Here’s one reason.
The mention of sexual abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, frequently elicits a “deer in the headlights” stare from others as a response. Why are people slow to understand the trauma of sexual and childhood sexual abuse? In this blog, I offer one reason why, a reason that will resonate with people who hold to a biblical worldview.
Sexual abuse (SA) attacks the victim’s personhood, which is one of multiple reasons why SA is unique from any other trauma. “Personhood” in this context refers to who we are as people made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26,27). The attack of sexual abuse on personhood does not make the victim any less a person. Instead, the invasion of sexual abuse on the victim’s personhood informs us of what survivors fight against and fight for to function according to God’s design.
. . . the attack of sexual abuse on the victim’s personhood informs us of what survivors fight against and fight for to function according to God’s design.
In this blog, I draw from the insights of Dr. Diane Langberg in her book Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse (pp. 45-51) and Judith Herman’s seminal work, Trauma and Recovery.
I will first outline how Langberg identified three characteristics God shares with us and how these imparted characteristics are distorted from sin. I will then draw the connection between these common distortions and the specific and unique injuries incurred from the trauma of sexual abuse, as observed by Judith Herman.
1. Characteristics Imparted and Distorted
God’s voice is heard from Genesis through Revelation, expressed in terms such as, “God said . .” and “God spoke these words . .” As image bearers of God, we are created with a voice. Voice is the expression of our personhood. My voice represents me and explains me.
The book of Genesis documents Adam & Eve’s disregard for God’s voice. This disregard, urged on by Satan, was the beginning of God’s imparted characteristics being distorted within humanity. The disregard and distortion of God’s voice led to tragic outcomes, which included secrets, blaming, and diverting from the truth by redirecting (note Adam’s attempt to dodge God’s question (Gen. 3:8-13).
The disregard and distortion of God’s voice led to tragic outcomes, which included secrets, blaming, and diverting from the truth.
The existence and expression of voice as God’s image-bearers is not as it should be.
God’s relational characteristic is exhibited by His interaction within the community of the Trinity. God spoke among Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit (Gen. 1:26). As image bearers of God, we are created for relationship and community. “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God invites us to be in a relationship with Him and one another.
But when sin entered the world, so did guilt and shame, resulting in a disconnect from God and between each other. Instead of walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day, Adam & Eve hid from God. A sad and pathetic scene unfolded as God had to call out for them, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8,9).
The Genesis account identifies how Adam and Eve hid from God, blamed each other, and denied what they had done, all common responses to shame. Their attack on each other expressed their disconnect from each other.
Their attack on each other expressed their disconnect from each other.
Throughout Genesis 1, “God said,” and it was so. As with voice and relationship, power has been imparted to all humans. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).
But then Satan, threatened by that power and envious of the power, said, “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). Satan’s misuse and distortion of power instilled in humanity the abusive use of power. Daily news reports and conflicts in offices, kitchens, and playgrounds all prove the misuse of power in relationships to deceive, manipulate, injure, and destroy.
Satan’s misuse and distortion of power instilled in humanity the abusive use of power.
The existence and expression of delegated power as God’s image-bearers is not as it should be.
I’ve explained the existence and Satan’s distortion of these three image-bearer qualities as all humanity experiences them. I will now zoom in to highlight the specific “smashing” (as Langberg states it) of God’s image in survivors of sexual abuse.
2. Sexual Abuse brings Detrimental Harm to the Characteristics Imparted by God.
Judith Herman, in Trauma & Recovery, stated, “Traumatic events . . . overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations” (p. 33). When we set Herman’s explanation side-by-side with Langberg’s three points – voice, relationship, and power – we can then understand the smashing of the image of God through sexual abuse.
When we set Herman’s explanation side-by-side with Langberg’s three points – voice, relationship, and power – we can then understand the smashing of the image of God through sexual abuse.
The three trauma responses noted by Herman correspond to the three image-bearing qualities.
(a) First Response: Call for help.
When we experience a medical emergency or serious accident, we call 911. If a young child skins their knee in the backyard, they call for help from their mom to bandage the wound. The first response in difficulty and danger is to call for help.
The call for help requires the use of voice. However, survivors of sexual abuse have been silenced. The reasons abuse silences survivors include:
- Threats from the perpetrator
- Wounding responses from individuals or institutions during or after attempted disclosures
- Not having words to explain the trauma event (primarily applicable to young children)
- The effect of trauma on brain function (not everything gets recorded and stored)
The call for help requires the use of voice.
However, survivors of sexual abuse have been silenced.
Survivors of sexual abuse are robbed of their voice. Voice, a characteristic of God imparted to us, is smashed.
(b) Second Response: Find comfort in a relationship.
As noted, the child with the skinned knee calls for their mom. The child also typically runs to the mom to be soothed. After a breakup with her boyfriend, a teen girl might call her best friend to voice her hurt but also find solace in an understanding companion. Seeking comfort in a relationship is a natural response when trouble invades our life.
However, the attempt by a sexual abuse survivor to find comfort in a relationship is thwarted by the deficits in the relationships surrounding the survivor.
. . . the attempt by a sexual abuse survivor to find comfort in a relationship is thwarted by the deficits in the relationships surrounding the survivor.
Sexual abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, does not occur in a vacuum. It often occurs in the context of neglect and emotional deprivation. There is a tragic absence of someone to run to, confide in, and through whom to find comfort and support. Sometimes, in their despair, the survivor finds a harmful relationship that often worsens the matter and puts them on a spiral of further bad relationships, sometimes a lifelong spiral.
Survivors of sexual abuse are robbed of healthy, caring relationships. Relationship, a characteristic of God imparted to us, is smashed.
(c) Third Response: Fight or Flight
In trauma, our brain’s amygdala functions to sense danger and set off alarms. The amygdala overrides the conscious part of our brain. Blood and oxygen are diverted to muscles, and adrenaline rushes throughout our body. The survival function overtakes the rational process and offers three possible responses: fight, flight, or freeze.
But for the victim of sexual abuse, these actions are to no avail. They are victims because the perpetrator overpowers them. The perpetrator has power over the victim by either age, size, or position of authority.
Due to their powerlessness, fight and flight are not options for the victim of sexual abuse. They have been robbed of God-given power for the situation. Power, a characteristic of God imparted to us, is smashed.
My Concluding Thought
Many people, including people within the church, either don’t understand or don’t accept that sexual abuse is not something the victim/survivor can just “get over with enough prayer.” I believe God hears our prayers. I believe God can bring healing. Yet, I invite us to consider that the effect of sexual abuse on the survivor also requires compassionate care and longer-term counsel for recovery and healing. The attack of sexual abuse on the victim’s personhood informs us of what survivors fight against and fight for to function according to God’s design and why sexual abuse is in a category by itself as trauma.