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.”
Shame from sexual abuse can last far longer than any other damage. It seeps into your being. You fear what others might think if they knew. Even though rationally a now-adult victim realizes that she was a trusting child when her grandfather fondled her, she’s absorbed deep shame as if it were her fault. Even though a thirty year-old man recognizes that he was drugged in the bar and then raped by two other guys, he can feel dirty. Even if an attack was completely random on campus, a college girl can feel at fault for not screaming, for “letting it happen.”
Your mind and your heart are at odds. And the shame can eat away at your very core.
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 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.
Another level of shame…
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.”
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.
Arousal is not consent...
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.
Unfortunately, the body responding can create 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 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. 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 from sexual abuse…
Healing takes time. You have to create a nurturing and respectful relationship with your body.
Healing involves identifying how being abused changed you and how the abuse may still be affecting the choices you’re making in your life. Freedom from the abuse comes from getting unhooked from shame.
Healing is the recognition that being a victim of sexual abuse doesn’t define you.
Healing is having compassion and understanding for yourself. If your body responded. It didn’t make a choice. It wasn’t consent.
Healing is recognizing that “fighting” and “fleeing” are only two of the responses to assault. “Freeze” and “fold” 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.