Dealing With Past Sexual Abuse
Bringing up the memories is the first step in fighting the battle.
by Dr. Dan B. Allender
The abuser can be anyone. He can be your father, your pastor, your brother, your 70-year-old neighbor. Often a victim has had so many abusers that it seems as if he or she sent a serial letter inviting them to join in the debauchery of abuse. It is not unusual to see a client who has been abused by several family members, a neighbor, boyfriends, teacher, counselor, or employer.
The abuser may be a man or a woman. It is far more common for a young girl to be abused by an adolescent or adult male, but it is inaccurate to presume that men do not abuse boys or women do not abuse girls and boys.
The abuser may be decades older or the same age. He or she may have an honored role in your family or may not be known to you or anyone in your family. In any case, the perpetrator will have a face, a voice, a smell. Even if you cannot recall any details about him, he will be like a faded picture you carry in your wallet. Though you may not have seen him in thirty years or you may have eaten lunch with him yesterday, he still plays a significant part in your daily life, and likely an even greater role in every dream and nightmare.
A great deal of research has been done about the perpetrator and the effects of his abuse. The abuse victim, however, often defends or ignores the perpetrator, especially if the abuser was a family member. It is important to understand how this is done.
Many who have been sexually abused tend to make excuses for the perpetrator or minimize the damage. The most typical way is to find comfort in the fact that at least the perpetrator was not one's closest, most intimate caregiver or friend. Betrayal by an intimate, deeply trusted companion is almost too much for the soul to endure. The victim does not want to face that the perpetrator may have been a person with access to the deepest recesses of his or her soul, a bearer of a key that no one else possessed. For this reason, many who have been abused by an uncle will say, "At least it was not my brother or, even worse, my father." Or if the abuse was perpetrated by someone outside the family, the relief centers around the fact that it was not a relative. The fearful and fallen heart does not want to anguish over the loss of safety and nurturance; therefore, the damage is seemingly diminished in the relief that the perpetrator was not someone closer or that the damage could have been more severe.
The second tendency is to put the abuser in a category that explains away the harm. The damage will be faced to the extent the abuser is seen as the perpetrator of a crime—if not a civil infraction, then certainly a violation of God's law. The battle will not be entered in if one makes excuses for the abuser and his or her crime.
The excuses are legion. The abuser was abused as a child. He had a hard background that would have made anyone a little crazy. He was going through a terrible time with his wife and was so lonely. He drank to the point that he just didn't know what he was doing, so how could he be held accountable? He did so many wonderful things for people, how can I be angry for just one failure? All excuses should be silenced; the perpetrator committed a crime against the abused person's body and soul.
The resulting damage
A central point needs to be highlighted again: Sexual abuse is damaging no matter how the victim's body is violated. At first, many will doubt the veracity of that claim; it does not immediately stand to reason that being violently raped by one's father can be compared to being lightly touched through the clothing by a gentle, grandfatherly next-door neighbor. No one would question that being raped by one's father will be far more difficult to deal with than handling the nuisance of a pawing dirty old man. The degree of trauma associated with abuse will be related to many factors, including the relationship with the perpetrator, the severity of the intrusion, use of violence, age of the perpetrator, and the duration of abuse. But in every case of abuse, the dignity and beauty of the soul have been violated. Therefore, damage will be present whether one has been struck by a Mack truck traveling fifty miles per hour, or "merely" hit by a tricycle rolling at the same speed.
Obviously, there are certain abusive relationships that are more damaging than others. An assumption can be made about sexual abuse: With all other factors being equal, damage will be in direct proportion to the degree that it disrupts the protection and nurturance of the parental bond. There are two issues related to the potential disruption: the abuse and the revelation of the abuse. When abuse is perpetrated, it sets into motion the tremors of an internal earthquake that requires a strong and nurturant environment to quell. If that environment is unavailable, or worse yet, if the environment is hostile, cold, and/or insensitive to the resultant damage, then a victim will set aside the internal process of healing to ensure his or her own survival.
For this reason, incest is usually more devastating than extra-familial abuse. A sexual relationship with an older cousin will not be as traumatic as the same sexual experience with one's father. A father is called to be a secure, trustworthy, and life-generating surrogate for God until the child develops the capacity to see his or her heavenly Father as the only perfectly trustworthy Source of life. The victim's struggle to trust will be proportionately related to the extent her parent(s) failed to protect and nurture her as a child.
Intrafamilial abuse will almost always be more devastating except when the revelation of extrafamilial abuse threatens to damage the relationship with the victim's parents or other family members. If a child were to report to his parents that a neighbor was fondling him several times a week, he might fear being doubted or, worse, blamed for the abuse. He might have a hundred other reasons to fear his parents' response, therefore he fears the repercussions of the revelation. To the degree that confidence in the love and respect of one's parents is disturbed, the damage of intra- or extrafamilial abuse will be more traumatic.
Entering the battle
To summarize, the first task in entering the battle is facing the fact that a battle exists. Facing the reality of past abuse is a process. It does not happen quickly or in one climactic moment of honesty. It usually occurs over a lengthy time, during which the past abuse is seen in light of current choices of flight or fight. Often the memories of the past abuse are accompanied with little emotion other than disbelief or incredulity. It is not unusual for the memories to be separated from emotion—often it is as if they are frozen in ice—seen but not able to be touched. At other times the memories will be recalled in small details that seem to have lost context, specificity, or meaning. To open one's heart to a truth that is deeply devastating seems, at first, foolish; however, the hard, cold parts of our soul are continually tempted to thaw by the warmth of the longings of our soul. Every pleasant interchange is an invitation to life; every deep sorrow stirs the passion of grief. Those daily temptations to life are viewed by the person who has been sexually abused, at best, as a two-day vacation to a warm climate and, at worst, as the melting of the polar ice cap. A total meltdown spells disaster; therefore, the icy soul must remain frozen and hidden.
The sexually abused person often denies the abuse, mislabels it, or at least minimizes the damage. The enemy goes unrecognized or misunderstood, so the victim cannot fight the battle. Once the war is avoided, then something must be done with the wounded heart that cries out for solace and hope. The cry must be heard or squelched. Sadly, the choice is usually to stifle the groan. What normally mutes the cry is the internal dynamic that promotes denial, mislabeling, or minimization. The dynamic involves the subtle workings of shame and contempt that serve to keep the soul frozen and the warmth of life at a distance.
Adapted from The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. By Dr. Dan B. Allender. Published by NavPress. Copyright © 1990. By Dan B. Allender. Used with permission (pp. 52-56). Chapter 1: The Reality of War: Facing the Battle.