Like many people, I used to be confused about sexual abuse. I knew that it was really horrible to be an abuse survivor - not that I was one, no, of course not - but I didn't understand exactly why. I understood why rapes and beatings would be traumatic, and all the shame associated with being molested, but not why an infant would be traumatized by a simple touch.

It seemed to me to be a problem of physics: as far as I knew, part of one person's body touching another's should only cause an equal and opposite reaction. I understood that I was wrong; that seemed fairly well-established. But in my own denial, the vast constellation of effects was still invisible to me.

What Really Happens When a Child Is Abused?

I'm no physicist, psychologist, or biologist. But what I have learned -- from my own recovery and from talking to other survivors -- is that something much more profound than a simple physical reaction happens when the body's sexual boundaries are breached.

The accounts of millions of survivors seem to show that people have clear boundaries around sexuality from birth, that we are not supposed to look at, speak to, or touch them in the ways we might a sexually active adult. And that when these boundaries are violated, it sends violent shock waves through the child's body and mind.

The child's boundaries, as if they were physical objects, are stripped away. Parts of the psyche are developmentally halted. Certain very strong lessons are impressed upon the child's mind. You are not worthy of appropriate or loving care. You are not safe. The child learns to dissociate in order to avoid further pain, and learns to confuse sexual acts with love and love with pain.

Survivors of Incest Anonymous offers a simple and broad definition of incest which concludes, "Whether the abuse occurred once or many times is irrelevant, because the damage is incurred immediately." It is a chilling statement: it means that during SIA's twenty-three years of peer-led recovery from sexual abuse, survivors have not found appreciable differences between the everyday effects of a one-time molestation and of years of rape. The amount of trauma experienced may be different but the effects are the same.

These effects differ from survivor to survivor, but are all drawn from the same pool. They are the natural results of those two messages: you are not safe, you are not worthy. They include:

  • a warped and negative self-image;
  • tremendous underlying fear;
  • tremendous underlying anger; disconnection from emotions and reality;
  • the belief that others' ideas, feelings, and needs are more valid than one's own;
  • difficulty trusting anyone; uncontrollable emotional and physical flashbacks to the abuse;
  • addictive relationships (whether compulsive or anorexic) with: in short, with almost any substance or behavior under the sun besides compassion and care for oneself.

    All of these behaviors are also ways to control the abuse by internalizing it. This self-abusive behavior feels familiar and therefore, ironically, safe. And of course each of those effects of abuse can spawn its own galaxy of problems. Bad boundaries can lead to getting reabused by partners, being taken advantage of, not being able to recognize and leave an abusive workplace, oversharing with inappropriate people, and unintentionally abusing others... all of which neatly perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

    Not everyone experiences all of these, of course, and there are many other factors at work. Many alcoholics, for example, cite a family history as crucial to the development of their disease. But the field must first be prepared by some form of abuse, before the child thinks to fill the vacuum inside them with alcohol. Of course it's hereditary - if the alcoholic parents are acting out of their own unhealed abuse, they are very likely to abuse the child in one way or another without even meaning to. It is as if abuse rips a hole in us, and we can spend the rest of our lives trying to fill it with toxic substitutes for the love and care that we were missing.

    To some extent, this is not just about sexual abuse. All forms of abuse send the clear message that the child is not worthy of love or safety and instead deserves to be hurt. Hitting, raping, insulting, screaming, starving - these are all just decorations that influence which particular effects the child will have, and what addictions they will turn to to try to fill the hole they believe is inside them.

    I did not invent the idea that incest should not affect those who do not know that society thinks it is wrong; many people believe that it is our shame that affects people not the act itself. In reality, abuse does create an equal and opposite reaction - the extreme reactions to abuse are what show us how extreme the acts truly are.

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