Note: If you’ve been sexually abused, this article may trigger a response — memories, anxiety, nightmares. Please read with care.

“I’m so ashamed… I’ve never told anyone this.”

There are many levels of shame after having been sexually abused. Even though rationally a victim may realize that she was a trusting child, shame can still exist. Even though he recognizes that he was doped in the bar, and never gave consent of any kind, he can feel dirty. Even if the attack was completely random on campus, a college girl can feel at fault.

Your mind and your heart are at odds.

It can take years before you begin to heal. It’s hard work and is often complicated by conditions that develop as a response.

But there’s a kind of shame that few reveal.

John was twelve when his aunt and uncle took him to a camp in Missouri. The brochure he had 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 25 year-old John described the horror of what had happened at night. The farm was a pornography factory. He and the other boys had been drugged, videoed, and made to do every kind of sexual act. 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 wanted 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.

These are real stories. They join the many other painful stories I have heard of children being manipulated, dates gone terribly wrong, and sex forcibly taken, by strangers or someone known.

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 had 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.”

In 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 seem to 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.

The confusion is that it’s far from pleasure. What is happening is horrible, invasive, criminal. You’re not enjoying what’s happening. Every part of your mind is screaming for it to stop.

Sexual arousal during sexual abuse is not pleasure, or giving consent. 

Why am I writing about this?

Because it can be a shame that lingers far longer than the shame of the abuse itself. It can permanently entrench itself in your gut, and your soul.

You may never tell anyone, feeling as if your body betrayed you. You have even more to hide.

Abuse itself is hard enough to reveal. Most of the time, it’s not. As in two of the above cases, the victim knows or feels something’s wrong, but people who are supposed to love them are involved. It’s confusing. A victim will take countless showers, but cannot rid herself of the feelings of being less than, or hating her body.

It helps to talk about it — to tell someone you trust what happened.

Healing takes time.

Healing is creating a nurturing and respectful relationship with your body. You are more than a victim of sexual abuse.

Healing is having compassion and understanding for yourself.

Healing is realizing that carrying shame prolongs the power your perpetrator had over you — and getting angry about that. That anger can be motivating.

Your body responded. It didn’t make a choice.

Healing is realizing that none of it was your fault.


If you’ve been sexually abused, please seek help. You can get immediate help online at the RAINN hotline. Other hotlines and resources can be found by clicking here.

Two books that are excellent resources: “Healing The Shame That Binds You” by John Bradshaw, and ‘The Courage To Heal”, by Laura Davis.

Thanks very much for reading. You can SUBSCRIBE to my website and receive a free copy of my eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy,” a guide to choosing a therapist or evaluating your current treatment. As always, you can email me directly with questions or comments: askdrmargaret@