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The Effects of Sexual Abuse in Your Life Today

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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.

Relationship with one's self
Sexual abuse conveys several messages to the survivor:
Their value is related to their body.

Broken Self

The ability to please others is more important than what they're thinking, feeling, or wanting.
Their needs are secondary to the needs of others.

Children need to 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.
It robs 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.

Relationships With Others

Boundary Issues
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.

Limits empathy
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
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). 

Effects of 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."

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
2300 West Ridge Rd.
Rochester, NY  14626
(585) 225-0330
jonathan@aquietvoice.com

Updated on 06/11/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW