to be put on the stand.”