After I posted my last article about childhood sexual abuse for the Psychology Today blog, many of my readers e-mailed me various questions. Rebecca (not her real name) was a reader who was confused about her experience and trying to put the puzzle pieces together. She asked the following:
I have a few questions that I just can’t seem to find the answers to. When I was between the ages of twelve and thirteen, a boy who was three years older than I made a career of fondling my breasts, touching my genital area through my clothing, and making me touch his genital area through his clothes. On a few occasions, he kissed me and then told me how I could do it better. All of this seems to have damaged me emotionally, but I don’t know what to call it. I mean, was that sexual abuse? Most sexual abuse victims are young children, with the offender being an older teen or adult. I guess I don’t know if I’ve been carrying around this “ick” for nothing.
Yes, what Rebecca described was indeed sexual abuse. According to the Incest Survivors Resource Network International (ISRNI), “The erotic use of a child, whether physically or emotionally, is sexual exploitation in the fullest meaning of the term, even if no bodily contact is ever made”1 (emphasis mine). Unfortunately, Rebecca was molested, and she’s not alone in questioning whether or not she was abused. Many people don’t know where sexual abuse starts and where it ends, and they often assume that abuse happens only between an adult and a child. However, sexual abuse occurs not just between children and adults, but also child to child and adult to adult. Although an adult can be sexually abusedby an adult,this article focuses on the specific issue of childhood sexual abuse and the question that Rebecca raised.
A Lewd and Lascivious Act
In fact, because Rebecca mentioned that the boy fondled her breasts (indicating sexual intent) and made her touch his genitals (for sexual stimulation) when she was younger than fourteen years of age, under California Penal Code 288, her encounter with the boy is considered a lewd and lascivious act:
Any person who willfully and lewdly commits any lewd or lascivious act, including any of the acts constituting other crimes provided for in Part 1, upon or with the body, or any part or member thereof, of a child who is under the age of 14 years, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust, passions, or sexual desires of that person or the child, is guilty of a felony.2
What is often not known, or is at least misunderstood, is that sexual abuse does not have to be violent, nor does the victim have to be naked or be touched.
Sexual abuse can affect anyone. Some startling statistics show that “approximately one in four girls and one in five boys experience sexual victimization”3 and that a child is far more likely to be abused by a relative or some other familiar person. The perpetrator can be anyone you know, such as a parent, a sibling, another relative, a friend, a date, a priest, or a teacher. Molesters use various manipulative techniques, such as saying, “I’m a good guy,” to gain trust, or they might use intimidation or force.
Because the media usually discusses violent rapes and assaults rather than the coercion that children experience, victims of childhood molestation often try to downplay what happened to them and think it should not impact them. However, any sexual abuse can cause major, long-lasting psychological and physical symptoms,4 and therefore, as Rebecca described, nonviolent sexual abuse can have key emotional after effects, as in any other type of sexual abuse.
Making Sense of Sexual Abuse: “Was It My Fault?”
Many victims experience a mixture of feelings, including confusion, guilt, shame, and a sense of being out of control, after being sexually abused. However, there are many types of responses, because we are all unique.
Children are trying to make sense of a world in which so many things just don’t make sense. Sexual abuse is among those things, because children still might have to conquer certain developmental milestones. Susan Clancy5 points out that confusion is one of the most common reactions in children, rather than fear or panic, because they are just too young to understand.
Additionally, the victim might feel shame or guilt because he or she felt aroused (which is a very normal reaction). Feeling aroused does not mean the victim wanted to be sexual. This issue might be confusing because one might also feel guilty for not saying no or not fighting back. There are many reasons for that. Some victims don’t fight back, because they feel frozen and afraid of potentially making matters worse. Some act out of peer pressure to be sexual, feel that they must obey, or simply are manipulated into sexual acts. Some victims comply, fully understanding what is happening to them, but have a sense that it’s safer to go along with the perpetrator’s demands. Because children are aware of their dependence on the perpetrator for needs such as food, shelter, or even affection, many children may refrain from stopping the sexual acts out of fear of losing those survival basics. Many children also don’t know how to express what is happening to them or to whom to report the incidents. Extremely loyal and usually eager to please their parents and the people around them, children will put up with almost anything in order to be loved. Then there are those who fight back initially but eventually give up, because they are not able to stop the act.
“Why Did I Have No Memory of This until Now?”
Many people wonder how long-buried memories can suddenly resurface. Survivors of sexual abuse were never allowed to feel that something was wrong, because the perpetrator told them that what was happening was normal. Children see adults as setting the norm, so if it’s “normal,” then kids don’t usually register it as abnormal. It’s hard to remember everything that doesn’t make sense or seems weird during childhood. Often, it’s not until we, as adults, connect the dots and realize that we were abused that the memories return.
In adulthood, sexual abuse survivors might encounter a sensation, an image, or a sound that suddenly reconnects them to the past and that offers a new understanding of what happened. Initially, all they can remember is an “ick,” and there are different kinds of “icks.” For example, parents often tell their children things like, “Come on, give Uncle So-and-So a hug,” even when the child doesn’t want to. Remember, children learn from adults how to differentiate which feelings of “ick” to listen to and which ones to ignore, and depending on the age of the child, the vocabulary to distinguish between them might not yet be formed.
There are, however, physical and emotional symptoms to look out for. Children who have been sexually abused might get a stomachache, seem withdrawn, become angry or depressed, or wet the bed. In “Sexual Abuse of Children” from The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, Lucy Berliner and Diana M. Eliott state the following:
Considerable negative effects can result from sexual abuse in childhood, including emotional distress and disturbance, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral problems, interpersonal difficulties, and problems with cognitive functioning which may lead to school failure or abandonment of education altogether.6
How the Confusion Manifests
Again, children don’t know where their feelings of confusion are coming from, because everything was “normal”—or so they might have been told. One has to understand what’s going on in order to know what is wrong.
Even in cases where abuse survivors know that what is happening is absolutely not normal or okay, telling on an adult or someone to whom they are supposed to listen is against their “training.” In school, when children are told to be quiet, they have to be quiet; they are trained to listen to authority.
Even adults maintain an unquestioning stance toward authority and often never doubt a doctor, researcher, or other “qualified” expert. We listen to professionals concerning how to raise our children, including how to discipline them and what medical treatments are necessary. Just as we often trust authority to tell us what is right, children do the same.
In my practice, I often have heard from clients that even if they, as children, understood what was happening and told their parents or another adult about it (for example, that a brother molested them or that a step dad or grandfather was having sex with them), nobody believed them. Statistics show that 85 percent of children do not tell anyone about their abuse.7 Other clients have told me that when they came forward to their family members, they frequently became estranged from them as a result. Although it is rare for children to lie about sexual abuse,8 the response to that type of disclosure can be disbelief or denial. Research shows that “[a]s few as 27% and as many as 87% of mothers respond supportively to their children upon disclosure.”9 Parents can be in denial, may not know how to react or understand the consequences themselves, or may be afraid of what it means to acknowledge the abuse. However, as the previous study shows, there are also parents and other adults who take this matter seriously and react in the appropriate matter. Though, if nobody believes the child, he or she might be even more confused.
Confusion not only manifests in childhood. In fact, I have received many letters from adults of all ages who wonder whether or not they were sexually abused. Many are even aware that others were abused, but they still don’t realize that they themselves were abused until they sense that they have permission to feel the opposite of what they were told to feel and believed as a child. Not everything makes sense to us as adults looking back, because depending on the developmental state and the particular circumstances involved, each child reacts differently to abuse than an adult would. It’s important to recognize that all types of sexual abuse have consequences.
What to Do and to Whom to Turn
Recognizing that you were abused might come as a shock to you. Or perhaps you already know but didn’t have the tools, at the time, to do something about it. Please be gentle and kind to yourself right now. Do something to soothe yourself, whatever that might be. Please know that the abuse was not your fault, even though you might have been told that it was. Please know that you do not have to keep the abuse a secret anymore, as you probably also were told.
Breaking the silence by speaking about your unspeakable experience with the right person is how you can regain your power. Many secure, free hotlines are available that you can call to speak to a qualified listener who will help answer all of your questions, support you, and guide you to the next step of recovery. There’s a National Sexual Assault Hotline at RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network): 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). RAINN also has a website with lots of resources and recommended readings: www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-online-hotline.
Please also seek out a psychotherapist who specializes in abuse. If your budget is tight, there are many organizations that offer low-fee therapy. For example, a good low-cost source of help might be a psychology program in which advanced psychology students offer counseling under supervision, such as John F. Kennedy University Counseling Centers or CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) Counseling Centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Many great self-help books are available; the following are some examples:
Both in-person and online support groups are available. Search online for a support group in your area. In response to my previous articles, readers posted comments, in a way, creating their own online support group. Perhaps you can do something like this too, or you can look for official online support websites for sexual abuse. Make sure the format works for you.
At this writing, more than thirty thousand people have read my former childhood sexual abuse blog and have left many comments.10 This shows you that you are not alone.
You Are Very Important, and So Is Your Healing
Please remember that this is a blog, and unfortunately, I have limited space and time in which to write. Many people are seeking more information, but by now, I have too many requests. I am so sorry that I cannot answer many of them. Because you are important to me, I will keep writing. But please make sure that you receive the help you need by putting into action the suggestions I’ve made in this article. And keep looking for more help. I have seen so many people heal from sexual abuse, and even if it seems impossible to you, I know that you can heal too.
Please take the first step.