Can we know what it is like to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse?

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) report how they are often blamed, shamed, or avoided when they disclose their abuse. Take a moment right now to consider your response if a survivor discloses their abuse to you. Do you attempt to explain why the abuse happened? Do you mentally scramble for advice you can offer? Do you change the subject as quickly as possible?

Man looking at woman with confusionHow can we relate if we’ve never been sexually abused?
How do we engage properly?

My aim in this blog is to give us a glimpse of what life is like for a survivor of CSA. None of us can ever think that we truly know what life is like for a survivor. Yet, some information might guard us from the tragic responses that blame, shame, and avoid.

When something is taken from us that is ours, we feel violated. If your home has been broken into by a thief, you know the questions and thoughts that flood your mind as the victim of the crime. How dare someone invade your personal space without your permission! The thought of them sifting through your personal belongings is offensive and maddening. Seeing that they combed through your dresser drawers is creepy. You are not even sure if you want to touch the things the thief touched. You are overwhelmed and you feel so powerless. You need to tell someone after you call the police.

Try to imagine someone invading your physical body. This is not a natural thought that comes to any of us. So stop. Make yourself imagine the invasive offense being done to you.

It is bothersome to me to place the invasion of a home side-by-side with the invasion of a person’s body. There is no comparison between the two regarding personal injury, the lasting effects, and recovery.

However, having no other reference point for those who have never been abused, the violation of invading a home can inform us of the violation of invading a person’s body. Let’s consider some outcomes.

1. You feel violated

There are numerous long-term effects for the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. These effects, or unhealthy adaptations, include anxiety disorder, panic attacks, sleep disorders, self-hatred, anger, fear, self-injurious behavior, intrusive thoughts, interpersonal problems, and more. I have never met a survivor reporting all the possible effects. But all survivors manifest multiple effects.

An effect common to all CSA survivors is a deep sense of shame. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something wrong.” Shame says, “Something is wrong with me.”

Sexual abuse imposes shame. The survivor feels a loss of innocence and the sense of being violated. As a clarification, they did not lose their innocence. But no one can feel innocent when they believe something is now wrong with them.

2. Questions and thoughts flood your mind as the victim. How dare someone invade my personal space without my permission!

Questions and thoughts flood the mind of the CSA survivor. In many cases, the abuser was a caregiver, a parent, an uncle or grandfather, a schoolteacher. The survivor thought they could trust the person who abused them, but the intrusion to the survivor’s body and soul was a horrifying breach of trust. How could the abuser do such a thing? How dare he/she?

These thoughts and questions are intrusive. They occur during the day when thought processes are alert and coherent. They intrude at night in a dream or nightmares, and in fitful attempts to get to sleep. There is no escaping them. Just as the actions of the abuser were uninvited, so are the intrusive flashbacks.

And where was God during the abuse?
How do you reconcile a loving sovereign God with childhood sexual abuse?
How can they coexist? How can God seemingly look the other way?

3. The thought of the thief sifting through your personal belongings is offensive and maddening. Seeing that they combed through your dresser drawers is creepy.

The thief steals possessions. The sexual abuser steals safety, security, the sense of innocence, well-being, the sense of self-worth, the love of life, and more. Most possessions stolen from a home can be replaced. But the values and qualities stolen from the sexual abuse survivor are not easily replaced if they can be replaced at all. If they can be replaced, it is through the hard work and full expense of the survivor in their efforts to experience healing.

All of this is maddening. Survivors are understandably angry at the injustice.

4. You are not even sure if you want to touch the things the thief touched.

Abuse teaches a girl various twisted ideas about her body. The survivor falsely concludes that their body must be unsafe, dirty, evil. Many survivors do all they can to cover their bodies in their shame. They believe their body betrayed them by how it was attractive, in some way, to the perpetrator. Consequently, in the girl’s mind, the body is to be punished through means of self-injurious behavior. Or, it is to be sold as a commodity, using it as an instrument of power in their attempt to gain back what has been lost.

Here’s the challenge. You cannot get away from your body. Is it any wonder that there is RAGE deep within the survivor?

5. You are overwhelmed, and you feel so powerless. You need to tell someone after you’ve called the police.

Survivors endure the common effect of feeling powerless. They were powerless.

But unlike the victim of property theft, the victim of sexual abuse often chooses to not tell anyone even though they need to tell someone. Especially the police.

Perpetrators silenced their victims with threats and shame silences with self-condemnation. Whereas the victim of robbery invites the police into their home to see the evidence, the victim of sexual abuse cannot bear the thought of baring their body as evidence. It is trauma all over again.

The Sum of It All

These five points can guard us from harmful responses to a survivor’s disclosure. Survivors are not looking for our words. They need our acceptance, genuine care, and safety. Counselor and author Dr. Diane Langberg offers these three components for a caring response: Talk, Time, and Tears.

  • Let the survivor talk and keep talking while you listen and only listen.
  • Give the survivor your time. Don’t leave the conversation prematurely. When you think you’ve listened enough, take time to listen some more.
  • Let the survivor shed tears of grief, anger, and horror. Don’t tell them “Don’t cry.” Your patient, attentive, and accepting response can be your gift to the survivor. It is a God-like response.

You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn
through the sleepless nights,
Each tear entered in your ledger,
each ache written in your book.
(Psalm 56:8 – The Message)

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