Overcoming Child Abuse

Reflections on recovery.

Sexual Abuse and Healing in a Cultural Context

Could Newsweek's recent cover contribute to abuse and hinder healing?

Last night a colleague texted me a picture of the recent cover of Newsweek (Really, Newsweek staff, did you have to sexualize your best restaurants and colleges issue?) It got me thinking about a part of my interview with Wendy Maltz that I hadn’t blogged about yet. Today’s the day.

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Wendy Maltz, has been around for a long time, and given that the publishing industry is experiencing economic struggles similar to those of other industries, I was curious about why Wendy’s publisher (William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins) would decide to revise, update, and release a new version of her book.

Wendy explained that while rates of childhood sexual abuse appear to have declined some over the last 10 years, sexual abuse is still a significant trauma experienced by more than 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males. In addition to the sexual problems of survivors that I blogged about recently, victims of sexual abuse are also at higher risk of experiencing chronic medical conditions, unwanted pregnancy, and emotional problems. Wendy’s book has been a good seller for her publisher since it came out 21 years ago. This new edition features a new preface, discussion of more recent research, an updated (extensive, I might add) resources section, plus some revising throughout. The publisher also wanted an electronic version so that people can access it easily with e-readers.

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When Wendy mentioned that one I immediately imagined abuse survivors reading her book while commuting on the subways and trains of New York. Without tell-tale book jackets, they could actually keep private what they’re reading in public places. Now there’s a benefit of e-readers I’d never thought of before!

Since Wendy has been a specialist in the field for three decades, I was curious about whether she’s noticed any changes in contemporary society that she believes influence both sexual abuse and sexual healing. She said that people are more aware of the pervasiveness and the harmfulness of sexual abuse today. Survivors seem less embarrassed admitting they were abused, and by the same token society in general is doing a better job of believing and not blaming victims. An example she pointed out was that during the Jerry Sandusky trial the victims were often referenced in the media with respect, even admiration for having bravely told their stories in explicit detail. Also, numerous highly publicized lawsuits against churches, camping groups, and sports organizations have made it easier for male survivors to disclose. More people now understand that when grown males sexually abuse boys they are committing acts of pedophilia and sexual violence, not homosexuality (just like rape of a female by a male is an act of sexual violence, not heterosexuality). Also, the legal responsibility for protecting against sexual abuse appears to be shifting beyond the perpetrator of the crime to include individuals and organizations who fail to stop known perpetrators.

What does all this add up to? Wendy pointed out that these positive changes can translate into fewer victims and victims getting help sooner. With education and early intervention, many of the emotional, medical, and sexual problems can be minimized or avoided.

On the downside of social changes however, there have been some shifts that create cause for concern. Some surveys are reporting that other forms of sexual abuse have been increasing, such as human sexual trafficking, intimate partner sexual violence, and child sexual abuse content (ie., child porn). There is also a dramatic increase in sexual aggression and violence depicted in mainstream adult pornography. All of these are deeply disturbing to me.

Wendy has been a bit surprised that the sexual problems caused by sexual abuse have not received more attention in the media, especially when a large number of recent studies identify sexual abuse as a leading cause of sexual disinterest, dysfunction, dissatisfaction, and disease. Even articles and stories in the media to help people address common sexual problems and improve their love lives rarely mention this fact.

In closing, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Wendy and sharing some of her work and insights with you, and I hope that they can fuel your own healing and/or that of someone you love. I'd like to leave you with a quote to think about today. This one is by Stephen Levine: “To heal is to touch with love that which was previously touched with fear." Try a little tenderness; it can go a long way.

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Please note, see my previous two blogs for more of my interview with Wendy Maltz.

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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