Depression, addiction, anxiety, suicide all are regularly mentioned in reports on the effects of sexual abuse on children.
Sexual abuse can be a toxic and long-lasting burden, especially if it occurs when the victim’s physical and emotional self is developing.
And since that development goes on into the early twenties, sexual abuse brings a distortion to the child’s life that the child is not equipped to deal with.
For instance, self defence is one of the key drivers of our lives.
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Imagine you are in the school yard and another student comes up and thumps you. This would commonly result in you thumping him back, or in you running away, or maybe both. Either way you have acted to protect your integrity, in other words your physical and emotional self.
But imagine now that it isn’t a matter of a fellow thumping you. Suppose it’s somebody far more powerful than you, abusing you in a way you find disgusting and shocking but you cannot do anything about it.
Now your integrity has been violated, smashed. Your instinct to defend yourself has failed. Imagine how that would make you feel in the following hours and days as you absorb what has happened.
Imagine the violation continues week after week. You can see how easy it would be for that sense of failure and helplessness to become part of you.
The burden is all the greater if guilt is part of the aftermath. Sometimes when very bad things happen to us we feel at least some degree of guilt about it – perhaps our defence system, which is there to keep us safe, feels something like failure because it hasn’t been able to do its job.
What makes it very much worse, though, is that the abuser may manipulate the child, an older child particularly, to feel a degree of pleasure. This is just the body responding mechanically and doesn’t indicate the faintest degree of consent. But the response allows the abuser to push guilt on to the victim of the abuse.
In reality there is no guilt. To take an analogy which I heard from a gifted counsellor, the late Breda Hanna, imagine you are kidnapped and locked in a room. A day passes without food. Then the kidnappers give you chocolate. Your taste buds are going to react to the chocolate as to something sweet. Does that mean, in any reasonable sense of the word, that you ‘liked’ what was happening? Of course not. Your basic human rights were violated and you were manipulated. It is the manipulators who bear 100 per cent of the responsibility.
I have mentioned this example here before and I think it is worth mentioning again because placing that burden of guilt on top of the violation could be more than the child can bear.
In particular, the shame felt as a result of child sexual abuse “can be deeply distressing and potentially destructive to one’s sense of self and place in the social and relational world,” writes Ms Roxanne Guyon, lecturer in sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal in Psychology Today.
The violation can be seen as a shocking interruption of development. Putting the pieces together again can take a very long time. And if a person arrives at adulthood believing, at some fundamental level, that they are valued only as sexual objects, then they are set up for a lot of pain and disruption in their relationships.
If people turn to drink or drugs to ease the pain it’s understandable. Alcohol can give a false sense of control even as it makes things spin further out of control.
Developing a positive self takes work. It helps to work out what in your life is a result of the abuse and what reflects your authentic identity, according to Ms Guyon. That’s a first step toward building that positive self. Her article, The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on the Sexual Self, can be found at the Psychology Today website.
- Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance - create change and move forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (email@example.com).