Sexual Abuse

Karen’s energetic presence could fill a room with possibility. She had brown hair and browner eyes that engaged mine with eager anticipation of what I might say as a professional counselor in our session together. I soon began to realize there was more distance between us than the 5 feet that separated our chairs. Gingerly focusing on the other person in the room, she was a one woman receptive audience. Connecting to my thoughts and feelings, but disengaged from her own thoughts and emotions, the room was void of a feeling of connection.

Her ability to focus on others served her well as a 26 year old professional working for a large corporation in human resources, but it didn’t help her sleep at night or stop the recurring dreams that left her feeling anxious. She wondered why she was always the giver in a relationship and why others felt close to her, but she did not feel close to them.

She did not remember when she first began to disengage from her own feelings. She was barely aware she was doing it, but prided herself in her ability to empathize and care for others. She did remember one incident of her stepfather touching her breast when he hugged her. Had she imagined it? Her mother had assured her of her stepfather’s good intentions and insisted she was being oversensitive.

As a mental health counselor, I see many cases of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The most shaming is sexual abuse. Victims most often feel foolish, cowardly, and insecure, lacking a sense of value in their own stories, but I have found them to be full or courage and intelligence. Finding a way to survive the initial abuse required both. Working their way through to peace will require more courage as they face the truth about the damage done and the failure of the trusted people in their lives. It is on this painful path to freedom that they also have opportunity to deepen their faith, gather hope, and engage in loving connection.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse happens when a person of lesser power is used for the sexual pleasure of a person of greater power. This power can be physical, emotional, or social. Any non-consensual sexual contact, where one person feels pressured, is an abuse of God’s design and a perversion of his intent. This abuse can happen between co-workers, lovers, adults and children, children and children at any age and between members of the opposite or same sex.

Sexual abuse can also occur without physical contact when the abuse includes objectification of an individual. This can happen through viewing of pornography, derogatory comments or sexual innuendos. Sexual abuse is commonly directed toward women, so common it often goes unnoticed. Think of how often derogatory comments about women are voiced in the workplace or after hours. Jokes about being a woman are acceptable; “You’re such a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” holds a negative connotation toward femininity. The opposite is not seen as a negative. A woman would not see “You’re such a boy” as an effective slam. Men’s sexuality can also become the brunt of sexual comments but these most often focus on a lack of masculinity as in, “You don’t have the balls for it” or “man up.” Clearly, being feminine is seen as a negative and being masculine is seen as positive.

Symptoms

For the victim of sexual abuse, the pain is far reaching. Unaddressed, the effects of sexual abuse can last a lifetime and include the following:

  • inability to negotiate healthy boundaries with others
  • guilt for things that aren’t within their power to control
  • loss of trust of others
  • loss of trust of their own perceptions
  • loss of a feeling of self-worth
  • confused sexual orientation
  • feeling numb or an inability to recognize feelings, and an inability to feel loved
  • inability to enjoy sex
  • fear of abandonment
  • anxiety and/or panic attacks and/or flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
  • depression and/or thoughts of suicide
  • issues with sleep and/or nightmares
  • increased anger and violent behavior, either verbal or physical or both
  • relational issues coupled with a confusion as to why
  • loss of hope for a positive future

What does God say?

God shows his contempt for abuse throughout scripture. When Abraham gave his wife to a king in an attempt to use his wife to protect himself, God made a nation barren until Abraham’s sin was exposed and Sarah was protected(Genesis 20). God admonishes in Ephesians 5:25 – 29 for husbands to love their wives as their own bodies. Ephesians 5: 3 says, Don’t allow love to turn into lust, setting off a downhill slide into sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, or bullying greed.

To complement this attitude God offers comfort to the abused: For He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has He hidden His face from him, but when he cried to Him, He heard. (Psalm 22:24) and I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted . . . (Psalms 140:12) Scripture admonishes believers to help the abused. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2) and Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters . . .(Jeremiah 22:3)

Their Stories

As a child it was normal and exciting for Karen to get attention from her stepfather. She felt loved in the special times they had alone together. Mom was always busy with younger siblings, work and church activities. Dad was more approachable.

Sexual comments serve to desensitize and identify future victims for the predator. The sexual comments need not be negative. A predator is looking for a compliant target. He may use positive comments about beauty or style that eventually lead to more sexually overt comments. Sexual abuse often begins with normal relationship and touch. It progresses, once trust is established, to sexual innuendoes and eventually sexual touch.

Karen grew anxious as her stepfather’s interactions with her became more overtly sexual. She thought of telling her mother again at that point, but her stepfather told her if her mother knew it would be the end of the family, and it would be Karen’s fault. Karen believed him. Instead she decided to put up with it, a fleeting moment of touch here and there and sexual comments that both repulsed and encouraged. This caused both confusion and shame.

Victims of sexual abuse, whether it happens as children or adults, live in oceans of shame. Because of the shame, the initial response to abuse is to hide it. The victim blames herself more than the abuser. “I shouldn’t have went in that room.” “ I shouldn’t have trusted him.” “It was my fault because I believed what he said.” All betrayal leaves a person feeling like a fool. For the sexual abuse victim this leads to a lack of trust in her own ability to recognize danger and a desire to never trust again, including herself. The victim wonders if they will be blamed or even believed.

Very often, the victim is blamed and is not believed. It is difficult for adults to believe that their trusted friend or relative would betray their trust. If the victim is believed, this enormous betrayal of trust creates a psychological wound in the very person with the power to help. To avoid the devastating feelings as well as the monumental relational reorganization needed to provide safety for the child, sometimes, adults choose to deny instead of protect.

Karen would need a great deal of quiet empathy for the feelings of betrayal and a loving, caring empathic response to help her feel less shame. She will also need to realize the negative view she holds of herself is not true. A good helper will reframe the meaning of the story of sexual abuse as he helps her to see her courage, and to differentiate between the abuser’s responsibility and hers. What is good and what is evil will need to be redefined in her mind and in her heart. Both her desire for connection was good as was her desire for attention from her stepfather. His desire to sexually steal from her was evil and she was psychologically overpowered.

Joey’s story was more violent. As a 7th grader in junior high school he looked up to the rugged high school boys. The tougher and stronger they were, the more he admired them. Although he feared them, he wanted to be like them. Respect, that’s what he wanted.

One day after school he followed them. At first they didn’t notice Joey, 10 paces behind wondering what it would be like to be part of the gang. When they recognized his presence they invited him into the club. Their gruffness turned invitation confused and intrigued him.

Everything happened so fast; an initiation into the group they said: the alley, the trees, the fence, a secluded spot, his exposure to pornography, being used and humiliated. The threats of retaliation if he told mingled with the physical pain made the threats stick. He told no one. No one until his boyish face looked through his glasses and shared the feelings of anxiety and anger he still felt at 39, as he released his story one painful, humiliating piece at a time in my office.

27% of women and 16% of men report sexual abuse. The majority of children who are abused do not report to any adult even if they are asked, so accurate statistics are difficult, but the current estimate is one in three women and one in five men are physically sexually abused before the age of 17. It is estimated that 39 million people have been sexually abused as children in The United States.

Joey initially came to my office because of anger issues. He tried to ignore his anger and be the man he felt God wanted him to be, but he found himself raging at his wife and children, not feeling the anger until it erupted. He tried withdrawing when he was angry, watching TV with a beer, but the anger would take a life of it’s own, surprising even him as it exploded for reasons he couldn’t understand.

Women and men sometimes differ in their response to sexual abuse. Men can respond in rage by participating in crime, suicide, drug use and more sexual abuse. One third of juvenile delinquents, 40% of sexual offenders and 76% of serial rapists report sexual abuse as children. Female victims are much less likely to become perpetrators of violent crime than male victims, although women, too, can react to abuse by violence, suicide and drug use. 31% of the women in prison state they have been abused as children and 95% of teenage prostitutes have been sexually abused. The majority of the women who seek an abortion as well as majority of women performing for adult entertainment have been victims of sexual abuse.

Joey was able to defuse his anger as he learned to pay attention to it. I taught him to be more aware of his feelings – good and bad. As he recognized the warning signals of anger, he was able to identify the feelings under the anger, then the thought, and finally the need. This took time. As he began to identify his feelings and thoughts he noticed he still felt shame and anger related to the sexual abuse. His unconscious anger, already at a 7 (on a 0 – 10 scale) from the incident of abuse, made him more volatile as an adult. HIs high level of anger left no room for anger to grow and less space for him to collect his thoughts when he did get angry. The childhood memory fueled his adult anger when he felt powerless. As an adult he learned to see the abuse with adult eyes, placing blame with those to whom it belonged, grieving the losses, and seeing himself with the love of God. When he was able to reframe his past he began to share love and patience with his family.

Charity was not sexually abused as a child. She was a trusting, fearless, professional of 55 when she was attacked. She had felt safe at 6:30 in the morning walking from her car as she had done so many times in the past; it was daylight, but many rapes occur in the early morning hours. Most rapes occur between 6 pm and 6 am. One in 8 women are raped in the United States, although rape can occur anywhere, many in the victim’s own home because most rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Only 10% of perpetrators are strangers to the victim.

Charity recognized her attacker as someone she had spoken with at the office. She had polite, but uncomfortable around him. She was lucky. Her pleadings and scuffle with the attacker attracted the attention of a colleague and her attacker ran off. She escaped with bruises, but having suffered a near life threatening attack she still suffered symptoms of PTSD: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and sleepless nights. In the 30 seconds of her attack her view of herself changed. She went from being safe to seeing herself as naive, foolish, and unable to trust her judgement or others. Everyone became suspect, and she looked for her attacker for years in every public place. The world was no longer safe and she was constantly reminded of that fact in every waking and sleepless moment.

In a sexual abuse support group and in therapy Charity faced her deepest fears. The understanding empathy of other survivors made her feel normal and she began to trust her herself again. The more she recognized the thoughts behind her feelings, the more she was able to move through her negative self talk and the powerless and demeaning feelings that came with it. In the years that followed she found control in her life and a deeper purpose then she had before the victimization. As she focused her attention on helping others she founded a sexual abuse support group in her church and joined a victims advocacy group in the small town where she lived. She never regained the feeling of naive safety she had before the attack, but she did gain a deeper sense of faith and increased hope as God became a more needed and real presence in her interactions with Him.

To The Helper

If you are a helper of those who have been abused, you will need to be aware of your own feelings and intimately acquainted with your stories of abuse. Your ability to understand and put words to your thoughts and feelings will enable you to help those you serve. You must recognize your own path through the labyrinth of powerlessness and betrayal in your life if you are to show that path to another. Few of us are completely healed; if you find yourself caught in the victim’s stories, unable to to quit thinking about it even after prayer, you may have unresolved issues in your own life that need the help of a counselor and friends.

Victims of sexual abuse are not strangers. They are our mothers, fathers, brothers, aunts, uncles, children and friends. They are most often the courageous women and sometimes men who have been forced to deal with the deepest questions of betrayal and powerlessness. In the facing of these issues they become the strongest supporters of faith, hope, and love.

Please note the persons mentioned above are fictitious; although based on real interactions with people, details have been combined to protect confidentiality.

This entry was posted in Abuse, Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.