Saturday, July 18, 2009
When we think of children who have been sexually abused, we think of fear, anger and violence. Most sexual abuse survivors talk of the terror and disassociation surrounding the abuse. Many still feel that way as adults and dont enjoy sex now, even in a loving relationship. But there are those who have a more complicated story to tell. These survivors may have hated their abusers but experience an unspeakable shame over the fact that their bodies responded sexually to the abuse. They cannot live with the knowledge that they were sexually stimulated even as they were being raped. Now they are not only healing from the abuse but from the additional belief that they were partially responsible for the abuse - and that they may even have deserved it.
While adult survivors
can intellectually understand that as children they were victims of their abuse, they dont always feel that way. And they certainly cant accept that fact if they responded sexually. Many of them cant imagine how a child could respond sexually. So they believe that not only are they dirty, but that they are freaks as well. Yet children do have sexual feelings. Toddlers can sexually arouse themselves. And as they get older, many of them experiment and discover that their bodies respond. The myth that hormonal changes occurring at adolescence are the beginning of sexual feelings is just that, a myth.
I worked with a 27-year-old woman for four years before she admitted to me that the only time she had ever had an orgasm was with the uncle who raped her beginning at age 6. This woman had been trying to put the abuse behind her so that she could finally enjoy sex and have an orgasm with her boyfriend now. She told me the most intimate details of her life but had never been able to reveal her darkest secret. As she got older she started to enjoy the sex and the power that she thought she had over her uncle. He bought her gifts at first, to keep her quiet. Later, she asked for things and gave him sex in return. She could never admit this before and now she was convinced that she could never forgive herself. She began to understand that she wasnt closed down sexually because of the abuse but because of her response to it.
How do you help a survivor in this situation understand that they are not to blame? The first step in this instance was for the young woman to finally acknowledge those feelings to another human being who didnt judge her the way she was judging herself. The next step was to help her understand that she was coping with the situation in the best way she could. Sexual stimulation is instinctive and not a choice. Using whatever power she thought she had in the relationship was a survival tactic. As human beings we adapt and survive in whatever way we can. It cannot be said enough times, whatever she did in response to the abuse, she is not to blame; the abuser is the criminal.Unlike other incest victims, I could not honestly say to this young woman that no one would ever think that she was in any way to blame for what happened. Because unfortunately there are those in our society who will not understand. We are uncomfortable with sex. We have a hard enough time naturally accepting adult sexual feelings. Accepting childhood sexual feelings is beyond the pale.
I am opening a dialogue about this issue so that other survivors of sexual abuse who have had this experience know that they are not alone.
Roni Weisberg-Ross L.M.F.T.
Westside LA therapist