By: Doug Wilson
Childhood Sexual Abuse is a ever-resurfacing topic in the news- whether on TV, the Internet, smart phones, or in the newspaper. Clergymen, teachers, principals, prison guards, coaches and the occasional sex offender re-offending are some of the headlines one commonly sees that are perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. Statistically speaking, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused in the United States of America, most never making headlines or having their stories told.
Before delving into the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, one should understand how sexual abuse is defined. Dr. Richard B. Gartner explains:
“When actual penetration of the child or the adult is involved, whether orally, anally, or vaginally, we have no trouble characterizing the act as sexually abusive for boys or girls…. Inappropriate touching or rubbing of either the child’s or the abuser’s body, sometimes leading to orgasm for either or both, again clearly reflects a sexually abusive situation.” (Gartner )
Not only will there be short-term effects but long-term effects as well following this type of trauma. The purpose of this paper is to look at a few of the long-term effects that Doctors Jody Messler Davies and Mary Gail Frawley elaborated on in their book “Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse”. Davies and Frawley note that suffers from CSA could have amnesia, physical complaints, sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, and many other symptoms. For the sake of brevity, this paper will look at effects in the areas of depression, self-worth, sleep disturbances, eating disorders and trouble developing a masculine identity.
According to the DSM-IV, depression is defined as a sad mood “or loss of interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities.” Life stands still for the victim and he or she is bombarded with fear, hurt, and shame. They carry around with them luggage of unanswered questions, “Why did I let him/her do that?”, “Why did it feel good?”, “Am I gay?”(if the offender was of the same sex). With the overwhelming shame hanging over these victims, these feelings of sadness bring on depressive events. Depression affects the lives of survivors by causing them to be reclusive with very few friends, having low-self esteem, and living in the shadow of the proverbial black cloud. Dr. Gartner provides us a deeper look into survivors’ lives through his case studies. “In his late twenties, Victor started psychotherapy because he was depressed, had not been able to finish college, and, through presumably comfortable with his gay sexual orientation, had been unable to form an enduring intimate relationship with another man” (Gartner ). Depression is a recurring theme throughout these case studies and is evident in most of the situations described in the book. In many cases, the depression is the result of overall feelings of worthlessness.
“It is not uncommon for sexual abuse survivors to see themselves as bad, evil, unintelligent, or unattractive, as well as generally responsible for their unhappiness and pain” (Briere ).
Developing a positive self-image is crucial to recovering from sexual abuse. For many victims, abuse takes place during the developmental years during which they should be building academic success, gaining socialization skills, learning to think critically and achieving greater reasoning skills.
“All forms of early trauma can powerfully affect later character development. Yet other factors also affect how a child experiences sexual abuse. Every abused child was, of course, already developing his personality when his abuse occurred. His reactions to abuse are influenced by his developing personality, his family and cultural content, his psychological resources, and the external events in his life” (Gartner ). These setbacks often follow the victim into adulthood, since they have identified themselves as “bad at school” or “antisocial”.
I was eight when my stepfather molested me. I woke up to a dark room with a large man next to my bed. He was kneeled down by my bed and touching my penis. He noticed that I awoken, so he leaned up to whisper in my ear that I should not tell anyone and if I did I would get a spanking. These nights were often and escalated to him “teaching” me to touch him and perform oral sex. Since then I wake up often in the night as an adult and look around with fear that someone might be standing in my room or breaking into my home. Nights are always the worst.
My story is not that unusual among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “Sleep disturbances (involving insomnia, restless sleep, nightmares, and mid-sleep or early morning awakenings) is a common result of abuse-related hyper arousal. Researchers such as Sedney and Brooks (1984) and Briere and Runt (1987), report that
“sexual abuse survivors are approximately twice as likely as non-abused individuals to have sleep problems of some sort…it is clear that sleep is experienced by the survivor as a time of maximal vulnerability, when vigilance and defenses are at their lowest and when frightening dreams are likely. This sense of helplessness is compounded by the likelihood that the abuse (especially if it was incest) occurred in darkness or in the bedroom.” (Briere p. 13).
Treatments for sleep disturbances are often the same as those recommended for the depressive symptoms following abuse- medication, psychiatric counseling, and relaxation therapy.
Eating disorders and other forms of compulsive control behaviors are commonly found in survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “Men are therefore generally more likely to try to reduce tension through behavior like sexual compulsivity, predatory exploitation, gambling, drug addiction, alcoholism, workaholism, or overexercise.” (Gartner p. 79)
Research shows that these coping behaviors become highly addictive. When someone engages in these types of pleasurable behaviors, dopamine is released into his or her brain, which provides a euphoric feeling. Dopamine is also released when one enjoys tasty food. Endorphins are released when one exercises, eats spicy food, orgasm and other adrenaline-pumping activities.
“In our first evaluative sessions, Devin revealed his involvement in an extraordinary number of compulsive behaviors, most of which were self-destructive either directly or indirectly. No longer actively drinking, chain-smoking, or doing drugs, his current compulsions included gambling, looking at pornography, overeating sweets, and maniacally collecting baseball cards.” (Gartner p. 167)
With these feel-good chemicals in their brains, survivors tend to use these activities to a heightened extent as coping mechanisms. When a survivor is experiencing depression or feelings of failure they can turn to these high-dopamine behaviors as a form of escapism from his or her depressed mood.
STRUGGLES WITH MASCULINITY
Many male survivors of childhood abuse struggle with masculinity. Whether abuse is inflicted by a male or female aggressor, the victim is likely to struggle with the fact that men are expected, in our society, to be in control of sexual encounters and to be the pursuers of sexual pleasure. When trying to understand the effect of sexual abuse on a victim’s masculinity, it is important to understand the development of masculine identity in America.
“Participants in both studies recalled the sociocultural factors that influenced their conceptualizations of masculinity, notably parents, coaches, teachers, media, and sports. Parents, especially fathers, socialized the participants to behave and interact in ways that were deemed acceptable by traditional expectations for men by expressing masculinity through toughness and physical aggression. Youth sports and other activities in which boys learn masculine values (e.g., martial arts, Boy Scouts) provided a context in which these expectations of performing masculinity were practiced and celebrated when performed successfully during the participants’ pre-college gender socialization. ‘You want to be the kid who beats your rival team in lacrosse, drinks that night to celebrate, and has sex with a girl’ recalled Chet [all names are pseudonyms] a fraternity president and participant in the Edwards study, when he reflected on how expectations of performing gender influenced his ideas about masculinity in high school.” (Harris III, Edwards 2010)…a man sexually abused as a boy is likely to feel challenged about his ‘masculinity.’ While he may not doubt the actual biological fact of his maleness, his experience of his masculinity may be compromised in two interrelated areas: the self-perception of whether he is a man and the socially constructed ideal of a masculine self. These ideas are often used interchangeably. This blurring of definitions can be confusing, however, since the concepts are vastly different and have diverse ramifications for men.” (Gartner 59)
These statistics and stories are from real people, real men, real boys that were hurt when they were young and have fought their entire life to rid these long-term effects. With that being said, it is great to see that CSA is being looked into further to help the survivors. With everything cultural and society dictates that this is a taboo subject, however with these writings and more guys speaking out this can be changed.
Briere, John (1996) Therapy for Adults Molested as Children: Beyond Survival. 2nd
ED Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
Davies & Frawley (1994) Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse.
BasicBooks, A Divison of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Gartner, Richard B. (1999) Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually
Abused Men. The Guilford Press
Harris III, F. & Edwards, K. E. (2010). College Men’s Experiences as Men: Findings
and Implications from Two Grounded Theory Studies. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 47(1), 43–62. doi:10.2202/1949-6605.6085 Available at http://journals.naspa.org/jsarp/vol47/iss1/art3/