Sexually abused children suffer distress in adulthood.

As we have seen when looking at boundaries, adolescence is a time of intense sexual change, and these normal changes become entangled with the impact of sexual abuse. Instead of being seen as normal, they are now infused with the shame that sexual abuse engenders in the adolescent. Emotional reactions at bodily changes are severely charged by such abuse. Sexual abuse of adolescents also brings the risk of pregnancy, an added element of trauma for the developing female. A high number of pregnant teenagers have abortions, and this too can bring its own trauma.
It is also highly likely, and increasingly a worry, that sexual abuse can make a child sexually active at an early age, and become promiscuous. Promiscuity leads to a high risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease. Paradoxically, adults abused as children, may come to see their value only as a sexual object. Therefore, while fearing sex, they may also feel rejected if they are rebuffed in an intimate relationship.
Sexually abused children bring emotional turmoil to adulthood, and may be consumed by intense shame, guilt, and rage. It is little wonder that many suffer from depression, feel suicidal, and become addicted to alcohol and abuse substances. Many survivors of sexual abuse develop personality disorders and suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness. They have been used and abused as children and feel unlovable, often have a poor body image, and feel anxious in intimate relationships.
Sexual abuse of boys has particular consequences. Masculinity is stereotyped as dominating, fearless, and tough. The shame, rage, and sense of worthlessness that a raped boy brings to adulthood are difficult to imagine. He struggles with a plethora of debilitating feelings such as fear, inadequacy, and alienation. He may be beset by sexuality issues, such as sexual dysfunction and confusion over sexual orientation. I have never met a person sexually abused in childhood, who did not have a negative outlook about others and about himself. They generally feel helpless and isolated, and many use alcohol to dull the pain. There is also a risk of suicide. Adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience self-blame guilt, shame, humiliation. They may become anxious, depressed and find it difficult to relate. It is likely that they will have low self-esteem, and possibly symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Sometimes their behaviour as adults is to emphasise their masculinity in order to negate the turmoil boiling within. Risky behaviour such as sexual promiscuity, crime, aggressive acts, may become habitual. They construct a facade of bravery, strength and success, while the inner emasculated child cringes in terror. How exhausting it is to keep up this facade, and to keep the helpless child hidden. Ironically, this is sometimes done by deflection away from themselves, and becoming involved in helping others.
Mike Lew, in his blog, Victims No Longer, raises the issue of loss. It is a good way to look at the impact of child sexual abuse. The victim loses his childhood, loses memory of his childhood (as a defence mechanism), loses the ability to relate and properly socialise, loses the chance to play, to learn, to be happy and peaceful, to defend his or her boundaries, to be nurtured, and much, much, more. In the case of clerical and institutional abuse, the victims also suffer a spiritual loss, a loss of faith, and of trust in their church.
Considering this painful legacy, it is important that parents, teachers, social workers, and people in authority should be aware of signs of child sexual abuse. These may vary with the age of the child, although they do not always indicate sexual abuse per se. For younger children, there may be inappropriate sexual activity such as excessive curiosity about sex, promiscuous behaviour, and sexual acting out with other children. Sexually abused children may find it difficult to sleep, and frequently wet the bed. Inevitably, many have learning problems, cling to their mothers, and develop psychosomatic disorders. Pre-puberty and early teenage children may become passive and withdrawn, and bathe excessively. They may have sexual references in schoolwork, and be aggressive or depressed. There are serious warning signs such as refusing to change clothes in front of others, stained or bloody underclothing, bruises or bleeding on the external genitalia or anal areas, and pre-occupation with sexual organs. With older children, there may be suicide attempts, early marriage, running away, pregnancy, substance abuse, and carrying out illegal acts.
In this age of technology, parents should also be highly alert to sexual abuse via the internet. Children spend a considerable amount of time at the computer, and those who use the internet are targets for sexual abusers, and risk becoming sexualised at an early age. Government supported research in Ireland show that 33% of 9-16 year old children have been approached on the internet by people who asked them for personal information such as photographs, phone numbers, addresses and the names of the schools they attend. Three out of every ten said that their parents never check up on them while they are online, and half revealed that their parents did not use filtering software to block unsavoury sites. Many also said that their parents knew less about the internet than they did. Hence, it is important that parents become computer literate, so that they can negotiate the computer activities of their children. It is always worth checking the computer, and the internet history, to see if there is any pornography on it. Looking at phone bills is also recommended, as they may indicate that the child is making phone calls, especially long distance ones. They should investigate unfamiliar phone numbers. Another warning sign is if a child receives mail and packages from people that the parents do not know. It is also worth investigating if the child turns off the monitor or changes the screen quickly if a parent enters the room. The child becoming withdrawn from the family may also be a sign of internet sexual abuse. Finally, it is worth checking if a child is using an online account belonging to someone else.
There is no excusing sexual abuse. Sexual abusers are seen as having a sickness. That may be so, but sexually abusive behaviour is a choice, and there is a moral and serious responsibility to make the opposite choice of respecting the child rather than using them to fulfil sexual needs, and inflicting on them lifelong pain.
I began this chapter on how precious our children are. Our duty of care and our responsibility involves not only protecting them from an abusive environment, but the creation of a positive, nurturing one that affirms them, and sows the seeds of self-confidence and a strong identity in them. In order to do this we must begin with respect, the very opposite of abuse. If we give our children respect, love, attention, empathy, honesty, and allow them appropriate independence, they will embody these traits as adults. We only need be ‘good enough’ parents, and I cannot find a better explanation of what a ‘good enough’ parent is, than the thoughts enshrined in the beautiful poem by Mary Rita Korzan, When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking
When you thought I wasn’t looking,
You hung my first painting on the refrigerator
And I wanted to paint another one.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
You fed a stray cat,
And I thought it was good to be kind to animals.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
You baked a birthday cake just for me,
And I knew that little things were special things.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
You said a prayer,
And I believed there is a God I could always talk to.

When you thought I wasn’t looking
You kissed me good-night
And I felt loved.
When you thought I wasn’t looking,
I saw tears come from your eyes,
And I learned that sometimes things hurt–
But it’s all right to cry.
When you thought I wasn’t looking,
You smiled
And it made me want to look that pretty too.

When you thought I wasn’t looking
You cared
And I wanted to be everything I could be.
When you thought I wasn’t looking
I looked…
And I wanted to say “thanks”
For all those things you did
When you thought I wasn’t looking.
(Reprinted with the kind permission of Ms. Korzan. Copyright, 1980. All rights reserved).
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press

Posted in abuse, Child Abuse, sexual abuse
Tags: ,