Sexual abuse affects every area of an individual's life--relationships with
self and others, the workplace [or school, etc.], mental health, thinking,
perceptions, and beliefs.
with one's self
conveys several messages to the
trust the decisions of adults around them in order to feel safe. When they are mistreated,
they must find some
explanation for what is happening to them that doesn't destroy the trust and security they
need. Thus the assumption of a young child being abused is "I must be bad or
this wouldn't be happening to me." The responsibility for the abuse shifts
from the perpetrator to the survivor, generating
shame. [A healthy adult might
react to harm by trying to escape. For children, escaping from
their parents, or other adults on whom they depend, is not an option--a child can't
imagine alternatives to the vitally needed love and security of the family.]
To survive, children may cut
off awareness of their bodies, their feelings, and their experiences. [This is
often the brain's involuntary reaction to a trauma too terrible for a child's mind to
comprehend.] This dissociation can become an automatic response to any painful or
threatening situation, creating a variety of problems:
||It limits the repertoire
of responses. Avoidance and denial are available, but not fighting back.
||It robs the person of
the ability to fully live their life and experience their experiences.
them of their own true self and their thoughts, beliefs, etc. Starting at the time of the
abuse, a person lives with a censored and edited version of their true selves.
Sexual abuse is primarily a violation of a person's
boundaries by a more powerful [actual or perceived] individual. This
violation creates boundary issues for the adult survivor. Many adults violated as
children tend to have diffuse boundaries (reenacting the message that they don't have a
right to set limits and boundaries) or overly rigid boundaries (defenses), which
feel necessary for safety. Boundary issues rob survivors of the experience of
constructively connecting with others. Relationships involving intimacy and
trust may feel unsafe or unattainable.
Dissociation--disconnecting from childhood hurts--may make it
difficult to recognize and understand feelings and hurts in others. This limited
empathy affects how the survivor responds to others, such as children, family, friends,
and colleagues. A survivor's buried hurts can then cause pain in others. For
example, a child may complain to her mother that others were teasing her. The mother
may respond by telling her to "just deal with it" and not to "be a
baby" or may assume that she did something to deserve their laughter. The
survivor, separated from her own childhood hurts, may have difficulty empathizing with her
daughter's pain, and her response may lead the daughter to feel hurt and ashamed.
Repetition compulsion, a
universal phenomenon, is a predictable problem for adult survivors, who often find
relationships which replicate their abuse. Typically these involve a loss or imbalance of
power. Survivors may be involved in dual relationships [for example, a personal and business
relationship with a supervisor at work] or have a string of relationships with abusive people.
Adults who have been violated have trouble saying "no" to a relationship or
"yes" to a relationship (and sometimes both).
Past Sexual Abuse at Work (or School)
All relationship issues
described above play out in the workplace too. Shame makes it difficult to act
confidently and assertively, to rebound from minor mistakes, to recognize or demonstrate
fully one's capabilities, and to believe in the right to be taken seriously.
Survivors may have difficult relationships with coworkers because of intense sensitivity to
criticism or angry, boundary-protective defensiveness. They may also be vulnerable
to exploitation and inappropriate relationships due to a diminished (impaired) sense of
their right to say "no."