Why Sexual Abuse Victims Can Hurt Forever
“Discovering the damage is like peeling an onion, each layer uncovers another.” – Incest survivor.
If you are an incest or sexual abuse survivor, you don’t need that quote explained to you.
Remember the story about The Duggar Family and the accusations of incest and sexual abuse that surrounded their adult son, Josh?
That story was “triggering” for many survivors. Validating – because of the huge public outcry that ensued.
Yes, the Duggar family evolved from the shallow world of “Reality TV” and it was difficult to take them seriously.
But incest is a dead serious reality.
What Sibling Incest Is
It is defined as “sexual behaviour between siblings that is not age appropriate, not transitory, and not motivated by developmentally, mutually appropriate curiosity.” (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 1998.) This includes unwanted fondling, molestation, and sexual abuse.
What is the effect of incest on a young victim? It places “toxic stress” on a developing child, a level of stress which can “disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”
Victims of incest face debilitating impairments that often affect the rest of their lives.
Cue back to Josh Duggar – a 14 year old boy (now in his late 20s) who molested young girls; his sisters included.
It wasn’t anything much,” said Josh’s father. “This was not rape or anything like that. This was touching someone over their clothes.”
How shocking is the ignorance about incest and sexual abuse.
Incest is a crime
Yes, even when involving minors.
A few years back. police in Lethbridge, Alberta charged a 12-year-old boy with the alleged sexual assault of his younger sisters, ages 10 and 8.
“There’s some confusion in the general public that if it’s a ‘minor on minor incident’ that it’s not a crime, but that’s not the case,” says Dr. Jacqueline Linder, clinical director of a child sexual abuse treatment centre in Edmonton, Alberta.
I am not a doctor, psychiatrist or medical professional (see my ‘disclaimer’ on my homepage) and I don’t profess to speak for, or judge other victims of sexual abuse, nor their stories.
I write about what I know, what I’ve endured, what I’ve survived, what I’ve researched, what I’ve learned. My hope is that I can help others.
(And for the purposes of this post, and for simplicity, I refer to victims as “she.”)
The Truth About Incest and Sexual Abuse
Short of fully blocking one’s memory, it is almost impossible for sexual abuse or incest victims to forget how they were harmed.
There is hope for healing – if swift, immediate action is taken to help the victim. There is hope – if the family of origin understands that they are in crisis, and need help. There is hope – if the victims can be assured that they will be safe, loved, protected and not to blame.
If this doesn’t happen, the victim can’t separate herself from the original horror. Incest has a life of its own; it replays and manifests deeply within the subconscious, and creates behaviours and symptoms that linger.
Incest is not ‘sexual curiosity’ or ‘exploration’
It can be about coercion.
It can be about an abuse of power.
It’s argued that a boy as young as 14 (as Josh Duggar was) “doesn’t know better.”
That’s like saying that a young boy who force-fondles the genitalia of a younger sister is somehow ‘within reason.’
The “Boys will Be Boys” excuse. Intolerable nonsense.
Unless you were ‘there,’ all alone, confused and frightened… unless you were the little girl being fondled under duress… you cannot defend a perpetrator’s intent.
The “intent” to sexually abuse is often the most haunting aspect for the survivor: a family member did this to me, a family member who was entrusted to protect me.
“By definition, incest is never consensual, although often the perpetrator will convince the victim otherwise,” say experts.
A young girl – say, as young as age 8 – knows that being touched, fondled and groped by another person (especially a family member) in her private areas is dead wrong.
A much older boy doesn’t?
Imagine if a young stranger or friend coerced you into pulling down your pants, then fondled your genitals.
You wouldn’t say: “Ahh, it’s ok. His brain was undeveloped, he’s a minor. He didn’t know better. ”
Further still, if a young girl says a loud “NO” (repeatedly) to sexual advances (knowing it’s wrong, as she does) and is violated anyway, does this mean that a 14 year old male’s brain is also too underdeveloped to understand the word “NO?”
This is no consensual game of “playing doctor.”
Says Family Services of Greater Vancouver: “A fourteen-year-old boy who wants to look at his five-year-old sister’s genitals is not showing normal curiosity.”
Additional Trauma For The Abuse Victim
Many families keep household violence, sexual abuse and incest a secret. They protect the offender. They use tactics that further harm the victim. Outcomes from these tactics have staying power, and are equally harmful. They may include, but are not limited to:
The Family Who Keeps Incest A Secret. This assures no hope for the victim. It forces her to cope alone with a crime she can’t possibly (and may never) process, understand or contextualize. Lasting effect for the victim: I am not safe. Ever.
Keeping the Offender In the Home. A perpetrator of incest or sexual abuse (or any other violent tendencies) should be removed from the home to protect the safety of other siblings. Rarely does this happen. Lasting effect on the victim: He is still here, I will get molested again. I am not safe. I am terrified in my own home.
Rights to Privacy. If the perpetrator gains access to the young victim’s sacred, private bedroom and violates her there – forget about sweet toys and stuffed animals that surround her – her own room becomes a prison. Lasting effect on the victim: Privacy is something I can never count on. I must be hyper vigilant, on alert, always.
Use of Shame, Blame and Lies. In worst cases, shame, blame, even rage from her family of origin will be the innocent victim’s fate when incest is revealed. Not rage at the offender – rage towards her. This is a shock, a blow to the mind, more horror, and confirms how unsafe the home and family of origin truly is. Lasting effect on the victim: I was trained “not to talk to strangers” but if strangers, even family members lurk within my own house and assault or threaten me, my family will not protect me. I will never be free from fear.
Denial of Family Support. If a victim is not offered love, comfort or solace from her family of origin, validation for what happened to her, offered ample time to air her concerns and fears about incest, she is set up for damage that will endure. Lasting effects for the victim: PTSD, anxiety, depression, emotional disorders, trust, co-dependence and people pleasing issues, heavy guilt, social anxiety, somatic complaints, avoidance behaviours, debilitating fatigue, identity issues, crippling low self-esteem and endless others. Say study findings from the Washington University School of Medicine: “…Women who were victims of incest as children are more likely to suffer disabling psychiatric problems….”
Problems with Intimacy. Many incest victims, into adulthood, may never experience a sexual climax with a partner, due to intimacy ‘walls’ that arise from incest. Says this incest expert: “[Regarding] relationships and sex for survivors, this is probably one of the most difficult areas for survivors to overcome.” Lasting effect: Intimacy feels uncomfortable.
Problems With Brain Development. Incest, happening at a young age, has been proven to alter the brains of victims. “Being sexually or emotionally abused as a child can affect the development of a part of the brain that controls memory and the regulation of emotions,” a Harvard University study suggests. Lasting effect on the victim: “Changes in the structure and function of the brain lead to anxiety, depression, a wide variety of disorders and behaviours, and risk of suicide.”
Family Estrangement and Scapegoating. If the family of origin buries the truth of incest, protects the perpetrator, and ignores the victim, they may choose to betray the victim even further, with estrangement and scapegoating techniques of punishment, which ensure that the victim is symbolically removed from the family. Lasting effect for the victim: I have no concept of “family.” My family’s desire to maintain their reputation and keep up appearances is more important than I am. I don’t matter.
No Professional Therapy or Medical Support. The victim will likely require long-term, extensive therapy to unravel the complicated damage from incest and sexual abuse. This is common knowledge. Will she get it? Many victims don’t. Perpetrators and co-conspiring dysfunctional family members rarely help financially or otherwise with access to long term therapy. Yet it was they who were entrusted to protect their family member. Lasting effect on the victim: They don’t want me to recover. And they wash their hands of all responsibility.
Men Are All-Powerful. If a young girl is sexually abused by a male, and then further bullied with shame by her own family, she will grow up believing that men are more important and more valuable than women. Lasting effect on the victim: It is a patriarchal society; females are a lesser class. Men are intimidating. As a female, I am powerless.
Threats. The victim knows that if she speaks about the crime, or asks for family help, threats will ensue. Silencing techniques are ominous and effective. Lasting effect on the victim: The perpetrator never had proper intentions towards me, he is still trying to silence me.
These are only a few of the possibilities, long term ramifications, victim perceptions, and health implications of incest and sexual abuse on a young female victim.
Why Healing and Recovery Is So Difficult
Many called Josh Duggar – yes, even at 14 (when these events occurred) a child molester and pedophile.
Yet family members do turn away from the train wreck of incest. They do form sinister alliances that scapegoat, estrange and further betray and harm the victim, so as to protect themselves, at any cost.
It is for these reasons and many others that many incest victims cannot heal from incest. They are not offered the chance.
Incest can become a multi-layered, complicated ongoing set of traumas, circumstances and outcomes – continuing throughout life – that perpetuate the powerlessness and terror experienced by the victim, making her re-live it, over and over again.
In the most vile of cases, a dysfunctional family must paralyze the victim. To empower the victim – by providing help, solace, therapy – even love – means that the victim will get better and the truth will be revealed.
How To Cope
In the end, this is all that matters: the truth of what happened is never debatable. And it is with the truth that you can stand tall.
The truth of the devastating repercussions for the victim are not debatable, either.
A sexual abuse story is the victim’s story. It does not belong to anyone else.
It was never the right of anyone else to take your story away from you and twist and manipulate it to save themselves.
The incest was never your fault. The family mess that might have evolved from the incest was not your fault.
If you are drowning in guilt and shame (it must be your fault, they told you so) remember this and hold it close: the harm, bullying, threats, shame, blame and lies – directed at you – were never okay.
Let the others try to live with their deceit, betrayal, cruelty, excuses and ploys.
Accept and embrace love from those who already do genuinely love, protect, value, and respect you; who know and sympathize with your history, understand the odd, debilitating behaviour quirks, erratic symptoms and depressive episodes that are the reality for an incest or sexual abuse survivor.
Tell the truth about incest and sexual abuse to future generations, so that that they are informed, so that their futures are not also irreparably harmed.
Be around healthy, loving people who can be the centre of your healthier world.
Learn all you possibly can about incest and sexual abuse, when you are ready to face it. Get all the help and counselling you can.
And, accept the truth. You were abused. Possibly also, in a manner of speaking, by your own family of origin. It may have not just been the offender’s actions.
Incest and sexual abuse can and does destroy the heart, mind and functioning of those who later try to be good mothers, wives, husbands, employees.
Life will never make sense.
But the truth is clear.
I am deeply grateful and appreciative for those who have helped enlighten me about the truth of incest and sexual abuse – tireless sexual abuse and incest advocates, lawyers, caring medical professionals, my beloved partner, my children, my dear friends.