I often say at our Thursday Night drop in group—“if you’re breathing, chances are you’ve been abused.” As we grow up, we are vulnerable at young ages, and that vulnerability has left us open to possible exploitation. Have you ever been verbally abused? Labeled with degrading names or made to feel worthless by the awful things someone has said. Have you ever been emotionally mistreated by someone’s anger or by punishing silences? Perhaps it’s nothing so tangible, but you were left on your own and feeling invisible through neglect. And then there is harmful physical or sexual abuse. All of these various kinds of wounds and the residue of shame they leave behind can take a toll on our hearts and lives.
Identifying the Impact of Sexual Abuse
I know personally how these wounds have influenced how I feel as a person and how they have impacted my sexuality. They left me feeling insecure and inadequate as a man and confused about my orientation. I’ve been uncomfortable in my body and fearful of intimacy. I’ve been left with negative and distorted views of sex. All things God wants to heal and has healed through many years of counseling and involvement in the Where Grace Abounds community. But where does one begin in this process of restoration, untangling the giant mess caused by the offenses of others and my own poor choices in response?
Wendy Maltz in her book The Sexual Healing Journey explores the sexual impact of abuse on the many facets of our sexuality. By taking several inventories, the reader is encouraged to a greater understanding of which areas have been affected, how they are influencing the present, and pinpoints what areas are in need of healing. The following are the inventories available:
1. Attitudes About Sex
Sexual abuse generates negative, false attitudes about sex. These become hidden from your consciousness. You may have difficulty separating abusive sex from healthy sex. Victims can be imprinted with an abusive way of thinking about sex, a sexual abuse mind-set. This mind-set can affect every aspect of a survivor’s sexuality: sexual drive, sexual expression, sex roles, intimate relationships, knowledge of sexual functioning, and sense of morality. How have you been affected by this abuse mind-set?
2. Sexual Self-Concept
Sexual abuse, and its consequences, can unconsciously influence how you feel about yourself and about sex. You may now see yourself as sexually damaged, suffering a poor sexual self-concept. Or you may have developed a self-concept that is inflated, where you believe you’re more powerful as a result of sex. Knowing how you view yourself as a sexual person is fundamental to eventually making changes in your sexual behavior.
3. Automatic Reactions to Touch and Sex
Sexual abuse can create a conditioned way of reacting to touch and sex. Some survivors get panicky, avoid sexual possibilities, and want to run the other way when sexually approached. Others freeze and feel helpless and unable to protect themselves. Still others get overexcited and may recklessly seek dangerous sexual encounters.
4. Problematic Sexual Behavior
Sexual abuse can shatter our capacity for healthy sex. You may have been taught abusive patterns of sexual behavior and introduced to unhealthy, compulsive, abnormal sexual activities. Now as a reaction you may associate your sexual expression with secrecy and shame. Some survivors may withdraw from sex, preventing any fresh discovery of healthy sex. Other survivors may become preoccupied and driven by sex. Sometimes survivors reenact the abuse in an unconscious attempt to resolve deep-seated emotional conflict related to the original abuse. These reactions need to be identified so you can better understand your behavior and eventually work toward healthy changes.
5. Intimate Relationships
Sexual abuse influences a survivor’s ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Abuse can interfere with our ability to make good choices. Some survivors may have difficulty selecting partners who are emotionally supportive. Other survivors may be unable to trust and feel safe with intimate partners who do care. Survivors may fear intimacy or have a limited capacity to experience closeness. The sexual difficulties a survivor may have as a result of abuse often create emotional and sexual problems for the partner. Knowing where relationship difficulties lie, and how abuse has caused problems, can help you work with your partner.
6. Sexual Functioning Problems
Sexual abuse can create specific problems with sexual functioning. Abuse may have taught you unhealthy patterns of responding to sexual stimulation. Stress and anxiety that originated with abuse may continue to shadow your sexual activity. Over time these sexual problems interfere with intimacy and long-term sexual satisfaction. As you identify problem areas in how you function sexually now, you are also identifying specific sexual concerns to work on in the healing process.
For Your Consideration
Wendy’s book is not written from a Christian perspective. Where Grace Abounds does not recommend all the philosophy and approaches offered in her material. As Christians, we are encouraged and exhorted to wrestle with the realities of our sexuality according to the boundaries we are given within scripture.
Also, it’s never recommended to be a lone ranger in your healing process. Relationships and community are needed for support and to facilitate change and growth. When engaging any material regarding abuse and sexual abuse, it is helpful to do that in a counseling, pastoral care or support group environment.