The Damage of Sexual Abuse
Victims of sexual abuse often wonder how past events can still be so damaging today. The damage of the past is not erased by time. A broken arm that is not properly treated will mend, but it will not heal in the way God intended. Time may diminish the pain of the memories, but it will not heal the wound.
In the same way, the damage does not usually vanish when a person becomes a Christian. Following Christ is like restoring a wonderful but rundown estate. Its previous owner destroyed its beauty, but the new owner intends on renewing the estate's former glory. Every room must be redone. The fact that our lives are finally given back to God does not mean that every room is immediately restored and beautiful. In fact, it is possible either to refuse to allow God to work on certain rooms, or to be unaware that a secret room might exist on the top floor that needs His attention.
Such resistance to complete restoration is typical of sexual-abuse victims. There is either a conscious refusal to admit that past abuse has any impact on today's living, or there is an absence of memory of the past damage. In either case, more is required to deal with the room than merely deeding the property back to God. Specific attention to the damage is required before the restoration is begun.
What is the damage to those who have been sexually abused? Sexual abuse causes the victim to feel powerless, betrayed, confused, and rejected by God.
The Feeling of Powerlessness
Sexual-abuse victims are often physically smaller than the abuser. They feel unable to stop the abuse. Many are threatened with physical or emotional harm. The victim feels captured. There doesn't seem to be any way out.
Victims also feel powerless to stop their own anguish. All the efforts to leave one's body during the abuse and all the energy to stifle the tears may have worked for a time, but the hurt did not end. The pain seems to be as much of an enemy as the abuser. Often there is a great deal of time spent denying the fact of the abuse or at least the physical and emotional pain that was suffered. Because such efforts don't work, victims feel powerless to remove their own inner wounds.
These feelings of vulnerability often result in exhausting attempts to take control of one's own life. Abuse victims often feel that their existence depends on being on top of things. For instance, a woman I know who struggles with past sexual abuse snapped at her soon for playing in the mud. Like most 6-year-old boys, he was not concerned about wearing dirt. After she sent him into the house, she apologized to me. She was full of remorse for yelling at him. She admitted she often lost her temper with him. I asked her why she felt the need to apologize to me since her remarks were neither against me nor particularly severe. She said, "I guess I always feel apologetic for almost everything I do. I hate myself when anything is out of kilter." She expressed the inner battle of someone who can't relax. There is often a constant pressure to be perfect, to not fail, to avoid disappointing others. Failure to live up to such expectations, in turn, leads to exhaustion and self-hatred. Efforts to be in control eventually lead to being even more out of control.
This inability often results in hopelessness. Their terrible experience of being powerless often leads to the "why bother" attitude of depression. Many abuse victims assume that they were to blame, and they suffer with periodic bouts of depression and chronic self-contempt. The question "Why could I not stop the abuse?" lingers like a festering sore. One woman said, "If I had only been smarter, stronger, or braver, maybe it would not have occurred." Nothing could be further from the truth! but being told that it is not your fault, thought 100 percent true, does not usually help for long. The feelings of powerlessness are usually taken inside the heart, and the self-hatred deepens to a point of despair. As sad as it is, powerlessness is not the only wound. Hopelessness and depression follow closely behind.
The Feeling of Betrayal
Sexual abuse is a tragic betrayal of trust. Trust is crucial for growth. God gives us parents. to act as His stand-in until we can learn to shift our dependence to God. He tells parents to raise their children in His behalf and urges them not to provoke their children to anger. Few actions do more to provoke anger and to violate the parent-child trust than the betrayal that results from sexual abuse.
A parent is to provide a reasonably safe environment where a child can experience and learn about life without heart-breaking damage. Safety is the glue that allows the child to connect the different pieces of reality without fear or condemnation, When trust is tragically violated, it eventually causes a child to withdraw from learning and growing and causes suspicion of all caregivers, including God.
In most cases (89%) the offender is either a relative or a person known to the victim. The typical abuser will usually "set up" the child for a period of time prior to the actual abuse. He may give the child special favors to form a bond of intimacy. This is deepened by physical touch and playful involvement that enriches the bond. By the time the physical touch moves across the line between appropriate and nonsexual to inappropriate and sexual, it often seems like a natural and acceptable transition--a transition supposedly desired by the victim.
The betrayal of being set up and used by a loved one is profound. The offender used the natural and God-given desire for intimacy as the bait for soul-destroying involvement. The victim was unable to see or stop the setup. In most cases, the seduction process is so effective that the victim will feel responsible to some degree for the abuse.
Another form of betrayal is committed by "nonoffending" parent(s). In many cases, a parent who knows or should know about the abuse, chooses, for whatever reason, to deny or ignore the evidence. One mother walked through the bedroom where an older cousin and her daughter were together in bed under the sheets, She said nothing. Several weeks later she harshly said to her daughter, "Nothing better have happened in bed with your cousin. Don't you do that again." Her mother's failure to protect, comfort, and nourish was as severe a betrayal as the original abuse.
Many parents may not know about the abuse, but they see a sudden change in character, moodiness, depression, rebellious behavior, hypersexual interest, and/or repetitive masturbation. The failure to care enough to pursue the signs of a problem is a significant failure to protect.
Such betrayal affects victims in at least two ways. They develop a hatred for their own God-given desire for intimacy, and they become suspicious of anyone who offers them love.
One man who was abused by his pastor as a child said, "If I had not had such a hunger for love, I would have been so vulnerable." He didn't blame the perpetrator as much as he did his own neediness and hunger for love. This is common. Abuse victims see their longing for involvement as being either selfish or weak. As a result, they tend to repress their legitimate desire for tenderness and compassion and seek instead more mechanical and emotionally detached relationships. Many abuse victims actually feel more comfortable in relationships where their God-given longings are ignored or shamed.
A second effect of betrayal is that sexual-abuse victims find it difficult to trust other people. The abused will often view others with some degree of suspicion. I may not make sense at first, but the victim is most likely to be more suspicious of those who are kind, gentle, and loving than those who are detached, exploitative, and selfish. The tragedy for many abused women is that the fear of intimacy intensifies in the presence of a trustworthy person and decreases with a person who is unwilling to offer true love.
One woman gravitated to men who were aloof and seductive. She had a date with a man who was kind and attentive and found him boring. What she called boring was, in fact, faithfulness, and what she viewed as exciting was a disregard for love. A person you know you can't trust will never disappoint your heart like someone who draws forth true desire. A true friend will feel more dangerous than the abuser, and will therefore be viewed with more suspicion. Obviously, the abused person struggles daily with issues of trust and doubt.
The Feeling of Confusion
The damage from powerlessness and betrayal feels awful. It causes doubts about one's strength to deal with the world and contempt toward the desire for love. It creates confusion about trust. If that were the only damage, it would be enough. But there is more. Sexual abuse goes even further in wounding the heart. It causes a violent torrent of confusion and shame about one's sexuality.
The reason for this damage is complex. It is rooted in the fact that sexual contact or interaction draws from the body and the soul both arousal and pleasure, even when it occurs in a context that is exploitative and perverse.
This is an important point. The abusive sexual events may have brought feelings of sexual pleasure to the victim. In time, this creates violent confusion of feelings. On one side, the arousal felt good and it was the only intimacy available. On the other, it was painful and demeaning to be used. The hatred of being used is at odds with the feelings of pleasure, the joy of being pursued, and the hunger to be loved.
The incredible torrent of conflicting emotions is more than any child or adolescent can bear. They cannot understand such emotions in the same way an adult can, They cannot separate their natural longing for intimacy from the sexual pleasure exploited by their abuser. No child wants to be sexually used. Children want to be loved. So if the only involvement that is offered is abusive, it will be taken as the only available water to satisfy their thirst. god made us with a hunger and thirst for intimacy. He intended our longings to be satisfied in loving, legitimate relationships. Yet the enemy of our souls has targeted our thirst for intimacy as major battleground for good and evil.
God meant for sexual feelings, thoughts, and activity to be pleasurable and intimacy-building in the committed relationships of marriage. Satan understands the potential of what God has designed, and sexual abuse is one of his chief means of destroying it.
Sexual abuse creates in the victim's mind a tragic and perverse linkage between sex, intimacy, and shame. For many abused men and women, sexual pleasure equals love. It is not unusual for children to learn that pain or stress can be relieved by the same manual stimulation of their genitals that was started by the abuser. Abuse victims may then live out their hatred of their sexuality in a promiscuous lifestyle or learn to despise sex as a means of keeping the past pleasure, betrayal, and powerlessness at bay. In either case, sexual-abuse victims struggle with their sexual identity.
The effects of feeling ambivalent are terrible shame and a sense of danger, Some of the shame arises from the question, "What would people thing about me if they knew I experienced any, even the smallest degree, of pleasure while being abused?" Most fear that if it were known, they would be further blamed for the abuse. In fact, many offenders have said those very words to their victims: "You can't blame me entirely. You didn't complain or stop me and you seemed to enjoy what I did to you."
The result of such words is that many victims cannot tell the difference between right and wrong feelings of intimacy. For example, a woman who served as the organizer of a food bank at church was publicly commended for her ministry by the pastor. After the service he came over and warmly told her how much he appreciated her. She was stiff and civil in her response to him, but afterward she felt dirty and afraid. She was flooded with sexual images and feelings. She tried to stop the thoughts but felt overwhelmed. The only way she could quit was by masturbating. She was then consumed by feelings of self-contempt, guilt, and confusion. Her "cure" for the inner storm was to numb herself with an hour of Bible reading and a rampage of cleaning up the house. She viewed herself as dangerous when she was in the presence of a kind man. Her solution was never to get too close to anyone. And when she had sexual feelings, she ran as far and as fast as she could and hid behind ger stiff civility. The result was safety, but she was left with a dead, empty protection that decreased her passion for God and for others.
The Feeling of Being Rejected by God
One of the most tragic results of abuse is that many victims feel that no one can understand their inner struggles. Even worse, abuse victims may feel that the past will keep them from being able to love or be loved. That is particularly true in their relationship with God. the inner hurt, anger, and confusion about sexual feelings cause many victims to feel that their heavenly Father is either disgusted and hateful or completely uninvolved. As a result, many victims either work to make themselves acceptable through legalistic performance or turn their backs on God, assuming He has already turned His back on them.
In other words, sexual abuse makes it very difficult for a man or woman to believe that God had uniquely built and equipped them to love and be loved by others and by God. The picture looks hopeless, but God has a cure for the damage.