Note: If you’ve been sexually abused, this article may trigger a response — memories, anxiety, nightmares. Please read with care.
I can’t count the times that a patient has been looking out the window, their eyes unable to meet mine, as they quietly say, “I’m so embarrassed…I’ve never told anyone this.” And I begin to hear about sexual abuse. It’s usually not the first session — perhaps not even the third or fourth. But slowly, feeling safe and understood, I hear their shame. And the shame from sexual abuse can last far longer than any other damage; it seeps into your very being.
You fear what others might think if they knew. The rational side of you fights with the side that almost needs to believe that you had some sort of control. Because if you did? Maybe you could stop it in the future.
Why take the shame on? You know that’s irrational…
You’re a grown woman raising children of your own. You can see their vulnerability and recognize that you were similarly a trusting child when your grandfather fondled you.
You’re a thirty year-old man who recognizes that you were drugged and then raped by two other guys, you remember, shudder and feel like there must have been something you could’ve done to stop it.
An attack was completely random on campus, but as a college girl, you can feel at fault for being too scared to scream. Or you were drunk and don’t remember all the details. You try to convince yourself, “I let it happen.”
Blaming yourself can be a way, albeit not one that works long-term, for you to feel more in control now. Why doesn’t it work? Because you don’t deal completely with your anger. With your grief. And you can get stuck in shame.
Yet there’s another form of shame that is often kept silent…
John was twelve when his aunt and uncle took him to a camp in Missouri. The brochure he’d seen showed a big, husky man, grinning as he taught young boys how to ride horses, feed chickens, and learn about life on the farm. It looked so fun, and John couldn’t wait to get there.
With a dead look on his face, the now twenty-five year-old John described the horror of what had actually happened on that farm. It was the cover for a pornography factory. He and the other boys had been drugged, videoed, and made to do every kind of sexual act imaginable. He thought his aunt and uncle had known — and when they picked him up a week later, John never said a word.
Shannon had been at home, alone. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon, the same as other Wednesday afternoons. She lived out a bit from town, with neighbors close enough to see, but not close enough to get their attention easily. Her husband had left hours ago for work. She heard something, looked up, and saw a strange man standing in the door frame. He looked wild, like he was high on something.
Shannon was viciously raped.
Carly was five when her mother remarried. She adored her new stepfather, her own dad having disappeared after the divorce. So when he offered to help her with her bath, she held his hand, and followed happily. Bath time slowly became something she hated. The fondling didn’t begin all at once, but slowly evolved as part of her bath ritual.
Her mom would thank her stepfather every night for helping.
But there can be another level of shame — a secret that racks a victim’s soul. In all three of the above cases, the victims told me, incredibly slowly and painfully, that their bodies had responded. They had experienced arousal.
John hated his pubescent body for responding, irrationally believing that if it hadn’t, he could have achieved some control. Shannon was horrified that she’d experienced something close to orgasm, even though she had tried to fight off her attacker, and had been badly cut and bruised. Carly, a woman now, remembered “liking it,” but feeling “confused and bad.”
During what was the most awful experience of their lives, their nerve endings had acted as if what was happening was normal.
And they felt horribly ashamed.
It doesn’t happen all the time; there are many times I hear about sexual abuse or rape, and there’s no mention of any kind of arousal. But it does happen, and you in no way should feel ashamed in how you physiologically responded to your abuse.
Arousal is not consent. Pure and simple.
The confusion is that the abuse is horrific, frightening. So why is my body responding as if it were? What’s happening is horrible, invasive, criminal. You’re not enjoying what’s happening. Every part of your mind is screaming for it to stop.
Unfortunately, the body responding can create a shame that lingers far longer than the shame of the abuse itself, permanently entrenching itself in your gut and your soul. You may never tell anyone, feeling as if your body betrayed you and that you have even more to hide.
Abuse itself is hard enough to reveal. Most of the time, it’s not revealed at all. Often, family members who are supposed to love them are involved. It’s confusing. A victim will take countless showers, but cannot rid themselves of feeling “less than,” or hating their body.
Healing from sexual abuse...
Healing requires getting unhooked from any resulting shame you carry around with you. The process often involves identifying how being abused changed you, and how the abuse may still be affecting the choices you’re making in your life. You want to create a nurturing and respectful relationship with your body as well as recognize that being a victim of sexual abuse doesn’t define you.
Healing is having compassion and understanding for yourself and internalizing that, whether your body responded or not, it wasn’t consent.
Healing is recognizing that “fighting” and “fleeing” are only two of the responses to assault. “Freeze” and “faun” are two more that often are the only and even perhaps best ways to protect yourself.
Healing is realizing that carrying shame prolongs the power your perpetrator had over you. If you become angry, that very feeling can motivate you to confront whatever shame you absorbed.
Healing takes embracing that none of it was your fault.
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Originally published September 22, 2018; updated and republished on January 14, 2023.