Understanding Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse can be sadistic or not. It can be one event or a series of events over a prolonged period of time. Sexual trauma takes place in various forms of molestation, childhood exposure to pornography, rape, uncomfortable touching or fondling, sexual harassment, verbal intimidation of harm if you do not perform sexual acts, being coerced or manipulated into prostitution or sex trafficking.
It is estimated that 1/3 women had unwanted direct sexual contact with someone older or more powerful as a child. The number of women that have experienced indirect sexual contact as a child rises to over ½ and it is estimated that most of these incidences occur prior to the age of 16. For males, it is estimated that 17% of men, or 1 in 6 men (the same percentage of men diagnosed with prostate cancer), identify direct unwanted sexual contact with someone older or more powerful as a child. An additional fourteen percent of men described indirect sexual contact with someone older or more powerful, which is equivalent to 1 in 4 men. These percentages of men and women being sexually abused before the age of 16 do not reflect the people that do not encode this experience as sexual trauma or have minimized their experiences of sexual abuse. Otherwise, it is projected that this number would continue to increase.
We habitually tell our children to not talk to strangers. Unfortunately, what we don’t tell them is that most incidences of sexual abuse occur in the hands of loved ones, a family member, friend of family, teacher, or close ally of the child where trust is broken or exploited and the child is betrayed. It is no wonder then why many adults molested as children find it difficult to trust others, since their trust was exploited. Sexual abuse can affect the way men and women develop and learn to bond or interact in their relationships with others due to this childhood betrayal trauma and wounding.
People encode incest and sexual betrayal differently. While there are people that respond in terror and immediately identify sexual abuse as traumatic; there are also many people unconsciously living in a state of trauma because they do not identify what happened to them as sexual abuse. Sometimes people are unaware they have been sexually abused because they feel confusion about the reason(s) it happened, or struggle with internal conflicts based on how they responded to the event. It is not uncommon for both women and men to look back at the sexual abuse with the belief they somehow did something to cause the sexual abuse or allow it- if only I was a “good enough kid”, or “if only I wasn’t a sissy”, or “maybe he/she knew before I did that I was gay,” or “if only I wasn’t a seductive, manipulative child,” or “I also initiated sex, liked it, wanted it,” or “but I didn’t feel afraid when it was happening.”
Male and female children that are sexually abused typically experience some guilt or confusion when their body responds favorably to their abuser. This can lead them to erroneously accept blame for the abuse, or more commonly- not encode the experience as abuse because they did not have feelings of fear or terror during the abuse. If the trauma bonds are strong, this could even connect them to their abuser and lead them to identify with their aggressor. The internal world of a person that has been sexually abused by a loved one can feel so shattered, disconnected, ambiguous, and confusing; with much of the sexual abuse being dissociated or blocked from memory as a tool to survive and deal with the betrayal.
On a societal level, we seem to have misconstrued the dynamics of sexual abuse and what it means to be a child that cannot consent to sexual acts. In New York State, the age of consent for sex is 17 (In my opinion, I believe the age of consent should be raised to the scientific age the human brain is assayed to complete its development of the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for executive functioning in the brain). As a society, many seem to engage in victim blaming when females are raped, often times being more empathetic to the perpetrators (as in the Steubenville High School rape case, cases of R. Kelly). Many times our society also disturbingly perceives the sexual abuse of male children by adult women as a rite of passage to adulthood or as a preventive tool of homosexuality, which often results in more lenient consequences given to female perpetrators of young male victims (as in the cases of Mary K. Letourrneau, Debra Lafave, Amy Beck, Adrianne Hocket to name a few). This is a devastating social issue. Now, while I have my professional thoughts on why it may be the case that some members in society disassociate from the vulnerable (victims) and align with the perpetrator (person in power); I will refrain from touching this topic in further detail because it is more important that my readers focus on the affects sexual abuse has on children that grow into adults consciously/unconsciously carrying the pain of the past.
“Pain that is not transformed is transferred.” ~ Richard Rohr
Some survivors of trauma describe self-loathing and depression due to past wounding, as well as, repetitive patterns of conflict, addiction, compulsive behavior, acting out sexually, sexual abuse recidivism, and a dissonance in interpersonal interactions due to unresolved past wounding. To begin moving forward from trauma, it is most important to walk through the pain and process your experience. Some survivors of trauma experience shame, guilt, numbness, or anger from the abuse. Many trauma survivors feel there is no other way to live or feel separated from their identity.
Therapy can be a place for people to explore and address these deep-rooted conflicts and help process these abusive experiences, identifying different self states that arose and continue to exist as coping mechanisms to survive coming to terms with sexual abuse.
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