In light of the Josh Duggar story I want to have a candid discussion about sexual abuse. I don’t know all the details of the case and the Duggar’s are not my focus here.
Childhood Sexual Abuse is epidemic. Dare I say ubiquitous? Statistics say one in three women, and one in six men, have been victimized before the age of 18. As a counselor, I hear lots of stories of sexual abuse and I think the numbers are much higher.
What’s surprising is how many people don’t acknowledge that what occurred in their lives was sexual abuse. For instance, I might question a client who is showing signs of having been sexually abused (symptoms include shame, promiscuity or avoidance of sex, self injury, fear of emotional intimacy, suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, etc.), and she’ll say something like, “No, well, except that one time when my cousins locked me in the pickup and touched me.” Or she’ll say, “No, but my dad made me keep the bathroom door open while I showered.” Or, “Grandpa always made comments about my developing body.”
Here is an important clarification: Sexual abuse does not always include intercourse.
I’ve heard stories too devastating and too graphic to share here, so I won’t. But here are a few real stories I’ve heard:
Examples of Sexual Abuse
- A baby-sitter bathing a child while trying to stimulate him.
- A grandfather asking his granddaughter to touch his privates.
- A middle-aged couple inviting some teenage girls into their home for beers. Oh, and there happen to be a box of explicit Polaroids lying in plain sight. The couple enjoys watching the expressions of the girls.
- A psychotherapist asking his breast cancer survivor to show him her scars.
- A gym coach deliberately putting his hands where he shouldn’t.
- A teacher imbibing in sexual talk with a student simply for his pleasure.
- A golf pro asking an underage employee about her sex life.
- A 50-year old boss asking a 17-year old girl for a ride and then kissing and groping her.
Typically there is a power differential. For instance, an older brother on his younger sister*. A teacher who has influence. A grandfather who preys on his grandchild’s trust.
What Sexual Abuse Is Not
- Sexual abuse is not mutual curiosity about sex and body parts.
- Sexual abuse is not a candid discussion between two people where healthy boundaries are maintained and understanding is sought.
- Sexual abuse is not touch by a parent or medical professional where genuine care for the other person is the intent.
Plain and simple, it becomes abuse when another person is being exploited for the person in power’s enjoyment.
Here’s is why sexual abuse is devastating to the victim:
Sexual Abuse Causes a Victim to Loath And Attack Herself
The shame resides in the victim instead of the perpetrator. She may spend the rest of her life berating herself with cruel words and reckless behavior. She may resort to eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse, and even suicide.
Victims Think They are Unique And Deserved It
The one thing that almost no one talks about is that some sexual abuse survivors feel guilt because they may have experienced pleasure about aspects of the abuse. Maybe they received some much needed attention. Perhaps they got fancy dinners, hotels, and cell phones out of the deal. Some survivors feel their bodies betrayed them if they experienced any sort of sexual arousal.
A survivor might feel deep longing for her perpetrator—craving closeness—while at the same time feeling fear and disgust at herself. That’s because the people who abuse are not dangerous monsters. They are fathers, uncles, coaches, mothers, teachers, pastors, siblings, babysitters, and counselors.
Hear me, no one wants to be abused, even if they wanted to feel loved and cared for by others, and that’s how the brains’ emotional wires get tangled.
Sexual Abuse Changes A Victim’s Identity And Wreaks Havoc on Her Ability to Trust
As the survivor grows older, she keeps the good people out and lets the bad ones in. She craves emotional connection but in her mind intimacy and sexuality are the same. Therefore she is terrified of emotional closeness with others. She comes to believe her purpose is solely sexual. She uses sex as a way to numb or find power. She wears lowcut blouses and high cut skirts because she believes this is her only appeal. Or she hides behind extra weight so no one ever sees her again.
Ultimately Sexual Abuse Changes a Victim’s Identity And Steals Her ability to Love And Trust in Healthy Ways
*There are legal definitions of sexual abuse that are specific to each state.
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."