About a sweet but hurting little girl in a woman’s body
Tendai is a poor sweet and likable girl in a woman’s body who has put up such excellent defences that hardly anyone would guess that inside she is hurting, confused, ashamed, feeling abused and guilty at the same time. She has been a player in an intense emotional and sexual family drama full of complex interplays between past and present, kindness and pain, love and hurt, care and abuse.
The players in the family drama
The main players in this family drama are:
The mother: An immature woman who tries to get her way by means of manipulation and passie aggressive methods. psychologically and sometimes physically abused her husband and daughter.
The father: Because of his troubled background the father in which he suffered emotional and sexual abuse he was unable to stand his ground against the excesses of his wife. He often justified her behaviour and failed to protect himself and his three daughters against the mothers' controlling and abusive behavior.
The daughter: Seeing their father abused and humiliated the daughter tried to be extra nice, kind and affirming to him, at times even protecting and defending him against her mother which menat that she became the prime target of mothers' efforts to humiliate and subdue. Unfortunately the father having been sexually abused in his childhood responded to the daughter in a sexual manner which was not always unwelcome to the daughter who also sought affirmation of her female identity.
She also needed to feel loved and appreciated and instead of protecting his daughter the father ended up abusing her. While abuse was not his intention and to the daughter may not have felt like abuse at first it still damaged her. Even if she initiated it, or participated in it voluntarily for some time, she is still a victim. Now many years later this poor girl is still wrestling with conflicting emotions and unable to have a stable relationship. In the meantime the whole family is suffering in a conspiracy of silence, the abused, the abuser and the not-so-innocent bystander. Because none of the family members have been able to break free from the conspiracy of silence the dysfunctional family system is still unchallenged and ready to perpetuate itself and make more innocent victims and change them into perpetrators themselves.
You may wonder why this girl does not come out in the open with her story so that she can find the inner healing and freedom she so longs for?
Many sexual abuse survivors find it difficult to come into the open not only because of fear or family loyalty, but because they somehow feel responsible for the abuse. They may have trouble dealing with the fact that their body was sexually stimulated and felt aroused during the abuse. They may feel guilty and ashamed that they responded to the stimulation, and confused about why they did.
They may have enjoyed some of the bodily sensations that came from the sexual stimulation, but at the same time feel guilty, ashamed, and/or secretive about that fact because they believe – or fear – that it means there is something wrong with them because they were “not supposed” to feel that way. These survivors often keep their experience a secret for fear that no one will understand how they could have liked some parts of it. But what they liked was their body’s own natural responses; not the fact that it was abuse.
In all cases, if a survivor found some of the stimulation during the abuse pleasurable, it does not mean that it was not abuse, that they weren’t hurt by it, that it wasn’t serious, or that it had less impact. Abuse is abuse, regardless of how the victim’s body responded.
The impact of having been sexually stimulated or aroused during abuse is rarely addressed, and when it is it is given minimal attention. One reason why this is such a neglected subject is that we live in a culture that is uncomfortable with the thought that children can have sexual feelings at all, let alone during abuse. Many people like to think that children are asexual, and believe that those who suggest otherwise are sexual perverts. To further suggest that children who are sexually abused might experience some sexual arousal is to risk being viewed as promoting sexual abuse, or at very least minimizing it. But how are we to help survivors deal with this issue unless we are prepared to talk about it while not minimizing the abuse?
Just as it is shocking for many people to think that sexual abuse could lead a child to feel aroused or to feel pleasure in their body, it is equally, or perhaps more shocking, to survivors themselves to acknowledge this. Many survivors suffer about this issue in silence, wondering if their body’s feelings and reactions meant that they liked, wanted, caused, or encouraged the abuse, or worse, made them as bad as the abuser. They may end of hating their bodies and switch-off during sex so that they cannot derive any pleasure from it.
It is not true that “sexual abuse isn’t so bad because the victim happened to like it”. Feeling sexual aroused in the context of abuse does not mean that the abuse was okay, nor that the abuse did not negatively effect the victim. Given that children can feeling sexual feelings and can be sexual stimulated during abuse, it’s understandable that some children like the feelings of sexual arousal that can happen during abuse. They enjoy the sexual response and feelings generated by their bodies reactions and sensations, and perhaps even how the perpetrator treated them. If they sensed that the abuser did not intend to harm them and gave them genuine attention and kindness, the abuse may not have felt like abuse and may have felt very enjoyable. However, instinctively the body knows it is not ready for sex yet and may generate feelings of shame and aversion which are actually feelings generated to protect us and not to harm us. This creates inner confusion between pleasure on the one hand and aversion and shame on the other hand. The solution to this confusion of feelings may be not-to-feel anything in the form of disassociation.
How does the adult survivor reconcile the reality that her/his body did feel sexual when they “weren’t supposed” to? They feel aversion and shame and may direct it at themselves a aversion for their own bodies and feeling guilty. They may feel “sick” and “bad”. If you are a survivor and your body responded to the sexual stimulation during the abuse, it’s important to find positive ways to reconcile that reality within yourself and let go of the wrong conclusion that you are “sick” or “bad,” or “guilty”.
The first step is to acknowledge to yourself how your body felt. Also talk to someone you trust to reduce some of the guilt, shame, isolation, and secrecy. If you feel judgmental about yourself, remember that feelings are simply feelings, nothing more. They are not facts or statements; they do not truly say anything about you or anyone else, other than you are a fully feeling human being. It’s normal to experience a range of feelings during abuse, and one of those feelings may be sexual. It might help to remember the other feelings you felt during or after the abuse, because you did not simply feel sexual feelings, but you also probably felt betrayal, sadness, fear, confusion, and hurt, even if you did not realize it at the time and might have suppressed them.
In dealing with tehse conflicting eelings and trying to make sense of these consider the following:
1) The arousal you experienced was a physiological reaction that had less to do with the perpetrator than with your own body’s natural responses
2) Some of the arousal may have been a natural response to the fact that you considered the relationship with the perpetrator to be important, and so it also contributed to how you felt.
3) You may have even liked/loved the perpetrator, had a friendly relationship with her/him, felt taken care of during the abuse, and this led to feeling pleasure.
4) Remember it was the perpetrator who should have respected the boundaries, you were too young and too immature to do so. No matter how much he may have loved you, he was wrong in making it or allowing it to happen, even if you were the one making the advances!!!
Some survivors take the position that regardless of how they learned what they learned about their body and their sexuality they are going to enjoy it without guilt, because this knowledge is about them and their body, not the perpetrator. Even if they learned some of those things from what the perpetrator did, that doesn’t mean that the perpetrator “owns” those things. They are the only ones who can own their body’s responses and sexuality.
It also helps to feel compassion for yourself, for other survivors and even for abusers. Compassion help you to let go of judgement, and to see yourself as the innocent child you were.
Some survivors find that feeling shame about having sexual feelings prevents them from fully processing their memories. As soon as they remember and feel sexual feelings, they distance themselves from the memory and can’t go any further with it. They’re stuck there, unable to release their emotions or fully process the memory.
When they released some shame and could think about the whole incident(s) by writing the memory out or telling someone their story, they were able to step back and see the situation with a new perspective and understanding. That process helped them to accept what happened and feel at peace with themselves.
How you feel about having sexual feelings during the abuse (as well as when you remember the abuse and/or read about sexual abuse) has a direct impact on how you view the abuse and yourself, and what you think about the abuse affects how you feel, which is why it’s important to work on releasing feelings and investigate your thoughts and memories.
Some survivors need to think a lot about it first, and others need to feel their feelings first. If you’re stuck in one mode, try the other mode. For example if you’re stuck in the thinking mode, let yourself feel what you felt –then and now – without judgement. Your feelings will pass, in time, and that alone will help you to think about yourself with more objectivity and less judgement.
Some survivors are terrified to tell any one including their therapist that when they remember and talk about sexual abuse they feel sexual feelings in their body just as they feel other feelings and body sensations. They are afraid of being viewed as sexually inappropriate, attracted to the therapist or friend, or turned on by sexual abuse i.e. a perpetrator. Many survivors will also feel sexual feelings in their body when they see children or read books about sexual abuse because there is a learned association between these things. This does not mean the survivor is attracted to children nor their therapists. It means that they are having body memories and the feelings need to be seen as such in order to be processed and released. Telling your therapist, or acknowledging to yourself, that you are having sexual feelings while remembering or talking about the abuse will help to release those feelings. Sharing this information in a context of support and understanding is healing.
THE ABUSER IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE – REGARDLESS OF HOW YOU FELT
No matter how you felt during the abuse or feel now, you are not responsible for the abuse. Even if you felt some pleasure or enjoyment; or you wanted some aspects to continue; or you were sexually attracted to the abuser; or you sought the abuser out, the abuser is always responsible for the abuse and not the child. Think about it this way: if a child sought you out for sexual stimulation, would you do it?
It helps to heal by acknowledging how you truly felt and how your body responded, to think about positive ways of interpreting those responses, to not judge yourself, to place the responsibility for the abuse on the abuser, and to view your body separately from the abuse and the abuse. Other things you can do to feel more comfortable with your body and sex include: being gentle with your body; holding and massaging emotionally charged areas with your hand and having a partner hold and massage the area as well (this will help the area to let go of some of the emotional charge – the feelings associated with the abuse); gently stroking any area of your body that defends, tightens, numbs, or otherwise reacts to sexual touch; taking sex slowly and stopping when you need to; breathing; laughing; and having fun with sex, touch, and holding. You are meant to – and can – enjoy your body and all of its beautiful sensations during sex.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO HEAL
Experiencing sexual feelings during abuse or while remembering or talking about sexual abuse is not something anyone should have to feel guilty about. Children feel what they feel during abuse, including sexual feelings, and there is nothing wrong with that. For some survivors the fact that they felt sexually aroused in an abuse context is embarrassing or shameful to admit but the more survivors – in fact, all of us – talk about this issue, the easier and less shameful it becomes. When we talk openly about something, we take away its power or emotional charge.
Survivors reduce the emotional charge, connected to this issue, by talking/writing/drawing about it; not listening to anyone who tells them how they “should” feel; acknowledging and accepting how they felt and feel; recognizing that none of their feelings make them crazy or bad, or like the abuser; and by fostering compassion and understanding for themselves and their body. It’s possible to feel better about this issue – one tiny step at a time.
This article is an adaptation of an article by Dr. Kali Munro: Munro, Kali 2004. Sexual Feelings during abuse. Downloaded on 2 July 2013 from http://kalimunro.com/wp/articles-info/sexual-emotional-abuse/sexual-feelings-during-abuse
With insights from:
Herman, Judith Lewis 1997. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.
Chapman, Alexander L. & Kim L. Gratz 2007. The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.