Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sexual assault and its effects

One of the things I learned from my work in counseling and ministry has been the devastating effect of sexual assault on children. The recent hoo-rah about Rev. Debra's run-in with Bill O'Reilly got me thinking about the adults I know who were sexually molested as children and the effect of that experience on their adult lives. The thought that initially popped into my mind was "I wonder if Bill O'Reilly was the victim of sexual assault as a child". Now, there's no logical reason for me to have that thought, but his responses to Debra were so odd and his public personal relationship history is so iffy that I immediately felt a bit suspicious. You know, the old "He doth protest too much" response.

Bill's clearly got a few hangups and I don't know what the facts of his history are nor do I much care. However, I do know, from personal and professional experience, that a child who has been sexually assaulted, prematurely sexualized, has a lot to overcome, as s/he matures. Many of those children do just fine; they may get some psychological help or they may have adequate support and good parenting to help them overcome the damage to their self-esteem and sense of identity.

But those children who are not so lucky may carry with them throughout their lives a submerged sense of shame and guilt that affects their intimate adult relationships, may cause them to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, may cause them to act out in anti-social ways, may cause them to attempt suicide, may keep them so paralyzed by anxiety that they are unable to form strong adult partnerships, or may cause them to act out sexually in potentially damaging ways.

Over the years, I've encountered many, many people who were sexually violated as children, both males and females. Some began to deal with the assault as teenagers, some as adults, many shoved it into their subconscious and have never dealt with it therapeutically. Some even considered the encounter a good thing, a loving thing, unwilling to recognize that an adult who uses a child sexually is abusing the child.

I've seen a variety of responses in adults who were prematurely sexualized as children, whether by an adult who fondled or raped them or by an adult who seduced them as early adolescents into a sexual relationship which was unequal in its power. The most common responses I've seen in those adults are anxiety about relationships, difficulty in committing to an intimate relationship, anger toward authority, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or gambling, sex addiction, depression, and suicidal ideation. And I've seen them become promiscuous sexually in an effort to overcome their fear of sexual relationships.

There is a myth out there that a teenage boy who is seduced by an older person, male or female, is clearly ahead of his peers, that he has been initiated into the adult world of sexuality and is the envy of his friends. My experience with friends and clients is that the opposite is true, even though the adult he is now acts proud of his early experience. If I were to create an imaginary person, a composite of the several men I know who were seduced by males or females at a too-early age, that person would be divorced with a history of short-term relationships, infidelity, and commitment-phobia. He would be an alcoholic or have other addictive behaviors. He might joke about his early initiation and consider it a feather in his cap. He might be extremely homophobic or fearful of same-sex affection or he may overcompensate in such an area, to mask his anxiety about it. He may be extremely disorganized and unable to overcome his anger, not able to understand where it comes from.

Sexual assault of children, whether young kids or adolescents, is a terrible thing. Children can survive it well with help and good parental support. However, the kind of fear promoted by Bill O and his ilk creates additional fear and shame in victims, makes it less likely that they will get support and help, and increases the damage that the child will have to deal with as an adult.

I think at least some of the homophobia out there is caused by adult males who were assaulted by male pedophiles and have internalized that fear and loathing of the experience to the point where they "hate fags", to use the terminology on the posters of the Fred Phelps crew. Many men have a hard time admitting they were sexually molested; the men who are bringing suit against the Catholic church have had to overcome their fear and shame in order to do it and even now are ridiculed and suspected of deceit. Some of them may be false claimants, but most are apparently not.

And whether or not the priests who were guilty were pedophiles (many clearly were pedophiles) or gay men (and many were), all of these molesters were in a position of power over the children and teens they molested. That inequality of power and suspicion of the motives of the injured victim are the devastating conditions that all victims must cope with.


Comrade Kevin said...


I recently revealed that I, too, have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. My abuse has manifested itself in distrust of men, promiscuity, and a long history of dysfunctional, extremely short term relationships.

I came clean with the abuse two years ago and have addressed many of my issues in therapy but I know that I'll be dealing with them for the rest of my life. Yet, there is a ray of hope. I am aware of why I have these often-irrational fears and reactions and with time, the pain has subsided.

I appreciate your post. It really struck a chord with me.

ms. kitty said...

Kevin, thank you for your comment. My post was in response to your brave post, in a way, because I could hear the pain in your voice and it brought back to me all the pain I have seen and heard in working with men and women who have been sexually assaulted.

I'm glad you're working through the issues that the abuse raises. It takes courage and commitment but you can make it through to the other side, with a wisdom that you can use to help others.

You're in my prayers.

Mile High Pixie said...

It's so interesting you mention this. An acquaintance with whom I've had to sever contact was abused as a young teenager, and the only way to help him was to get away from him, as he was attempting to make our relationship as inappropriate as his assaulter had done. He had been living with this damage for so long--and with no therapy or help from a trusted adult--that he's still 12 years old emotionally, and being around him only encourages him to act out even more. I finally told him that he needed to make the journey with a therapist, but not with me. It made me feel sad for the friendship that could have been, but it had to be done to help him.

It infuriates me how that abuse marks and scars good souls everywhere, leaves them thinking twisted lies that make life so hard. Sometimes it manifests itself in behavior that even refutes the existence of such acts, which we hear all too often. Thanks for posting.

Miss Kitty said...

Thank you, Ms. K. You speak eloquently for so many of us who are sex abuse survivors. BRAVO!