Survivors of Sexual Abuse: The Gift of Empowerment

Christopher L. Heffner, Psy.D.

May 15, 2002


sexual-abuseWatching the arrest and seeing a former priest handcuffed in the standard issue orange jumpsuit brought a sense of hope and empowerment to not only his alleged victims, but to thousands of sexual abuse survivors around the world. Sexual abuse is much more than the sexual violation of a child, it is also a moral violation as it robs the child of his or her innocence and power. As with any victim of crime, the sense of helplessness and powerlessness is often the rock that is carried year after year, often only increasing in weight as time passes.

Certain people in our society are given special rights and authority, such as parents, police officers, judges, physicians, and clergy. Along with these rights should come a higher standard for protecting the innocent lives over whom they have power. It is starting to appear that this is just the opposite, at least until now. Being the victim of someone of such power only serves to deepen the emotional scares and add to the confusion and the sin of secrecy.

To be a helpless victim of this crime by an adult you are taught to respect, to believe in, and to trust only adds immeasurable weight you are forced to carry throughout your life. The child is often left with a great deal of confusion between right and wrong, combined with self-blame, powerlessness, and shame. These after effects do not disappear; they sit inside the child and play a role in every decision made, every action taken, every relationship, and every thought until something conscious is done to stop it. Fighting back restores some of the lost power, support from friends and family bring strength and can start chipping away at the shame.

Seeing the abuser taken into custody can give a survivor of sexual abuse the gift of empowerment. It brings a sense of hope to the victims of other abusers, knowing that these men are not omnipotent, they are not above the law, and they will all have to face their victims one way or another.

Recent research estimates the prevalence of sexual abuse among children to be higher than ever before. Many studies suggest that as any as 22% of females and 14% of males are victims of childhood sexual abuse. If these estimates are accurate, then this is the largest victim pool in our country today; 30.8 million females and 19.6 million males in the United States today were victims of this underreported and obviously overlooked robbing of innocence.

The after effects of sexual abuse are described in the table below. These symptoms are the most common ones as reported by researchers, therapists, and victims. Rarely anyone will have all of the symptoms, and some may have very few, but the fact remains, the after effects do not usually go away with time, they worsen until something is done about them.

After Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Emotional Symptoms:

Unsupported fears (may or may not be related to sex)

Low Self Esteem, Guilt, Shame

Exaggerated or Diminished feeling of power and control

Difficulty with Trust

Fear of Abandonment

Cognitive Symptoms:

Intrusive images or thoughts about sex

Viewing sex as an obligation

Seeing sex as a means to exert power

Rigid boundaries or lack of boundaries

Confusing sex and love

Poor body image

Amnesia for early years or periods surrounding sexual abuse

Difficulty with authority figures

Behavioral Symptoms:

Somatic Complaints (vague bodily complaints, gastrointestinal problems)

Somatic complaints related to the abuse (genital/urinary pain, difficulty swallowing, TMJ)

Self Injurious Behaviors and self mutilation (cutting, hair pulling, biting, scratching)

Engaging in physically dangerous behaviors

Sexual Dysfunction
Males: impotence (can be situational), premature ejaculation
Females: vaginismus, female orgasmic disorder, vaginal pain during intercourse

Compulsive masturbation, frequent anonymous sexual encounters

Stripping, prostitution

Fetishes (inability or difficulty becoming sexually aroused without a specific object involved [shoe, underwear, picture] or without focusing almost exclusively on a specific body part [legs, genitalia, feet]

Lack of interest in sex or avoidance of sexual situations

Difficulty staying emotionally and mentally present during sex

Placing self in sexually dangerous situations

When any of these symptoms are present, it certainly does not mean the person was sexually abused, and the symptoms may vary depending on the individual, the type and duration of abuse, and the relationship to the abuser.

In victims, however, many of the after effects are due to the theft of power, of innocence, and of dignity. This can often result in a need to find ways to retrieve what was lost in order to feel whole again, to feel safe again, and to like your self again. I believe it takes a lot of courage and support to face your abuser, and to do it in the spotlight as many of the alleged victims of priests are doing today shows even greater courage.

While this is often the first stage in recovery from abuse, many times it marks the transition from victim to survivor, from shame to pride, and from powerlessness to strength. Whatever the outcome of the trials and investigation into this or any other cases of childhood sexual abuse, there are no doubt thousands who have taken a step forward away from the past and toward a more empowered future. It is certainly not an easy journey, but is is much less difficult when you don’t have to walk it alone.

Treatment Issues

The effects for some survivors may be minimal, or may be overcome through the help of friends and family. However, the treatment for many survivors of childhood sexual abuse is a complex and typically long term endeavor due to several factors. First, the trauma occurred in childhood which is the time when most of our psychological development takes place. Second, Not only are these children traumatized, it is typically done by a family member or close family friend, which hinders the child’s ability to develop healthy trusting relationships. Third, the secrecy, and perceived shame and guilt prevents many children from telling anyone and therefore from getting help. They are forced to endure and try to understand without the assistance of an adult. And finally, the aftereffects of sexual abuse are quite diverse and can involve many different aspects of the person’s functioning (e.g., social, relationship, intimacy, trust, family security, safety).

The best recommendation for anyone who was sexually abused as a child and who feels they are having difficulties because of it is to gather as much information as possible and seek out people with whom you feel safe. This could mean a close friend, a sibling, therapist, or clergy. If you are seeking therapy, ask a lot of questions and make sure you feel completely safe with this person. It’s okay if you don’t, and you are allowed to find someone else. If you decide therapy is not right for you, make sure you have relationships which make you feel good about yourself and where you feel safe.

There are many web pages and newsgroups devoted to sexual abuse, but don’t believe everything you read. Make sure you get a consensus from well respected resources before you take anything to heart. Healing from sexual abuse is a journey and it’s a very personal journey. Go at your own speed and do not proceed with anything with which you are not comfortable. There is hope and there are many people who understand, all you have to do is seek them out.