“I just hate myself. I keep thinking there’s something I should have done, should have said to stop it. I just feel so dirty.”—Ann.
“I feel alienated from people. I often deal with feelings of hopelessness and despair. Sometimes I want to die.”—Jill.
“CHILDHOOD sexual abuse is . . . an overwhelming, damaging, and humiliating assault on a child’s mind, soul, and body . . . The abuse invades every facet of one’s existence.” So says The Right to Innocence, by Beverly Engel.
Not all children react to abuse in the same way.* Children have different personalities, coping skills, and emotional resources. Much also depends on the child’s relationship to the abuser, the severity of the abuse, how long the abuse lasted, the child’s age, and other factors. Furthermore, if the abuse is exposed and a child receives loving adult support, damage can often be minimized. However, many victims suffer deep emotional wounds.
Why It Devastates
The Bible offers insight into why such damage occurs. Ecclesiastes 7:7 observes: “Mere oppression may make a wise one act crazy.” If this is true for an adult, imagine the effect of brutal oppression on a small child—particularly if the abuser is a trusted parent. After all, the first few years of life are critical to a child’s emotional and spiritual development. (2 Timothy 3:15) It is during those tender years that a youngster begins developing moral boundaries and a sense of personal worth. By bonding to her parents, a child also learns the meaning of love and trust.—Psalm 22:9.
“With abused children,” explains Dr. J. Patrick Gannon, “this process of trust building gets derailed.” The abuser betrays the child’s trust; he robs her of any semblance of safety, privacy, or self-respect and uses her as a mere object for his own self-gratification.* Small children do not understand the significance of the immoral acts being forced upon them, but almost universally they find the experience upsetting, frightening, humiliating.
Childhood abuse has thus been called “the ultimate betrayal.” We are reminded of Jesus’ question: “Who is the man among you whom his son asks for bread—he will not hand him a stone, will he?” (Matthew 7:9) But the abuser gives a child, not love and affection, but the cruelest “stone” of all—sexual assault.
Why the Wounds Persist
Proverbs 22:6 says: “Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it.” Clearly, parental influence can last a lifetime. What, though, if a child is trained to believe that she is powerless to prevent sexual intrusion? Trained to perform perversions in exchange for “love”? Trained to view herself as worthless and dirty? Could not that lead to a lifetime of destructive behavior? Not that childhood abuse excuses later inappropriate adult conduct, but it can help explain why abuse victims may tend to act or feel a certain way.
Many abuse victims suffer an array of symptoms, including depression. Some also seethe with persistent and at times overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and rage. Other victims may suffer emotional shutdown, an inability to express or even feel emotion. Low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness also afflict many. Sally, who was abused by her uncle, recalls: “Each time he molested me I felt powerless and frozen, numb, stiff, confused. Why was this happening?” Reports psychologist Cynthia Tower: “Studies show that often people who were abused as children will carry through life a perception of themselves as a victim.” They may marry an abusive man, project an air of vulnerability, or feel powerless to defend themselves when threatened.
Normally, children have 12 years or so to prepare for the emotions that awaken during puberty. But when lewd acts are forced upon a young child, she may be overwhelmed by the feelings aroused. As one study showed, this may later impede her ability to enjoy marital intimacies. Confesses a victim named Linda: “I find the sexual side of marriage to be the hardest thing in my life. I get the most dreadful sensation that it is my father there, and I get panicky.” Other victims may react in just the opposite way and develop compulsive immoral desires. “I led a promiscuous life and would end up having sexual relations with complete strangers,” admits Jill.
Abuse victims may also have difficulty in maintaining healthy relationships. Some simply cannot relate to men or to authority figures. Some will sabotage friendships and marriages by becoming abusive or controlling. Yet others tend to avoid close relationships entirely.
There are even victims who turn their destructive feelings on themselves. “I hated my body because it had responded to the stimulation of the abuse,” admits Reba. Tragically, eating disorders,* workaholism, alcohol and drug abuse, are common among abuse victims—desperate attempts to bury their feelings. Some may also act out their self-hatred in more direct ways. “I have cut myself, dug my fingernails into my arms, burned myself,” adds Reba. “I felt I deserved to be abused.”
Do not jump to the conclusion, however, that anyone who feels or acts in such ways has necessarily been abused sexually. Other physical or emotional factors may be involved. For example, experts say that similar symptoms are common among adults raised in dysfunctional families—where their parents battered them, belittled and humiliated them, ignored their physical needs, or where the parents were drug or alcohol addicts.
The most insidious effect of all that childhood abuse can wreak is the potential spiritual damage. Molestation is a “defilement of flesh and spirit.” (2 Corinthians 7:1) By performing perverted acts on a child, by violating her physical and moral boundaries, by betraying her trust, an abuser contaminates a child’s spirit, or dominant mental inclination. This can later impede the victim’s moral and spiritual growth.
The book Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody, further notes: “Any serious abuse . . . is also spiritual abuse, because it taints the child’s trust of a Higher Power.” For example, a Christian woman named Ellen asks: “How can I think of Jehovah as a Father when I have this concept of a cruel, raging man for an earthly father?” Says another victim, named Terry: “I never related to Jehovah as a Father. As God, Lord, Sovereign, Creator, yes! But as Father, no!”
Such individuals are not necessarily spiritually weak or lacking in faith. On the contrary, their persistent efforts to follow Bible principles give evidence of spiritual strength! But imagine how some might feel when they read a Bible text such as Psalm 103:13, which says: “As a father shows mercy to his sons, Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him.” Some may grasp this intellectually. Yet, without a healthy concept of what a father is, it may be hard for them to respond to this text emotionally!
Some may also find it difficult to be “like a young child” before God—vulnerable, humble, trusting. They may hold back their true feelings from God when praying. (Mark 10:15) They may hesitate to apply to themselves the words of David at Psalm 62:7, 8: “Upon God are my salvation and my glory. My strong rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people. Before him pour out your heart. God is a refuge for us.” Feelings of guilt and unworthiness may even undermine their faith. One victim said: “I believe in Jehovah’s Kingdom very much. However, I don’t really feel I’m good enough to be there.”
Of course, not all victims are affected the same way. Some have been drawn to Jehovah as a loving Father and feel no obstacle at all in relating to him. Whatever the case, if you are a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you may find it of great value to discern how it has affected your life. Some may be content to let matters rest. However, if it appears to you that the damage is significant, take heart. Your wounds can be healed.
Our discussion focuses on what the Bible calls por·neiʹa, or fornication. (1 Corinthians 6:9; compare Leviticus 18:6-22.) This includes all forms of immoral intercourse. Other abusive acts, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and exposure to pornography, while not por·neiʹa, may also damage a child emotionally.
Since children tend to trust adults, abuse by a trusted family member, older sibling, family friend, or even by a stranger also constitutes a devastating betrayal of trust.
See Awake! of December 22, 1990.