Common Shame Experiences of Child Sexual Abuse Survivors

If you are a child sexual abuse (CSA) survivor, or know a survivor, you likely have a close relationship with, or are a witness to shame.  The following are common elements that contribute to where CSA survivors’ shame is sourced. However, the purpose of this post is to re-frame this shame and normalize trauma reactions.

⦿ Not telling a trusted adult about the assault

Some survivors feel ashamed for not ending the abuse by seeking help.  Children are a vulnerable population. Because of where they are developmentally, it is easy to take advantage of this vulnerability.  Perpetrators use this advantage to groom children, manipulate children to think it is their idea, lead children to believe this is normal behavior, threaten children into being fearful of telling (threaten to harm the child, themselves, someone or something the child cares about), confuse children into believing the assault(s) is an act of love and affection, tell children no one would believe them if they did tell, hold children accountable to the “secret,” and more.  Further, the perpetrator is always in a position of power and authority over the child and very likely someone they have a close relationship with. All of these complicated pieces make it nearly impossible for children experiencing sexual abuse to share what’s happening to them. It can be painful as an adult to look back and see opportunities where it would have been possible to talk about the abuse with someone who could have had the power to help. However, retroactively applying adult cognitive capacity and worldview onto the child self results in unfair expectations.  Examining the abuse in the context that it occured will remind the survivor that he/she did what he/she had to do to survive the trauma.  

⦿ Experiencing pleasure during the event

It is not uncommon for what initially felt like violating pain to transform into feeling pleasurable.  Some survivors share that they can remember when the abuse changed into something that was enjoyable. This in no way means that the survivor was a willing participant in the abuse.  Everyone has biological and chemical reactions to sexual activities. Orgasms cannot be controlled as they are an automatic reaction involving muscles, nerve endings, hormones (particularly oxytocin which is a social bonding hormone), blood supply, and more.  Some survivors confuse desiring this sense of pleasure with believing they desired the abuse. Some survivors take it even further and question that since they believe they desired the abuse, was it actually abuse? The answer is yes, it was abuse. There is a purpose behind laws regarding the age of consent (usually 17-18 depending on the state).  A child, adolescent, and early teen does not have the brain development to give consent to sex, or sexual touching. Pleasure does not equate to giving consent. Consent to sexual activities is only possible when ALL of the following are present: when both freely give consent without coercion, both fully understand the physical and emotional consequences, both respect that consent for one event does not necessarily mean consent for all future possible sexual activities, both respect the other’s boundaries, and both have the cognitive awareness and intellectual capacity to offer consent.

⦿ Feeling special and chosen

A number of children who experienced sexual abuse became bonded to their abuser.  Though it was an inappropriate relationship within an inappropriate context, an illusion evolves where the child is elevated to the position of an adult.  The child experiences adult activities and adult conversation. The child can be favored by the abuser and this is shown in a variety of ways through gifts, through grooming tactics, through sharing secrets no one else knows, through being prioritized above other relationships (ex: if the abuser is a father, the child may be prioritized above other siblings), and more.  Some survivors feel ashamed in how they grieved the ending of the social and emotional parts of the abusive relationship when the abuse terminated. This is a common experience as emotional needs were once met by the abuser (feeling valued and important, feeling accepted, feeling connected). We all possess emotional needs that are required to be met within relationships.  It is important to understand that meeting these needs within the context of an abusive relationship are for the purpose of manipulation. The child was manipulated into believing these needs were met with genuine and moral intent, when in truth they were met for a malicious objective. The adult survivor has the choice and the capacity to have social and emotional needs met with a safe person.

⦿ Coping during and after the abuse 

Human survival instincts are described as the fight/flight response.  However, the most dangerous and rarely discussed response is to freeze.  Many survivors hold a great amount of shame about their behavior during and/or after the trauma.  Freezing during the traumatic event is the body and brain’s way of saying, “My coping mechanisms are overwhelmed.  To keep myself safe, I have to shut down and become numb.” Freezing can manifest itself in becoming numb, experiencing dissociation, and repression.  A common kind of dissociation CSA survivors experience is called depersonalization. Dissociative depersonalization can be an “outer body experience” where the survivor escapes the body and views the event from outside his/herself.  Repression is blocking the memory of the event (which usually arises in pieces again when the survivor is in a safer season of life). After the abuse has occured, survivors can negatively cope in a myriad of ways. Some children act out sexually.  Some age and continue numbing and avoiding by means of drugs/alcohol. Others may engage in sexually promiscuous behavior to gain a new sense of control over their bodies. Some turn the anger they feel inward and utilize self-harm. All of these only provide a temporary sense of relief, so healthier and more effective coping strategies must be developed.

⦿ Body memories

Most memories of the abuse are unwelcome, but body memories are those that typically lay outside one’s conscious awareness.  An innocent touch can trigger a reaction that leaves the survivor confused about why it occurred. Many survivors are ashamed of their own bodies as the body houses the location where the abuse occurred and it remains with them at all times.  A large portion of recovery is focused on becoming more aware of body sensations and befriending and accepting one’s body.  

⦿ Revealing the abuse later on in life

We unfortunately live in a society that continues to frequently blame and ignore survivors’ experiences.  Those who decide to reveal their abuse experience, or confront their abuser may be responded to with criticism, disbelief, and/or dismissing the experience.  It can be excruciating to finally accept the existence of the experience for oneself and to share it with another who rejects the truth. The shame cycle is at risk of repeating if the survivor’s healing was dependent upon another’s acknowledgement.  (This is not to say that another’s acceptance of the survivor cannot contribute to healing.) Lasting healing resides within the survivor.

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