If you know more than a few people, odds are that you know someone who has been sexually abused. One study indicated that as many as 38% of women had been sexually abused by age 18 (Allender, rear flap). Sexual abuse victims are male as well as female, but girls are at a higher risk than boys.
Most abuse is committed by a family member or someone known by the victim. National statistics show that 29% of abuse is committed by family members and 60% is by acquaintances (Allender, p.92). Stop It Now! Georgia reports that in Georgia 82% of cases involve members of the immediate or extended family of the victim. Often the abuser was a birth parent (37% of cases) or a sibling (22%). Abusers can be men or women, but more often the abuser is male (95% in cases of girls and 80% in cases of boys) (p. 272).
If you are being abused, you can get help through stopitnowga.org or by calling 1-800-CHILDREN. The telephone call is free in Georgia and is confidential.
The effects of sexual abuse can be overcome. Dr. Dan Allender, himself a victim of sexual abuse, has written a fascinating book on the subject of overcoming sexual abuse. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse provides guidance and hope for victims of abuse as well as those who love them. Recent studies have shown that there is hope for abusers as well. They often respond to treatment and can rejoin society.
Allender begins with a discussion of the long term psychological effects of abuse. Often the victim feels dead inside, as if they are a zombie (Allender, p. 44). Often the victims feel shame for what happened to them. They fear both being exposed before the world (p. 66) and possible rejection as a consequence (p. 71). As a coping mechanism, they often place their trust in what Allender calls “false gods” (p. 74), which can include people, objects, or beliefs.
Abuse victims also frequently experience self-contempt. Self-contempt may range from physically destructive actions such as suicide or binging on food or alcohol or sex. The majority (66%) of prostitutes were sexually abused as children. The majority of these (again 66%) were abused by their father or a father figure such as foster father or stepfather. At the other extreme, self-contempt may take the form of something seemingly innocuous, such as not being able to accept a compliment (p. 80-82). Contempt serves to deaden both shame and longing for the victim, and makes them feel that they are in control. In effect, Allender calls contempt the “Great Masquerade” (p. 88) because it takes the place of sorrow and conviction over sin, replacing it with self-directed anger. Often anger masks the victim’s own pain and shame.
Allender also points out the stages of abuse. In some cases, such as a rape by a stranger, abuse is a single incident. In most cases, however, it is part of a pattern (p. 97-102). The abuser first gains the trust of the victim and draws them into secrecy. Next, physical contact is established in a manner that is not inappropriate. The abuser then takes the final step into full scale sexual abuse. In many cases, there are long periods of time between each step. Finally, in cases of ongoing abuse, the abuser may threaten or use special privileges to keep the abuse secret.
After the abuse, there are several common reactions that victims experience. First is a feeling of powerlessness. Not only was the victim powerless to stop the abuse, they were often threatened to maintain secrecy. Many victims respond by becoming numb or dead to escape the pain (p.117-122). This can translate into a dislike of their body, lying and deceit, or poor judgment in relationships.
Second is a sense of betrayal. This is especially prevalent if the abuser was a family member or if other family members were complicit in the abuse (p. 133-138). The fear of betrayal leads the victim to hyper vigilance, suspiciousness, and lack of objectivity. The victim focuses on each detail and overanalyzes them. This is because the victim questions the motives of people who extend kindness and warmth.
The third major symptom of sexual abuse is ambivalence. This is caused by the conflicting emotions due to stimulation of the senses in the abuse that is normally pleasurable and the shame of the abuse itself. This leads to more shame and possibly a fear of pleasure (p. 149-151). Many abuse victims view themselves as a whore, whether they live that sort of lifestyle or keep the image private in their fantasies (p. 155-156).
There are other symptoms as well. It is common for abuse victims to struggle with depression (p. 161), lack of self-esteem, and problems relating with others (p. 168-69). Sexual dysfunctions from lack of interest to addiction to perversions are also common in abuse victims (p. 164). A long list of dysfunctions such as “exhibitionism, voyeurism, pedophilia, homosexuality, transvestitism, and fetishism” is “often highly correlated to abuse” (p. 164). Abuse victims may suffer from a variety of compulsive disorders, such as bulimia, or the stress may manifest itself as a physical illness (p. 166-167).
Dr. Allender goes on to describe three basic types of personalities for abuse victims. Speaking female terms, the first is the Good Girl (p. 175). The Good Girl keeps her self-contempt hidden and often struggles with sexual fantasies. She limits and controls her emotions and is often viewed as unfeeling. She is a hard worker, often sacrificially, but does not ask for help. She doesn’t want conflict.
The Tough Girl (p. 178) is a hard woman who is suspicious and critical of others and often becomes angry at her perception of others. She views emotion and longing as a sign of weakness. People tend to keep their distance from a Tough Girl to avoid rousing her anger. The Tough Girl erects walls and thrives on conflict.
The Party Girl (p. 181) can be “intense or mellow.” Her moods are constantly changing. The Party Girl personality is a response to fear and ambivalence. She avoids commitment and flits from one relationship to another. The Party Girl has been described as “an emotional tapeworm” (p. 184) who is never satisfied.
The same victim can exhibit characteristics of each style of relating, depending on the situation. The common thread is that all are based on aspects of self-contempt. Each is also a coping mechanism that causes its own problems.
Thankfully, Allender does not merely dwell on the symptoms of abuse, but also prescribes a course of healing. Allender’s plan is a three-step process that is based on Biblical principles. The first step is for the victim to be honest with herself. Allender lists eight truths that abuse victims must be willing to acknowledge in order to move forward (p. 200). These truths include admitting to oneself that abuse has occurred, it has damaged her soul, and that healing requires change from the artificial coping mechanisms. Honesty may also require that the victim stop attempting to suppress memories that are being repressed.
Second is repentance. The victim does not need to repent of being abused, but for choosing to be dead, choosing to mistrust, and choosing to despise passion (p. 223). Allender notes the difference between repentance, admitting helplessness, and penance, which “presumes the ability to make amends on one’s own” (p. 221). Repentance softens the heart, while penance hardens it.
The final step towards recovery is forgiveness and bold love. Being able to love and forgive the abuser frees the victim from hatred and anger. In this context, love refers to the “commitment to do whatever it takes (apart from sin) to bring health (salvation) to the abuser” (p. 241). To heal herself, the victim should work to forgive the abuser. The victim should not seek revenge (but this does not preclude seeking justice) (p. 243-44).
These steps can (and should) be applied not only to the sexual abuser, but surrogates that often bear the brunt of the victim’s anger and even those who merely get on our nerves in a normal day-to-day manner. In many cases, the victim’s spouse becomes a surrogate for the abuser.
Whether the victim is you or someone you love, The Wounded Heartis valuable resource to help understand the emotions and actions involved. The one weakness is the book is the lack of an index. This article provides only a brief overview of the material presented. If you are or if you know a victim who struggles with the personality disorders that this book describes, I urge you to read the whole book, which actually comes with a money-back guarantee from the publisher. You have nothing to lose but your pain.
Allender, Dr. Dan B., The Wounded Heart: Hope for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Navpress, PO Box 35001, Colorado Springs, CO, 1995.