I reflected that it was not unusual for survivors of sexual abuse to ‘self blame’ because they believe, because they had a sexual response during the assault that somehow they wanted to be abused and at some level their body betrayed them.
In other words feeling pleasure during the assault, equates at some level to consent.
Let’s look at some common misconceptions and what researchers and professionals in the field of sexual abuse tell us.
”I was stimulated, so at some level I must have enjoyed and consented to the abuse”
Having worked with many survivors of sexual abuse, one of the recurrent themes which clients initially struggle with in therapy is the belief that on some level they have contributed to the abuse because they felt pleasure, and in some cases felt love for the abuser.
Aphrodite Matsakis writes about sexual arousal or orgasm in rape:
“Before you chastise yourself for one more minute, remember that your sexual organs do not have a brain. They cannot distinguish between a mauling rapist and the gentle touch of a lover. They simply react to stimulation the way they were physically designed to respond. If you climaxed or had some other sexual response to the rape, this does not mean that you enjoyed it.” (1992, p.73)
Try this little experiment-
Hold your left hand out palm down, then using your right forefinger stroke the hairs on the back of your hand; you may feel a pleasurable tickling sensation.
Try the experiment again –
This time, try to use your brain to switch off the sensation, impossible isn’t it? This is because like our sexual organs, the hairs on the back of our hand are controlled by part of the brain of which we have no conscious control.
I have found that by showing clients this simple ‘experiment’ , that it can lessen the feelings of shame around the fantasy that because they felt pleasure , in some way they consented to the abuse.
As I reflect to clients ‘whether your body had a spontaneous response, or whether it was deliberately induced by the abuse, it doesn’t mean that you asked to be raped or liked it. It was not your fault’.
”I loved my abuser, he /she made me feel special”
The psychotherapist Erich Fromm writes;
“Care and responsibility are constituent elements of love, but without respect for and knowledge of the beloved person, love deteriorates into domination and possessiveness.” (1956, p 102)
It is not unusual for a client especially one that has been abused as a child to feel conflicted about what it means to be loved or to love.
Sexual predators are adept at grooming children (or indeed adults) by telling them that they are special, that they are loved and that no one else in the world would understand it.
They condition their victims by telling them that should they speak of the abuse to anyone else that they would be seen as ‘dirty’ or be ‘rejected’ even reminding them that the stimulation they experienced during the abuse is ‘proof’ that they are enjoying it.
Rewards such as special ‘treats’ or money are also used to condition victims in to believing that they are special.
Sergeant Chris O’Connor, who spent 16 years investigating sex and child-exploitation crimes, writes,
“Every paedophile has a modus operandi or ‘grooming process’ that centres around breaking down a child’s inhibitions and defences to the physical sexual act” He further tells us that “seduction,” or stimulating a child in order to get the child to accommodate the abuse and feel complicit in it is extremely common (1999 p. 196). Some abusers will stimulate a child and then tell the child that he or she is a “disgusting little boy/girl” for having a response.
This is horribly damaging, to say nothing of completely unjust and unfounded. The outcome of this, certainly in later life, can be a difficulty in establishing healthy loving sexual relationships.
Part of my work as a therapist is to help the client normalise feelings of guilt and self loathing, explaining to them that abusers use the above techniques, to manipulate and control.
I believe that one of the most important agents of change, certainly in clients who are self critical is to reflect to them that these feelings are shared by nearly every client I have worked with who has been abused.
The realisation for a client that they are not alone with their ‘secret’, that the feelings of loathing and shame are common amongst survivors of abuse, and more to the point that these feelings were given to them by the abuser and as such can be ‘give back ‘can be a powerful agent of healing .
As Fromm points out “Care and responsibility” are healthy constituents in a loving relationship and are certainly not present in abusive ones, but should be available in the therapy room.
”Did my abuse inform my sexuality?”
A common presenting issue is that clients who have been sexually abused believe that the sexual part of them is evil or sick, sexuality is a natural drive and clients sometimes need to reconnect and reclaim their sexuality.
For example a male client who was abused by another male may feel confusion and shame around feelings of pleasure during the abuse, and conclude that may be Gay when their sexual preference is heterosexual.
Once again this is the body responding as it was designed to.
Gay male clients may wonder if the sexual assault made them that way, being Gay is perfectly healthy and helping a client explore their feelings around sexuality can be really helpful, putting clients in contact with organisations which support survivors of male on male abuse can also be beneficial.
Some women may feel tainted and believe that they are “whores” , which again is a conditioned response given to them by the abuser as a means of control ling them .
The work here is to help the client to understand that being sexualised and sexuality are two very different things.
To be sexualised means that the natural development of sexuality in a child is ‘interrupted’ by the abuser as they ’imprint’ their preferences on them, the outcome of this is that as adults clients cannot separate their own sexual desires from that of the abuser.
Again I reflect to clients that no child is a whore, and ask them to consider when they see a child that they would never blame them for being sexually assaulted and they are no different and no less deserving.
In my experience part of the healing process is for clients to re claim their sexuality on their own terms, to view sexual pleasure as Ok when it is connected to a loving consensual relationship.
“My family blame me – I blame myself”
One of the most uncomfortable facts that I have had to come to terms with as a therapist ,is that in some cases family members are more accepting of child that has been abused by a stranger than someone in the family.
I have lost count of the clients who have been blamed by the family when, on disclosing they have been abused, the family member who committed the crime is sent to prison
Having work in the criminal justice system as a support worker, I have met a number of convicted sex offenders, the only thing they have in common (apart from the offending behaviour) is that they look and act like most people you will meet in your day to day life.
It would be so much easier if they had devils tails and horns!
This may go some way to understanding why, when a trusted and much loved family member is convicted and sent to prison for abuse, some family members may blame the victim for ‘making up stories’ or cannot understand why a child would return to the abuser again and again.
We already know the subtle and not so subtle conditioning of a child by the abuser, the use of fear, shaming, rewards and sexual stimulation that keeps the victim compliant and silent.
One concept that I always try to get across to clients is, no matter how much they believe this is their fault that a child can never consent to abuse, it is always at the abusers request.
Sometimes clients have to deal with the loss of contact or hostility of family members as well as trying to come to teams with their abusive past.
Strategies for healing
First and foremost I encourage survivors of abuse to develop compassion for themselves, I often reflect to clients ‘ It is not your fault you were sexually assaulted. It is not your fault it affected you.’
Sometimes I put clients in touch with a survivors group or refer them to websites and publications which both inform and support individuals who have experienced abuse. Being in contact with others who are survivors of abuse can have a powerful effect on healing and help develop self confidence.
Finally, as a therapist I exercise patience and compassion, the road to recovery from an abusive past can be a difficult process. In my experience just being a witness, listening to the client’s story without judgment or questioning can be very beneficial, never underestimate the healing power of being heard and believed.
And, when the opportunity presents itself, reflecting to them ‘It wasn’t your fault’
Finkelhor, D. and Yllo, K. License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York, (1985)
Fromm , E. The Art of Loving : Harper Collins, New York, (1956)
Matsakis, A. I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc, California, (1992)
If need any support with this issues discussed in this blog, the contact details below may be helpful to you and remember you are not alone.
http://www.survivorsuk.org/ (Survivors of male sexual abuse)
International contact details