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The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse
Western society is undergoing an epidemic of reported childhood sexual abuse. Various authors attribute this to several causes, including the lifting of the stigma and shame of sexual abuse as a topic of conversation, better policies and law enforcement measures for victims, press interest in the topic, evolving childhood developmental psychology models that recognize and accept the severity of the impact of such abuse, and the reclaiming of rights and a voice by women and children who are over represented as victims in this type of abuse.
Childhood sexual abuse includes childhood incest where there has been any sexual activity between a child and an adult, whatever the specific kinship. Included also is symbolic relationship incest where say uncle to niece, step-parent to dependent child, teacher-child or clergy-child are included. Sexual abuse is now more openly discussed, attracts mandatory reporting by clinicians and professions interacting with children, and is now recognised as a major issue within society, with multi-generational implications.
There have been shifts in attitudes to incest and sexual abuse within Australia since the 1960’s where the subject was taboo. The social rights movement and liberation of women’s rights has assisted in this regard. Debate has also occurred as Australia became more multi-cultural and accepted immigrants and refugees from cultures where incest, genital mutilation of women, and treatment toward women in general, created debate and reaction.
At the same time there has been an evolution of legal, social and health policies which better address sexual abuse and incest issues. There is subsequently a better awareness and readiness on the part of the public and the mental health professions to address the problem. Treatment models have also improved and have resulted in better understanding of the outcomes, problems and the effects of childhood sexual abuse.
According to Callaghan (2002), childhood sexual abuse is considered one of the worst forms of trauma, and its effects, long term signs and symptoms are now found to span a large range of conditions documented in the psychiatric reference manual known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, (DSM-IV). Sexual abuse is considered “soul murder” as it literally robs the child victim of their innocence, severely disrupts their developing ego structure and sense of Self, and will later distort the then adult’s ability to function and to form healthy relationships with themselves and others.
Given a child is entirely dependent on adults for their safety, guidance and appropriate gestures of love and nurturance, it is easy to see how this vulnerable group can be targeted and abused.
Regardless of the reasons for the increased conscious awareness of childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent increased reporting of such incidents, various studies both in Australia (Hunt et al; 1995) and America (Bagley and King; 1990), show that up to 1 in 5 women are reporting at least one incident of unwanted sexual touching by persons at least 5 years older than themselves before age 18. Nearly 1 in 10 boys reported the same outcome in this same study. Whilst sexual abuse cuts across all of societal demographics, socio-economic and geographical indicators, the evidence is that childhood sexual abuse most commonly occurs within families.
The American studies show that 1 in 20 boys may also experience the same form of abuse. Biological fathers made up 2 percent of the source of abuse in American studies, whilst in Australia which had a smaller sample study, the figures were more like 10 percent. Step fathers made up 17 percent of source of abuse in the American study whilst step father/extended family members (not exactly a straight comparison) made up 36 percent of the Australian studies.
Childhood sexual abuse appears to cut across all of societies demographics and socio-economic and religious groups, as well as geographic indicators, but some vocations such as clergy, doctors, teachers, day care workers, volunteer and youth group orders, are over represented as areas from which abusive environments and scenarios are acted out.
An adult survivor of child sexual abuse cannot be categorised in any way, such are the complex dynamics and deep trauma at work in this situation. Generally speaking, adults will normally have one of two postures towards life after such abuse, they will either collapse or they will attempt to rise above the abuse. The collapsed outcome is an adult who often has easily recognisable symptoms and problems that stop them from being functional in one or more areas of their life, often with depressive, or addictive, or victim status personas, or require ongoing medical assistance to cope with life.
The second outcome where one “rises above the abuse and its shame” are nominally those who dissociate from the abuse trauma, soldier on and are able to maintain for some time an intact functional life in work and social settings, but who often withdraw or have impairment issues in intimate relationships.
Some behaviours and coping mechanisms common to both groups can include impulses to abuse another person in some way, sexual promiscuity or sexual frigidity or fluctuations between the two, prostitution, alcohol or drug dependency, suicidal thinking or attempts, self mutilation, abusive relationships or absence from relationships. There is a body of evidence that psychosomatic medical disorders are seen to accompany sexually abused children later in life. Case histories have shown survivors can experience unexplained pelvic pains, irritable-bowel syndrome, ectopic pregnancy, endometriosis, Thrush, Candida, Cervical cancers, and rashes.
Adults who were sexually abused as children often are secretive and shame based. This is often due to the dynamic in childhood where the adult abuser used threats and manipulation against the child in order to cover up and maintain the secret of the abuse. Children instinctively trust adults and get their cues, reality and guidance from the same adult that then abuses them. Common manipulation by the abuser of the child victim include telling the child that they enjoyed their “game” and are responsible for what is being done to them.
Another common threat is that the other parent or other siblings will be hurt or killed if the victim tells anyone, or that they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Some abusers play on the natural curiosity and tactile nature of the child and do not physically hurt the child. In these cases the child will ten grow up with guilt that “they enjoyed it” and therefore they are responsible or have guilt or shame over what happened. This too will tend to bind them to secrecy.
Sexual impulses in human are deep seated and the brain has 2 distinct pleasure centres in the brains which activate from sexual activity. Human beings will have regular sexual impulses throughout our lives from an early age as the brain develops in childhood. Children do have their own infantile sexual urges which can put them at risk of abuse where adults around them do not contain these innocent urges or set appropriate boundaries for the child in a non threatening or shaming way.
Children do not have the concept of adult sexuality, nor are they able to give consent. Children who suffer sexual abuse often do not understand that what is being done to them is wrong and may be told by the adult abuser it is OK and natural. Children are very trusting and have a natural need for affection and approval. Children are often not able to say “No”, enforce “No” and may want love and survival needs from the very person who they need to say “No” to.
Children are in a power inequality bind, and so have very little power over what happens in an abuse situation as well as what happens in the rest of their lives. Children are trapped as they are commonly taught to obey adults, trust their parents and extended family, and to look to them for safety and guidance. Extended family members are also not fully known to the parents who put trust on people they do not fully know. Children are sometimes preyed upon by trusted adults who are either socially or blood related to the primary family unit.
Another consideration is the impact and effect of today’s sexualised society on adult sexual identities and their own sexual impulses. The prevalence today of pornography in all its forms, plus the “soft porn” of advertising, media, “men’s lifestyle” magazines, and marketing messages of what it is to be an adult, all promote unhealthy sexuality and an overly sexual focus in adults.
Neuroscience is now alerting us to the possible addictive effects of over-exposure of our brains to such pornographic and sexualised content and images that creates the basis for sexually addictive changes in adults’ behaviour, and their boundaries and judgements from this place.
Neuroscientists and medical experts such as Doidge (2008) tell us that sexual images and pornography are literally creating brain changes in adults over time as they consume such material. Sexual abuse research of adult offenders has also identified a link between sexual abusers and their addiction to pornography. Some of these abusers were found to have been excited, aroused or “triggered” by child or adult pornography just before then overstepping their boundaries and “acting out” by abusing a child.
Many adults end up through pornography usage becoming a sexual or pornography addict. Regardless of the substance or experience an addict adopts, and which may change over time, Neuroscience reveals some key points about how addictions affects their brains. Any addict experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitised to the drug or the experience.
Increasing sensitisation leads to increasing cravings but not necessarily a liking or wanting, and hence many addicts “act out” even when they do not like it or want to. This leads to the addiction “running them”, creates shame, guilt and self-loathing from this same place. This creates a need to cover-up what they may know or feel is wrong.
Sexual addictions, whether from actually having sex, or from pornography, or both, have an added factor of activating two separate pleasure centres in the brain, which accentuates the addictive experience. The brain becomes easily addicted to such a process where there is a double reward and no punishment. Brain maps or neural circuits are by their nature competitive and the active one’s cannibalise or erase the older unused one’s so affecting what attracts us, turns us on, and changes our perceptions of our environment.
It is believed that the looking at porn creates changes in the brains maps that mean firstly old stable sexual partners in relationship become replaced by new brain arousal maps showing porn and new images. Hence over time we lose interest in our real-life sexual partner and focus on porn instead.
There is a possibility that the adult addict may start to find more and more instances of younger persons portrayed in sexual imagery which can “wire them” towards being turned on by such material. The brain requires novelty or increased stimulus over time to maintain its addictive “buzz” when using such material. Some adults lose their reality and boundaries from pursuing their addictions until the addictions effectively are “running” them. It’s the old Alcoholics Anonymous saying in action “A man takes a drink and the drink takes a man”.
When the person tries to stop their addiction what occurs is the brain now has a reality and momentum that will take time to change and alter. Some brain changes may have become permanent and may no longer be able to be easily changed via plasticity properties of the brain. Men’s brains are naturally evolved to be more susceptible to this type of problem, and also to be more addictive than women, as women maintain different physiological and emotional components that create resiliency in many of them from such effects.
Sigmund Freud first noted that in children their sexual instincts have “plasticity” and capable of altering their aims. Childhood developmental psychology as articulated by such researchers as Milton Eriksson (1985), and also by Neuroscientist researchers such as Malcolm Doidge (2008), all note that there are critical periods in a child’s life that influence their sexual identity formation. It has been found that an adult’s ability to love intimately and sexually unfolds in stages, beginning in the infants first passionate attachments to its parents.
Sexual abuse of children has been found to traumatise and create distortions, and a form of developmental arrest in this part of a child’s overall identity and later adult functionality. Childhood sexual abuse can influence the critical period of sexual development in children, which is strongly shaping brain development in the child at that time, and which will later shape our attractions and thoughts about sex. Our brain and nervous system get affected by such abuse.
Sexual abuse creates a form of trauma but unfortunately can also be taken on by the child’s brain as a form of attachment and relating, which gets wired into the child’s brain, and then repeated in adulthood. This can create adult re-enactment scenarios where the adult is unconsciously drawn towards abusive partners in adulthood as a form of familiarity, and “normality” based on the original corrupted scripts laid down in the brain.
It may also serve to create hyper-arousal (agitated/hyper-vigilance) or hypo-arousal (freeze/shutting down) states that activate trauma in the person when confronted by other adults who “seem like/feel like” the original abuser. Adult sexual abuse survivors will then manifest the effects of their own childhood sexual abuse.
Some of the effects upon adults who were sexually abused as children are:
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The various schools of childhood developmental psychology vary in their approach and stages of childhood development of the ego and identity of the child. It is generally recognized by most schools of psychology with their trauma at an age-appropriate cognitive and developmental level, with regressions to earlier levels when the ego structure is flooded by the experience of the abuse.
We recognise that sexual abuse can occur at any stage of childhood. There will be an impact on the resulting adult’s functionality and identity from this trauma. There are some subtle and also some more intense adult outcomes of childhood sexual abuse that need to be considered. What follows is a basic summary that extracts some of the key ideas and theories from the key schools of thought around sexual abuse dynamics and its effects on the child and them later as an adult.
ENERGETIC AND EMOTIONAL ABUSE
There are subtle versions of sexual abuse that are seen by some schools of psychology and psychotherapy to exist. The most subtle level of sexual abuse is that at the energetic level. The repeated case studies of clients over nearly 100 years by Reichian and Bioenergetic therapists has seen the observation of an influential childhood dynamic at the child’s oedipal stage of psychological development (typically age 2-5).
During this period the child becomes aware of their sexual identity, and this cognitive awareness appears to be linked to an interest by the child in their bodies and sexual organs. The child at this stage appears to have a primary biological urge to approach the adult of the opposite sex and express their sexual identity through simplistic means such as wanting to climb onto the parent, rub their genitals into the parent’s body, or show off their genitals. Typically a parent may do one of three responses. They may shame the child, seduce the child, or skillfully deflect the child’s attention onto another focus that leaves the child’s sexual identity intact and unshamed. The first two responses are unskillful and can traumatize the child even if not largely understood by the parents.
When a child receives a shaming response from a parent the child then starts to think they themselves are flawed as an identity, or that they must completely shut down their sexual identity. This is commonly done so as not to be annihilated by the parent, or done under the assumption that this part of them is “bad”, and so must be disowned so the child will continue to experience the acceptance and love from the parents.
Shaming responses are often found in religious family systems, or where the parents have a shamed based sexual identity that compels them to shutdown the child lest the child’s urges trigger their own adult urges that they so desperately try to disown and deny. The impact of this abuse is a shame based sexual identity system is setup that will often survive into adulthood where the person will experience shame around their bodies, their sexual identities, and often sexual dysfunction in adult relationships.
The scenario where the adult seduces the child can occur on a number of levels. The prevalent issue here is the underlying sexual health of the adult that the child moves toward, and the nature of the sexual relationship (if one exists at all) that this adult enjoys with another adult. Where the relationship between the parents is poor, or if there is sexual tension in the system of the parent that the child gravitates towards, then there is risk that an energetic displacement of adult sexual energy will occur onto the child.
This may take several forms including the child’s actions or interest triggering a sexual impulse to arise in the adult even where this impulse is then repressed by the adult, or at the emotional level where the adult starts to fantasize about the child in a sexual way or experience sexual arousal at the body level. This is considered in some schools of thought to create an energetic charge that is absorbed into the child’s energy field and which over stimulates the child’s infants psychosexual system.
The environment within the family can also “charge” the child’s sexual tension, Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) or psychosexual system where inappropriate exposure occurs of the parents naked adult bodies, the parents or older siblings exhibiting sexual actions, and the exposure to pornography in its various forms at this early age.
The impact can be a fixation on sexual matters and a general acting out of sexual situations with other children, or excessive self masturbation at an early age, or the creation of an energetic or emotional “bond” with the parent of the opposite sex. Here a degree of collusion may arise between the adult and the child and a triangulated relationship may develop in the family. The young girl may become daddy’s “little princess” or confidant and the child feels special or having power over the father in this bond.
At the same time the child may also experience competition or guilt towards the mother due to this special relationship she perceives she has with the father. The child may also experience moments of being made special by one parent, and then moments of being criticized, punished or made to feel ordinary or unsafe by that same parent, or the other parent who has resentment or anger towards this “special” bond. The child will react to this uncertainty or response possibly via attempting to try and control both parents within the triangular family dynamic.
The impact of this form of subtle sexual abuse is that the child when they grow into adulthood may have a tendency to:
- may need to be in control in relationships;
- easily create triangulated relationships with members of the opposite sex;
- may be indifferent or hostile towards members of their own sex;
- may be very seductive and sexualised within their social identity;
- may find that they can relate primarily only from their sexual identity;
- may seduce and then abandon or betray others;
- may have affairs which recreate the triangulated relationship dynamic of childhood; or
- continue themselves to be seduced and betrayed in relationships by members of the opposite sex.
Another outcome at this level of abuse is the phenomenon of the child having an idealized minds view of their potential relationship partner only being someone of unreachable high standards. Every potential partner will normally remind them somehow of the opposite sex parent who seduced them but this is an unconscious dynamic they actually normally cannot understand they perpetuate.
The potential mate is also idealized at this point as well, but will soon to be found wanting and rejected, as there is an unconscious sense in the now adult child that to have relationship with anyone but the parent who seduced them would be a betrayal of that special relationship they had as the child. These adults normally complain they can never find a suitable mate and may end up single and alone but with an unidentified sense of longing and melancholy that they cannot quite connect to any particular dynamic.
The emotionally and energetically seduced child may also be Narcissistic as they may have been forced to live from a “false self” in childhood to “win” the parental love, and now have disowned their authentic self, and instead live to an image which is often superficial, perfectionistic, sexualized, and is constantly self-obsessed and seeking attention from others.
PHYSICAL SEXUAL ABUSE
The most severe forms of childhood sexual abuse occur when there is a physical element of touching, sexual foreplay, attempted or actual sexual penetration. The dynamics described above in terms of the child approaching the adult parent of the opposite sex are seen as one of the gateways into the child being subsequently abused. Increasingly internet exposure is creating gateways to such abuse as well.
In this scenario the adult parent or perpetrator has a sexual “wound” and lacks appropriate boundaries and self control to subdue any sexual impulses that arise when the child is nearby. The adult “acts out” their own sexual wound by abusing the child and the abuser themselves may have abused sexually at some level themselves in their formative years.
Such abuse often has a repetition compulsion attached to it which means the adult will continue to abuse when occasions present themselves, either until they are caught, or an intervention such as getting help for this abusive behaviour pattern is sought. There is normally a shaming aspect to this abusive behaviour as the adult effectively shames the child via the abuse, and so there is the added dimension in the abuse of guilt and shame issues that the child victim often takes on as a distorted belief system.
GENERAL PSYCHODYNAMIC ISSUES OF PHYSICAL CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE
As stated earlier, physical sexual abuse has the greatest and most pervasive effects on the child victim as they then grow into adulthood. The paragraphs that follow sum up some of the more prevalent and common outcomes of repeated incidents of childhood sexual abuse, whether the perpetrator was a parent, a carer, older sibling, or a significant other from a social setting such as a school, church, activity group, Day-Care Centre, etc (Ross:1995).
ATTACHMENT TO THE ABUSER
One of the universal problems that abuse survivors suffer is the ongoing loyalty and attachment to the perpetrator of the original abuse. This problem is acted out both literally and energetically as shall be explained now. The literal aspects of this problem relate to the dynamics of the original abuse situation as well as the power and role of the adult within the family. The first aspect is the adult is a source of love for the child and the love is a key dependency need of the child, and so the child will endure the abuse if it feels it gets even a scrap of love in return.
A self justification cognitive error can result here that will then often get acted out in abusive and destructive relationships later in life where the adult abuse survivor stays in abusive relationships as they believe they receive love despite the abuse, or minimize the abuse they receive and fixate on a sense that they are really loved by the abuser, forgive the abuser, and then re-enter the relationship to often start the same destructive cycle again. This phenomenon is often reported as the “battered partner” syndrome.
Another aspect to this same issue is that the abused child is dependent on the adult abuser, who feeds, clothes, educates, may be otherwise a reasonable and loving parent, and who puts a roof over their head and the other children in the family. The child has no option to leave, to not needing, to not being nurtured, or to not being dependent on the parent who abuses them.
The child is forced to bond traumatically to this parent who represents both “good parent” and “bad parent”, thus often forcing a self split in the child’s own identity as the parent does not mirror an integrated healthy self to the child, for the child to internalize and relate from. The child will often internalize both “good” and “bad” as inseparable for this is the external reality, and an unconscious fear then develops that if one were to let go of the “bad parent” then one would lose the “good parent” too.
The child then grows into adulthood with this internal split that at its worst can create a form of a “borderline personality” where the polarities of “being bad” and “being good” are unintegrated and over emphasized.
Often in adult relationship the abuse survivor again stays in abusive relationships because of the felt sense of having good and bad co-existing as a bound entity being normal and indeed possibly something that does not feel “normal” to be without. Energetically the abused person will attract and be attracted to relationships where the energy or issues of that person mirror or re-create the issues of the abusive parent, and so many abuse survivors end up being in sexually dysfunctional or abusive relationships until in therapy the illusion of the necessary co-existence of “good parent” and “bad parent” can be made conscious and broken.
Another aspect of this same dynamic is that the abuse survivor may protect the memory of the abusive parent much in the same way that to criticize the “bad dad” means that the “good dad” is negated as well, which is a dilemma that some abuse survivors struggle with. They may minimize the effects and extent of the abuse, they may have a sadness if the parent is deceased, divorced, in jail, or somehow now unavailable to the abuse survivor.
The trauma bond is at play here, and often it buys the loyalty and secrecy of the abuse survivor, who in a sense grieves the abusive parent. In therapy they may be defensive around any probing of the abusive parent, fearful they will lose both the “good” and “bad” parent in the same moment.
They may not want to psycho dynamically protest or rage at the abusive parent for the same reason. The therapist often over time will address this cognitive error or internal structure that creates and maintains the problem of the attachment to the perpetrator of the abuse.
ADDICTION AND REPETITION COMPULSION TO THE ABUSE
Neuroscience research shows that human beings are “wired up” in the bodymind such that sexual and other abuse can result in protective mechanisms to deal with trauma. The first aspect of this situation occurs at the bodily level where sexual abuse itself can trigger pleasure in the child as autoerotic impulses are generated from the abusive touch and invasion.
The child may feel sexual arousal and also longed for attention from the sexual abuse while the terror may be mild, creating an element of addiction in the process as the 2 brain pleasure centres for sex then releases various endogenous opiates such as endorphins, creating sensations of bodily pleasure, a “high” state, and the basis for the bodymind to recreate this experience in times of anxiety, or when shame spirals flood the bodymind.
The basis for this experience is not dissimilar to the Showground rides where the person experiences a rollercoaster ride that actually creates both mild terror, pleasure, helplessness, and creates a “rush” of adrenalin, endorphins, and the person leaves the ride in a state of mixed euphoria and hypervigilance.
The abused child may start to approach the adult to “re-experience” the abuse, as the addictive aspects of the experience start to exert themselves in the child. The child may become sexualized from the recreation of the original abuse, and may be told by the abuser that the child “is the seducer” or “the naughty one”.
The child may start to take on the guilt, blame, and shame of the abuse not understanding that a child is not making such a choice but may be substituting this behaviour for deeper longings for the attention or love it needs, or is driven by addictive body psychochemical processes. The result is the child may either start to feel “bad” or to feel shameless.
Where the child feels “bad” there is normally the attributional error that the child is responsible for the abuse. The child at this point may have a belief system of having seduced the adult, but also be guilty of betraying the other parent at the same time. The child starts to take on the feelings of being bad at a deeper level that is they no longer feel bad, they are bad, and the badness becomes their identity.
This over identification with a feeling such that it becomes the basis of the identity can create the basis for the psychiatric “borderline personality” as well as the creation of self hatred and low self esteem in the abused child. Such a child may have an internal belief system that they deserve to be punished further for being “bad”. This may lead to self mutilation by cutting, burning, a history of “accidents”, or by the seeking out of sexual experiences where there is an element of punishment involved.
The adult survivor who has made this attributional error may act out sexually in their adult life, and be promiscuous or sexually shutdown, or have periods of both, possibly joined by a shame spiral in the personality that results from double binds in their belief systems. Such belief systems may present as “casual sex feels bad, but it feels good to feel bad, and being bad is the only way to be good, although only bad persons would be good in that way”.
There is no resolution to the double binds just as there is no real relief or happiness in the acting out of sexual promiscuity, and so a compulsive addiction aspect often occurs where the acting out creates shame or bad feelings, and so we act out again to attempt to resolve those bad feelings. Some survivors mix their addictions with drugs, alcohol, eating, work, as a way of dealing with the same feelings. The person is in effect an “addictive personality” who may shift the object of addiction around depending on availability and circumstance.
The development of the “shameless” person instead of the “bad” person is not always dissimilar or different in terms of later adult life behaviours and belief systems. In both cases the abused child has at some level learnt to confuse their sexual identity and their self worth. The child will often cope with abuse by dissociating from the actual event and will often retreat into an egoic protective fantasy world or state.
It is common for the child in the face of actual helplessness at being abused to instead create an illusion that the child has power over the perpetrator of the abuse and is controlling the perpetrator and able to successfully compete with the other parent to win the affection of the perpetrators “love”. The child starts to become the “prized object”, “princess”, “special one”, and who accepts this distorted role which often is accompanied by the perpetrators manipulative reinforcing and affirming statements, special attention, gifts, and extra attention over other siblings, and even the other adult parent.
The child rises above the shame and starts to create a false self based in the sexual identity as the core identity of the person, where self worth is linked to sexual favours, and where the child and then as an adult starts to feel they are worth nothing unless they sexually desired by others of the same sex as the original perpetrator.
They may start to reconnect with their original feelings of being powerless and so they adopt a compulsive repetitive response of making another sexual conquest to reassert their power and self worth. Repetition compulsion is a condition where the trauma victim repeatedly re-exposes themselves to situations which re-enact the trauma, in a fruitless attempt to master the experience and to “get it right this time” and reclaim their sense of self.
The double bind thinking mentioned earlier often operates within the “shameless” archetype. The double bind may present itself as “good children like to make their parents feel good, which makes them feel good too, even though the sex makes the other parent feel bad, which makes the child feel bad, then the cure for that bad feeling is to be special and powerful which means having sex with the perpetrator”. The adult in this dynamic may use their false sense of power in adult life to seek out dangerous partners and situations and “master them” sexually to prove their own self worth and power.
There is often a theme of repeated sexual acting out, and sexual experimentation to push the boundaries as far as they can go, or of having highly developed sexual skills as a way of demonstrating worth when in fact the unconscious feelings of being worthless actually exist in the abuse survivor, coupled with the original suppressed feelings of being helpless. The repetition compulsion is often seen in the relationship dynamic where the sexual activity is abusive and the partner has their own sexual wounds and issues.
There may also exist at this level some element of the “forbidden” or “darkness” attraction where the child was noticeably aware of the secret nature of the abusive activity, or the sense that it being “wrong” made it more special. The adult may be drawn into dynamics of being proactively drawn to seduce “unavailable” partners in relationship, or “forbidden” such as priests, who can then be corrupted, or the adult may enjoy ritualistic sexual practices, group sex, or bisexual practices that have some element of “forbidden” or “special” attached to them. An attraction to pornography can also fall under this scenario.
HYPER-AROUSAL, HYPERVIGILANCE AND THE NEED TO CONTROL
Many adult sexual abuse survivors report a sustained and fixated sense of hypervigilance. The child was often made to feel unsafe in the family environment and had to evoke a survival method of being hypervigilant in an effort (often unsuccessful) of anticipating and escaping the terror of possible opportunities of further sexual abuse.
The sustained and heightened state of body senses acts to switch the child’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) into Sympathetic mode of “fight or flight” where it may remain in this alert state. This is in effect a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) which is in effect what happens to the child. This can lead to the adult having psychosomatic health issues such as Adrenal system problems, stress issues, psychosomatic illness, and an inability to relax. If the abuse occurred at a fixed time of the day or night then a body memory may result where hyper-vigilance or panic attack symptoms occur at that same time many years later.
Abuse survivors may also attempt to control other people as a coping mechanism to make their environment safe. The controlling often occurs in concert with hypervigilant scanning of the environment. This is a classic trauma response. Children often learn to control the unsafe parents through a combination of parenting the parent, anticipating their needs, and as a result of the abuse itself.
The child gets “bonded” to the abusing parent in a dynamic where there is normally a partner to the abuser who is often the abused child’s other parent. This situation creates a triangular relationship. If the abuse results in the child feeling “special” or the abuse is accompanied by attention or what the child perceives as “love” then the child will energetically and emotionally go into competition with the abusive parent’s partne r(which is often the other parent).
The child may magically believe they should be the partner of the abusive parent, and may resent and be jealous of the actual partner of the abusive parent, and may act out rage or rebellious behaviour as a consequence, or try to keep getting the abusive parents attention, which may trigger another round of abuse. The child may also try to control both these adults in this scenario.
The child is trying to keep themselves safe with the abusive parent while not losing their “love” and attention, and at the same time trying to exploit the often real distance that may exist between the abuser and their partner. In some cases there is a guilt formed by the child toward the abusers partner, as this partner may actually show the child real attention, care, and love, which creates anxiety within the child.
The adult survivor of abuse who grew up under this dynamic may then enter relationships in a dynamic where there is a need to be in constant control of the relationship as well as the other partner. The adult may find it hard to commit fully to the partner, and may get jealous of any attention their partner receives from members of the same sex that the child saw as being the real partner of her childhood abuser. The abuse survivor may triangulate the relationship in order to recreate the familiar childhood dynamic they grew up with, and may have affairs outside the relationship, or be attracted to a partner who acts out this way by having affairs, so recreating the triangular relationship dynamic.
Normally the need for control will spill into most other areas of life because there is often the accompanying hypervigilance still locked in the now adult nervous system. The person may present to others with either an ominous or seductive energy and persona but in both cases it will be mixed with an alertness and drive to be moving, achieving, or busy, as a way of dealing with underlying hyper-arousal and anxiety symptoms.
HYPO-AROUSAL AND SHUTTING DOWN BY VICTIMS
Some adult sexual abuse survivors report a period of withdrawal and shutting down from the world where they lose energy, collapse, and may want to sleep or hide. This reaction is a sign of trauma and relates to how the ANS evokes a survival method of being in a “freeze” state in an effort (often unsuccessful) of anticipating and escaping the terror of possible opportunities of further sexual abuse. In this reaction the victim may also dissociate or “split-off” to accentuate the withdrawal process from the world and from possible further abuse (Ogden:2008). Hypo-arousal was found in trauma studies by Lanius, as noted by Ogden (2008), to occur in about one third of the abuse victims.
Hypo-arousal can cause losses in memory, motor weakness in the body, paralysis, numbness of feelings and sensations, confusion states, and deficits in attention(Ogden:2008). Victims often report a sense of separation from their body, no sensation in parts of their body, and an appearance of passivity.
This approach can leave the person unable to mount a defence if required and can be maladapted to their environment as its leaves them as easy prey to any person around them. This reaction, just like the hyper-vigilant reaction both are triggered by the heightened state of body senses which get triggered and then act to switch the child’s Autonomic Nervous System(ANS) into either of these modes or states. Both states are recognized symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome(PTSD), and both can co-exist and activate independently depending on what triggers the victim.
In life these people may “freeze” and act like victims as their whole system goes into a form of shock and their attention orientation to the outside world recedes and pulls back into a protective state, much like a snail receding back into its shell.
SPLITTING AND DID OR MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER (MPD)
Childhood sexual abuse survivors often express that the trauma has a profound impact on memory. The extent of this problem seems linked to the threshold of severity and duration of the abuse. Survivors may have periods of amnesia of their childhood, mixed up memories in terms of chronological order, uncertainty of the authenticity of the memory, etc. In some cases the child is forced to at an early age cope with the abuse by an egoic defence called introjections. This is where the split personality of the abuser (“good parent” and “bad parent”) is internalized within the child.
The child starts to develop splits in its own ego structure that reflect these split parts of the adults who abuse them, and to contain the memories that each aspect acted out on the child, away from the primary consciousness of the child, in order to protect the child from re-experiencing the trauma memories. So the child who feels “bad” may start also to over identify with this feeling of being “bad” and internalize it as a sub personality, creating a polarized “good person”, “bad person” split or borderline personality.
Severe forms of childhood sexual abuse may produce what has been called Dissociate Identity Disorder (DID), which was previously described in psychiatric literature as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). There is debate as to whether this condition should be clinically recognized under DSM-IV guidelines but currently is accepted within their guidelines.
According to Colin Ross(1995), the basis of this condition is that the child creates a series of alter-personalities in order to survive some type of trauma or severe abuse. Some writers state typically there are 3 classes of these sub-personality “containers” for the abuse memories, each having an overlay of a “personality”. Their observations may overlap in respect to cult based sexual and other types of abuse, but is noted here.
The first type is the “abused-child” alter personality who contains or holds all the traumatic episode memories and is the persona of the victim of the abuse. The second type is the “persecutor” alter personalities who contain the child self belief system that they are “bad”, caused the abuse, deserved the abuse, was the seducer rather than the adult, is a troublemaker, and the personality believes the person should continue to be punished for being “bad” and so acts out by cutting and burning the skin, acting out destructively and sexually etc.
Controversially there is sometimes found a third type of sub-personality who is the “internal self helpers” or guardians alter personalities who act to protect the person, and who may represent divine energies or archetypes of angels or spiritual entities, and there appears to be an aspect of being able to access paranormal powers or gifts via these class of personalities.
According to Ross (1995), the constellation of these 3 classes of alter personalities seems to operate through the mind or consciousness of the persons primary personality who may be totally unaware of these alter personalities existing within them. The alter personalities appear to “takeover” the person from time to time, either within therapy, or in day to day life. The overall person experiences this as amnesia blocks which means their primary consciousness cannot account for hours at a time.
What appears to happen is the primary consciousness “checks out” and one or more of the alters “check in” and take over the person, and the person lives from that persona for some period of time before regaining control of their body again with their primary consciousness again. This can create great confusion for the person who gets frustrated at having amnesia periods, may find their wardrobe suddenly has new clothes they would never dream of wearing, they may find they have been smoking, drinking, having sex, being childlike, or a number of possible scenarios that represent the basics of the alter personality who took control for that period of time.
Other people also notice these changes of behaviour, grooming, actions, attitudes etc, and can be quite alarmed. The other symptom is that the primary consciousness may actually hear the dialogue going on between the various alter personalities in their head/mind, as these sub personalities actually appear to have some consciousness and cognition of how the primary consciousness experiences the world.
There are documented accounts of abuse survivors having many “alters” or sub-personalities who act as fragmented or coping personality containers to the abuse. The classic Hollywood movie “The three faces of Eve” depicted this reality at a time when the medical profession did not have an explanation for this personality disturbance.
Unfortunately it is in this area that the notion and debate about “false memories” rages in abuse victim accounts. The debate is not recounted here but is centred around the possibility of fragmented mind abuse victims developing “new” or therapist suggested memories of abuse due to the susceptible nature of the victim, coupled with the approach of the therapist in working with the victim.
THE INTERNET AS A GATEWAY TO ABUSE
The recent and recurrent instances of successful raids against Australian paedophiles who were caught using credit cards to pay for internet based images of children being abused is symptomatic of the problem of the internet as a medium for sexual abuse. This incident lifts the lid on a largely underground movement.
The background to one of these incidents was that the Russian Mafia had a highly organized prostitution and human trafficking operation running out of impoverished eastern European countries such as Belarus where the syndicate offering these internet pictures was based. Women and children of both sexes were being abducted or lured into sexual conduct, and often on-sold onto different brothels and “owners” who would photograph them and abuse them until they “traded” them on (The Australian editorial: 2004).
There has been a worldwide but largely secretive underground movement of Paedophiles who have been swapping abusive videos and photographs worldwide for at least the last 40 years (WHO Report; 2004). Many of these groups had affiliations to cults, youth groups, churches and other institutions that provided a cover for their activities (Ross; 1995). The internet has made these groups able to swap abusive material via the internet and also to “groom” new victims by pretending to be various aliases when emailing into chat rooms.
The internet has also had a secondary effect of placing a large amount of illegal pornographic content into the public domain where curious adults and children are now being exposed to such material, with the content including children being sexually abused. There is evidence that this has had a triggering effect on some adults and teenagers to predispose them to act out such situations in their own lives (FBI report; 2003).
The relative anonymous nature of the internet allows for the access of such illegal material with little chance of detection, except where an audit trail is setup such as what happened when those who purchased abusive material from Belarus were tracked from their credit card details they used on the internet to pay for the illegal images.
One new world for the sexual predator been the internet and its protean fluid like nature that allows one to assemble and project virtual realities out into cyberspace. More than never before can any person construct and hide behind a false facade, join social networking sites such as Facebook, and converse and interact with others from this place. It is also a new stalking ground for the hungry child sexual predator who knows far better than most how to play this game in this new arena.
It is easy to setup a website, a Facebook account, a Twitter account and U-Tube presence. In this act we setup an idealised projection of what we want the world to believe who we are. From here we may want to connect from the safety of our remote and camouflaged reality. We are able to cut and paste false or doctored pictures of who we are, change sex, age, nationality, or even create entirely new Avatar style figures from which to reach out and communicate to others. This feature attracts many to do so, not just sexual predators, and renders the internet as a fluid medium of connection but also a predatory camouflage in which to lure unsuspecting victims.
One classic example of this deception is the predatory paedophile who now use the internet as a way to camouflage as a child or teenager, make contact with children or teenagers, and begin a grooming process to gain trust, rapport, and online contact with the victim (Interpol:2009). Police forces are finding that the paedophile is well able to establish a connection with young victims who have no idea they may be dealing with adult men or women.
The predator knows the language to use, the current “cool” trend or movie, and is able to easily manipulate the victim into “friendship” (Interpol:2009). The ploy or agenda is to slowly sexualise the content of the interchanges, start to play games of send me a photo of you, and I will do so too. The child sends the photo of themself, the paedophile a photo of another child victim, or a stranger child photo sourced from almost anywhere. The predator starts to suggest they “play” by sending nude photos, or do “sexting” of each other, and often this occurs(Interpol:2009).
The paedophile may leave the sexualised contact at this level, and possibly try to gain “recruits” via their new child friend who will introduce others who often also eventually act out sexually. The end game though for many paedophiles is to groom the child for contact and to meet in person, where abduction, rape or abuse may be in store for the unsuspecting child.
Police forces now employ cyber-police who play the paedophile at their own game. The adult police officer creates a child persona and under this camouflage, starts to “hang out” online on chat sites, forums and FaceBook. They interact as a child with whoever makes contact with them, and lies in wait for a paedophile on the prowl. Once they make contact with an adult predator they maintain the ruse, act sexualised, play along with the predator, agree to meet, and then the police pounce and arrest the culprit. Such is the power of the internet to create a false disguise and go about predating on others.
Increasingly psychologists argue, we are creating a world of withdrawn people who live and connect via online means, and who are losing their socialisation skills and their real identities to virtual equivalents. The situation is affecting some teenagers and adults physical and mental health. It is becoming an acute addiction with all the classic withdrawal symptoms for the affected.
This group is more susceptible to online predators as their own identities, realities, and boundaries are compromised by constant internet and online use of their time. Some sexually abused people do withdraw from real society and live out their lives via the internet as it seems to afford protection. In reality it is not as safe at it may first appear.
In one recent case a man has been arrested by police who claimed that up to two dozen women could have been duped into believing he was a woman as part of an elaborate ruse to convince them to have sex with him (Gabrielle:2010). The man posed as a woman and made friends with other women on dating and social network sites. Once befriended this impersonator then confided with the women that “she” had been sexually involved with a very wealthy businessman who paid them for sex. “She” convinced these women to contact “him” to meet for sex, not knowing “she” and “he” were one and the same. They had sex and did not get paid and unbeknown to them he had also filmed their sexual encounters.
Our communities also face a problem of what to do with adult abusers of children. Typically society enacts a criminal sanction against perpetrators of sexual abuse with sentences of imprisonment. Whilst this enacts punishment and may deliver the victim some sense of justice and recognition of the abuse being wrong, there is evidence that sex offenders are not receiving rehabilitation or treatment during their time in jail(Banks:2010).
Statistics show that in Western Australia more than 7 out of 10 sex offenders released from jail in 2010 failed to complete a rehabilitation program before they returned to the community(Banks:2010). This equated to 40 out of 145 sex offenders completing a sex offender program whilst in prison. The disturbing aspect of these statistics are the reasons why the 70 per cent did not complete such a program.
According to Banks (2010), the key reasons cited by those not completing such a program were:
- A refusal to participate;
- Denial they had committed an offence;
- Short sentences which did not allow time for a program to be completed; and
- Mental health problems preventing treatment.
Police statistics show that sexual abusers are often recidivists or repeat offenders and treatment programs or an intervention is needed to prevent further acting out over time. This issue then becomes one of how society takes responsibility for damaged individuals who represent a risk to other adults and children.
Childhood sexual abuse is a significant societal issue that has lifelong consequences for its victims. As society becomes more sexualised and objectifies women, as well as allows more liberal policies on the availability of pornography to evolve, there is an ongoing risk in the community of more children and adults becoming exposed and affected by both abuse as well as condoned use of pornography. Both have damaging consequences for those affected persons.
Adults need to be mindful and vigilant of their children’s vulnerability to being sexually abused both within the family system, and within wider community circles. Older children and teenagers need to be aware of online mediums as a potential medium for abuse or exposure to the addictive and negative effects of online pornography.
Childhood Sexual abuse can be healed and the victim able to reclaim their power, their dignity, and rights that were taken from them in childhood. The repair work can involve creating resources, teaching boundaries, dealing with secondary effects and issues such as addictions, doing rage and grief emotional protest work, and working towards integrating all aspects of the person back into their humanity. We work with other sections of the medical community where necessary, as some sufferers may need Psychiatric or medical help whilst dealing with deep sexual abuse issues.
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