Those of us who have been sexually abused suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and different stages of depression.
Few people know or understand the devastating life-long damage done to a male child when sexually abused. I've found that most of the victims don’t know either. I know I didn't. Many of the men that I've met over these past six years lead their lives in a constant state of anxiety, depression and suicidal despair, never knowing why they do what they do. I had to understand and six months of therapy later, I was able to comprehend some connections between my abuse and the fallout of that abuse. I was dumbfounded.
spectrum of child abuse ranges from neglect to physical violence. It includes
torture, beatings, verbal and psychological maltreatment, child pornography and
sexual abuse ranging from seductive behaviour to rape. The abuse of children is
seldom limited to one of these manifestations. Abuse appears in varying
combinations, durations and intensities. What all forms have in common is their
devastating, long-term effects on the child.
Kids are remarkably resilient. With proper support, consistent love and encouragement, they recover from even the most severe hurts of childhood. When, however, the injuries are committed by the very individuals who should be crucial to the healing process, where can the child turn? The safety of his/ her world is destroyed and the child is isolated in the abuse. Thus begins a long odyssey of isolation that eventually brings on retirement from social activities and ultimately ends up in agoraphobia, a morbid dread of public or open spaces. More than several victims that I have come to know are now in that place.
“The following list was put together by the men who participated in a weekend recovery workshop for male and female survivors. The items on the list are in response to the questions, “In what ways does the childhood sexual abuse continues to affect your adult life?” Not all of these responses apply to every survivor. I have presented them all, without editing, as they were listed by the participants”.
Most of this information comes with the permission of Mike Lew, the author of the best book I’ve ever read on child sexual abuse titled “Victims No Longer”, published by Harper Collins.
"Sexual abuse of children
forges a connection between sex and shame. Sex has been so strongly associated
with victimization (and therefore with shame) that it takes a great effort to
break the connection. Separating sexuality from shame is a major goal of
recovery. A frequent result of the sexuality - shame connection, is sexual
dysfunction, a problem that is found among both male and female survivors. The
survivor's problem may take any number of specific forms (e.g., inability to
achieve or maintain an erection, premature ejaculation, inability to ejaculate,
fear of specific sexual acts, sexual obsessions and fetishes, compulsive
masturbation, inability to separate sex from humiliation, shame, pain, or
It is the devastation of
trust that occurred when he was abused as a child that turns adult sexual
activity into an encounter fraught with anxiety for the male survivor. The
problem of sexual dysfunction is one that generates feelings of depression and
hopelessness for many male survivors. They despair of ever being able to "get
over this problem" and lead a "normal" sex life.
The only reasonable way
to begin to release yourself from the shame that results from connecting abuse
and sexuality is to recognize that we are not dealing with an issue of sexual
attraction or sexual orientation. THE ISSUE IS ABUSE. You didn't bring it on
yourself, no matter what kind of child you were or what you did. IT IS NOT YOUR
FAULT. It only got confused with sexuality because the abuse wasn't limited to
physical violence or emotional exploitation. It also had a sexual component. But
the real issues for the male survivor (as for the female) are trust, intimacy,
When a boy is sexually
abused by a man, it is often incorrectly seen as a homosexual act. Once again,
this is a mistake. We are not talking about sex, but about sexual child abuse.
An adult male who abuses a little girl is not engaging in a heterosexual
behaviour; he is sexually abusing a little girl. The same is true when the
victim is a little boy. The issues of anger, hostility, and power are the same;
the effects are equally harmful.
Children are continually
exposed to confusing and conflicting messages. They are faced with information
that is beyond their level of understanding - not the least of which is the
incomprehensible behaviour of those most peculiar alien beings: grownups. The
world is not tailored to their size or level of ability. They must endure rules
that make no sense to them, often imposed without any attempt at explanation or
clarification. Every adult appears to have the right to criticize or discipline
them "for their own good". Any attempt to resist, disagree, or even understand
may be punished as "backtalk", insolence, or rudeness. They are unlikely to be
consulted in any meaningful way about even those decisions that affect them
personally. Their problems are often ignored, trivialized, or discounted.
Children may be seen as cute, amusing, or entertaining, but are seldom taken
seriously. So why tell about something as serious as being abused? They are
ashamed and afraid. Most who tell are not believed, deepening the internal
There are fewer
requirements for parenthood than for driving a car or catching a fish. Children
are not born into the ideal family that we see on tv. Children are born into
alcoholic, drug-addicted, violent, and otherwise dysfunctional families. Babies
are born to addicts, to psychotics, to children, and to people who hate them -
and children are exposed to adults who sexually abuse them. The fact that you
are now an adult - and that the sexual abuse is far behind you - does not mean
that you feel safe, secure, or adult. The hurts of your abusive childhood have
ripples, you will feel the loss of childhood long after childhood's end. What
pieces of childhood does the sexually abused child actually lose out on? And how
are these issues manifested in the survivor's adult life?
1. Loss of memory of
child abuse is extremely difficult to endure. One way of dealing with the pain
is to put what is happening, out of mind. If a child has to deny or forget what
is happening to him in order to survive an abusive situation, he may find, as an
adult, that he has literally lost his childhood. A great many survivors have
little or no memory of their childhood. One victim recalled that the only
positive memory of childhood was when he was alone, These were the only times
that he could be sure that no one would be hurting him. Protection, then, was
only to be found in isolation. Paranoia creeps in which leads the victim into
agoraphobia, the fear of people and places.
2. Loss of healthy
When a child feels that his only safety is in isolation, it seriously impairs
his ability to respond to others. Protecting himself from abusers, by keeping to
himself, he also misses out on the possibility of positive, healthy social
interaction with peers or with adults. This isolation is often reinforced by the
perpetrator. As a way of keeping the abuse secret, the abuser may, usually
successfully, attempt to isolate the child from other people. As an adult he may
continue to feel isolated, no matter how many people care about him. He feels
that he must maintain protective barriers and put on an act for other people.
Only when he is alone can he let down his guard and allow himself to feel. And
the way that he feels at those times is not good or safe; it is lonely,
different and sad.
3. Loss of opportunity
to play. If you
were to ask people what children do with their time, the most frequent answer
would probably be "Play". This is not true for many abused children. True play
is interactive; it requires playmates. This can be extremely difficult for the
abused child. He cannot relax or trust others enough to enjoy playing. Easy,
active, spontaneous playfulness feels too much like loss of control. And loss of
control, in his experience, only leads to abuse. He is reluctant to move too
close, and he knows that life (survival) is serious business. His seriousness
and reticence interfere with his ability to make friends. And there is another
reason why participation in relaxed playfulness can be so hard; it puts the
reality of his own situation into sharp contrast. It may be easier to endure an
abusive childhood if you can believe that it is normal. The loss of opportunity
to play leads to difficulties in adulthood. The adult survivor may experience
stiffness and tension when he is in a playful situation. Many incest survivors
don't know how to relax. Vacations, weekends, and social situations become
occasions of discomfort and anxiety. They see themselves (and may be seen by
others) as stiff and somber.
4. Loss of opportunity
Childhood play is more than frivolous enjoyment. In every society children learn
through play. Childhood games incorporate cultural values. In the course of
their games, children learn to understand and take charge of their environments.
They learn communication, cooperation, competition, problem solving,
coordination, motor skills, creativity, and age-appropriate and
gender-appropriate behaviour, and they share information. "Child's play" is a
major part of learning. Through their games, children help one another to figure
out what the world is all about. By playing at being adults, children learn to
become adults. The abused child, however, must make sense of the world by
himself. He has learned that people lie, and that it is dangerous to trust
anything but his own direct experience. And his own experience has been
isolation and pain. He has lost the opportunity to learn in the company of his
peers, and this also causes problems for the adult survivor. Filtered through
the lens of abuse, the survivor's picture of the world is clouded. Having been
robbed of the opportunity to learn as other children do, the adult survivor
feels naive, stupid, and socially inept. He feels that he must always play
catch-up with people who have learned how to successfully negotiate the world.
5. Loss of control
over one's body.
Childhood is a time when individuals learn to differentiate between what is
theirs and what belongs to others. The most intimate aspect of oneself is one's
body. Sexual abuse violates a child's sense of himself in the most basic way.
Someone else takes control of his body against his will. He feels that he has
neither the right to his body nor the ability to protect himself from attack.
The childhood loss of control over his body that robbed him of other protective
abilities also has its adult aftermath. He may go through life being
revictimized - being taken advantage of in any number of ways. Not expecting
anything but abuse, he goes through life looking for - and finding -
confirmation that the world is an unsafe place. Despite his adult strength,
size, and agility, the survivor feels small, weak and helpless. Despite all the
evidence to the contrary, he has bought the lies that abuse teaches. It is
important to remember that all abuse involves lies. Children are being lied to
about themselves, about love, and about the nature of human caring. They are
being taught that there is no safety in the world, and that they have no right
to control their own bodies. Loss of control over their bodies leads to control
being a major issue in their adult life. They can become inflexible, controlling,
and suspicious - or helpless and indecisive. How can they be expected to be
trusting as adults when their natural desire to trust was so badly taken
6. Loss of normal,
Every child deserves to be loved, to be cherished, to be nurtured. Childhood
should be a time when every child learns that he is good, that he is lovable,
wanted, that he is welcome, and that information, understanding, and protection
are available from loving adults. Child abuse prevents all of this. Whatever
genuine loving and nurturing that may be available to the child is diminished,
belied and negated by the abuse. Perhaps the greatest loss of an abusive
childhood is this loss of safety. It leads the survivor to have tremendous
difficulty in developing healthy adult intimacy, a feeling of belonging, and a
strong sense of his own value. Not having been valued as a child makes it
extremely hard to create positive adult self-esteem.
7. Other losses.
list could go on and on, recounting how the loss of many aspects of a normal
childhood - the loss of family, loss of identity, loss of certainty and so on -
causes the adult survivor to face further losses. He deals with loss of control,
safety, playfulness, trust, calm, self-confidence, self-esteem, sexual maturity,
intimacy, comfort and security. No doubt you can add to this list from the
losses that you have experienced. It may be difficult to imagine that life can
be any other way.
The process of growing up
involves an interplay between being nurtured and becoming independent. The
healthy child moves back and forth between dependency and independence. The
healthy parent provides a safe base from which the child can depart, explore,
return to process his experience---and then depart on another journey of
exploration. When, in the course of his explorations, the child encounters pain,
he learns that the adults in his life are there to help him understand and deal
with the hurt. The child grows to adulthood with a sense of security. Confident
in his ability to function in a fundamentally benign world, he meets other
people as potential allies and friends. His basic self-confidence is sufficient
to carry him through difficult times and to allow him to enjoy the good times.
The situation is quite
different for the abused child. Finding himself in a confusing and painful
situation, he has no one to whom he can turn for help, understanding, and
comfort. The very people who would normally provide protection are often the
cause of the pain. If they are not perpetrators themselves, they may be aware of
the abuse (consciously or unconsciously) and allow it to continue. Or the
perpetrator may have effectively isolated the child from any adult who might
provide protection from the abuse.
There are any number of
ways that this isolation is established and reinforced. The perpetrator may have
forbidden the child to have contact with non family members and thoroughly
intimidated those within the family, preventing them from supporting one another.
He may insure the child's silence by means of coercion, threats, or actual
physical violence. He may frighten the child with images of 3what will happen to
him (disapproval, punishment, imprisonment, removal from the family, or even
death to him or family members) if "his part" in the abuse is discovered. He may
likewise promise injury to himself or another figure that is important to the
child if the abuse becomes public knowledge. (Remember that it is not safe to
assume that the child does not love the perpetrator). He may enlist the child in
a pact, promise, or conspiracy of silence. Or he may bribe his victim into
compliance. There are many ways to keep a child quiet. But whatever means is
used to maintain the secrecy, silence serves to isolate the child from potential
allies. He sees no way out of his situation, and his isolation can last well
into adulthood. Faced with the prospect of a life of chronic pain, confusion,
and isolation, and (for whatever reason) unable to forget what is happening to
him, the child may attempt to reduce the pain by "numbing".
This is how the
numbing process operates.
When abuse is present, a child can become suspicious of any feeling. Emotion is
so often connected with pain that, in order to avoid any painful emotions, he
may attempt to deaden all his feelings. When the feeling means
pain, then the absence of feelings becomes a working definition of pleasure.
Based on the misinformation that all emotions must be painful emotion, the
abused child sets himself the task of ridding himself of all feelings by
diminishing them, destroying them, or distracting himself from them.
We have all seen numerous
examples of well-meaning adults who attempt to numb (usually seen as "soothing")
a child's feelings with ice cream and cookies or to distract them with toys,
comforting sounds, or entertaining activities. Many of these adults have also
bought the idea that feelings are to be avoided at all costs. By these means the
child receives further evidence that the proper response to a feeling is to kill
it. He finds an activity, object, or substance that lulls him, distracts him,
and diminishes the pain, and he employs it as long as it achieves the desired
effect. If the specific strategy ceases to be effective in numbing the pain, he
may increase the duration of the activity, the quantity of the comforting
substance, the intensity of the behaviour, or turn to another form of
numbing---one designed to be stronger or longer-lasting. If this looks like a
description of addiction, it is. The child is setting an addictive pattern that
will very likely follow him into adulthood. Unless recognized and interrupted,
it will persist throughout his life.
It is unusual to
encounter a survivor of abuse who isn't addictively or compulsively engaged in
some form of numbing behaviour. Although everyone, at times, has a need to numb
- to escape the pressures of life by diminishing the intensity of their feelings
- the addict feels that ordinary life is so painful that, in order to survive,
he must diminish or redirect all intense emotions. I am not simply
referring to chemical addictions here (although a high percentage of drug
addicts and alcoholics were abused as children, often by addicted or alcoholic
adults). I am talking about any consistent, ongoing, intensive pattern of
behavior designed to numb feelings.
Clearly, some numbing
activities are more socially acceptable than others. Some, in fact, may even be
valued by society. Rather than being interrupted, socially acceptable addictions
and compulsions may be rewarded and reinforced. These numbing behaviors are not
recognized as such, much less seen as addictions. The man who directs all of his
energy into his career may jokingly refer to himself as a workaholic, but
he seldom is conscious of the import of that definition. And, of course, as his
career and income increase - as others recognize and reward him as a "pillar of
society, wonderful provider, and wealthy, sober, upstanding citizen" - there is
no awareness of the pain underlying the drive to work. The workaholic's pattern
is doubly reinforced: (a) the time spent at his work occupies his energy and
distracts him from the need to deal with painful emotions; and (b) appreciation
by others makes him feel as though he is a more worthwhile (less damaged) person.
Of course, that very appreciation has an addictive quality, spurring him on to
greater achievement in this work life so that he can appear even greater in the
eyes of others. The workaholic becomes trapped by the very strategy he devised
to escape from feeling bad about himself. He now feels he can never slacken his
drive to the top for fear of the loss of acceptance and admiration of others, as
well as the reemergence of the painful feelings. Even when the workaholic
achieves the pinnacle of success in his field he cannot rest, both for fear of
losing what he has achieved and because the awful feelings and memories are
still waiting to entrap him.
This is not to say that a
person shouldn't put energy into his career. It is important to derive
satisfaction from our work - it is one of the cornerstones of life. But when a
person completely derives his identity and worth as a human being from his work,
he has erected a very fragile structure. We have all seen the results of such an
orientation: the executive who retires and loses all will to live, or the person
who "takes a drink" after being fired. One drink doesn't make one an alcoholic,
nor does being excited about and invested in one's career turn one into a
workaholic. We are talking about the degree and quality of the behavior.
Whenever one aspect of a person's life becomes the overwhelming focus of
attention, it is a good idea to take a look at it. Most addictive behaviors
taken in moderation are either acceptable to society or attract little
attention. However, it is the nature of addiction that it rarely remains at a
moderate level. The solution (strategy of numbing) intensifies until it becomes
a problem. This is why numbing is only a temporary solution to the problems of
the survivor, ultimately creating additional problems. Addictions and
compulsions are the extreme extensions of any numbing behavior. If the alcoholic
and drug addict faces health problems, loss of family and friends and
psychological difficulties, so does the man who is addicted to his career.
There are many other
examples of numbing patterns, carrying varying degrees of social acceptability.
In my groups for male incest survivors, I have had recovering alcoholics and
drug addicts. I have seen compulsive overeaters, gamblers, shoppers, spenders
and workers. There are men who are "addicted" to sex, masturbation, credit card
use, television, danger, sleep, body building, and marathon running. There are
fanatic collectors of art, automobiles, clothing, money, academic degrees, and
friends. There are people who are driven to take care of others and there are
religious fanatics of every philosophical stripe, both Eastern and Western.
Few of these activities or interests would arouse anyone's concern if kept in perspective and indulged in moderation. It is the quality of the behavior and the underlying reasons for it that are troublesome. When a pattern of numbing of feelings is undertaken by a survivor as a strategy for surviving abuse, he may feel better for a while. Ultimately, the behavior gets out of control and causes more pain than it alleviates. At that point, the survivor must add one more difficult part to his program - overcoming addiction. He must learn to live without numbing and experience the range of feelings necessary to recovery and to a healthy life. The way out of the pain is through it. Ultimately, pain can no more be numbed than it can be avoided. Instead, the survivor must find a safe and encouraging environment in which to feel his emotions, including the painful ones. In this setting he can gradually begin to let go of his numbing techniques and experience the reality of feelings - they are rich and wonderful and nobody ever died from having them.