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Sexual Abuse: how to cope? (8/8)


The following article was initially written by Jacques and Claire Poujol, family and marriage counselors, to be used by therapists, psychologists and counselors.

Useful for all helping professionals (social workers, doctors, etc.) but also for the victims themselves, this text helps to better understand sexual abuse, its consequences and how to help a victim cope.

© Dominique Resch

Whether you know it or not, someone in your circle of family or friends has been a victim of sexual abuse at one time or another. And if you are a psychologist, you quickly realize that this is at the origin of a certain number of their difficulties. For these bruised men and these bruised women, there will always be a "before" and an "after" the abuse.
Our society often prefers to pretend unawareness of this problem, to diminish the severity, even totally deny its existence. Or perhaps, full of good intentions but also incompetence, "solutions" are proposed to victims which only serve to worsen the trauma suffered.

In this article, we respond to several question:

What do we mean by sexual abuse?
Why is it so hard for the victim to talk about what happened?
What damage does sexual abuse cause?
How to help the victim cope?
Who are the abusers?


What do we mean by sexual abuse?

1. Duress or contact

Sexual abuse is any duress (verbal, visual or psychological) or any physical contact by which a person uses a child, an adolescent or an adult to achieve sexual stimulation, their own or that of a third person.
Physical contact is certainly more serious than verbal duress. But you must know that any abuse always provokes a trauma and is considered a violation of a sacred nature and of the person's integrity.

 Designated verbal duress: a direct sexual solicitation; the use of sexual terms; subtle seduction; insinuation. All of this vis-à-vis a person who doesn't want to hear it.
Visual duress concerns: the use of pornographic materiel; staring at certain parts of the body; the act of undressing, showing oneself naked, or to perform a sexual act in front of someone. Once again, without the spectator wanting to see.
Designated psychological duress: the violation of the boundary between relational and sexual (an excessive interest for the sexuality of one's child) or between physical and sexual (repeated enemas; a too strong interest in the physical development of an adolescent).
Physical contact may be:

fairly serious (kiss, touching the body through clothes, whether or not force is used, with or without psychological or emotional pressure),

serious (touching or manual penetration; simulation of the sexual act, genital contact, all of this with or without physical violence), or

very serious (genital, anal or oral penetration, obtained in any manner, with or without force).

2. The strategy of the abuser

Abuse is not a random act by the person who commits it. Being a deviate, the abuser premeditates and organizes the relationship while waiting for the moment where his cruel fantasies seem to be feasible. Obviously, the victim ignores all of this.

In general, this perverse strategy is made up of four phases:

a. The development of intimacy and of a relationship which seems privileged and confidential
This phase, varying in length (from several hours to several years), targets gaining the trust of the future victim who remains unaware.

b. A verbal interaction or a physical contact apparently "appropriate" for the person who will be abused (secrets of a sexual nature, caressing hair, amicable hugs). The person isn't afraid, and rightly so: in 29% of cases, the future abuser is a member of the family, in 60% of cases; it is a friend or an acquaintance. Only 11% of abuse cases are committed by a stranger.

c. Sexual interaction or sexual contact
Strictly speaking, this is the phase of abuse. Here, the victim finds herself in the same situation as a rabbit crossing the road at night and caught in the headlights of a car: petrified, rooted, frozen, incapable of reacting, he allows himself to be run over by the car. The abuser is fully aware of what he is doing to his victim.

d. The continuation of the abuse and obtaining the victim's silence by using shame, guilt, threats or privileges.

This silence is rarely broken. The abuse remains an absolute secret for a very long time.
Three survivors of the Dionne sisters, the famous Canadian quintuplets, waited until their 60's to finally reveal in their biography that they had been sexually abused by their father.
By maintaining silence, the victim becomes, despite herself, an ally of her abuser, because the one thing she dreads is to be denounced. The fact of becoming an ally, even involuntarily, reinforces her self-contempt and guilt.
This will be one of the tasks of the psychologist, to explain to the victim that a sexually abused person is never guilty or responsible. The victim couldn't guess that the first two phases were a strategy of the abuser.
The psychologist should also tell the victim that a person who is under the domination of an abuser can only end the situation by denouncing it and revealing what she has suffered. However, speaking about it is very difficult for the victim for many reasons.


Why is it so difficult for a victim to speak about what she has suffered?

1. It often takes a long time for the victim to realize that she has been abused.

Time doesn't count for the unconscious; it's as if it has stopped for the victim: it is often the appearance of symptoms such as depression or sexual problems which incite the victim to finally allow her suffering to resurface and to accept speaking about it. It's the first step toward healing.
But to talk about this trauma, to become aware of this truth: "I was abused", can be a terrible shock. The counselor will need tact and tremendous compassion to allow the victim to rediscover at her own pace the extent of the drama that she has lived through. The counselor will understand the extreme repugnance that the victim feels by admitting that her body and soul have been ravaged. The victim wants so much never to have lived that, to forget, that she will occasionally take refuge in denial: "This couldn't have happened to me."
If you believe what she says, the victim will be encouraged to continue to talk (the victim absolutely needs to feel that she is believed). Also try and avoid certain destructive phrases like:
- He just made a mistake, as we all do.
- It only happened once, after all.
- It's time to turn the page.
- It happened so long ago.

2. The victim feels guilty

Deep down, even without saying it openly, the person thinks:
- Wasn't it a little bit my fault?
- Couldn't I have avoided it?
- Would someone else in my situation have been able to resist, to fight back, to run away?

The psychologist can make progress by asking questions that the victim can't express:

- Who held the power (parental, spiritual, moral, organizational, physical, psychological)?
- Who was the adult? The social benchmark? The reference?
- Who was the instigator, the organizer of this abuse?
- Who could end it?

The therapist can help the victim understand that her guilt is linked to the gap between the earlier life (and the reasons for which the victim couldn't prevent being abused: her young age, her ignorance, her complete trust) and her current life, when the victim is older, less ignorant, less naïve and knows how to protect herself.
The victim believes she is guilty because she looks at past events with the eyes of the informed adult that she is today. At the time however, the victim didn't possess the necessary protections to prevent the abuse.
The therapist can also help the victim to differentiate the weak point that the abuser exploited, for example a very legitimate need for tenderness or a blind trust, and the crime that he committed by exploiting this legitimate need for affection or trust, to satisfy his immoral desires.
Disconnecting these two elements is often a moment of truth and a relief for the victim who takes the second step toward healing when she no longer feels responsible.
But the road to complete healing is still long. Haste and impatience are therefore strong enemies of the therapist (and of the client) in this domain.

3. Talking could cost a lot

Each time the abused person plunges back into the horror of the past, she must pay a high price. By trying to "forget" the abuse, to turn the page, she must construct a certain delicate balance, for example with close relatives.
If the victim decides to let the truth be known, she risks upsetting this invented balance and to create tension with her close relations. The victim continues to find "good advisors" who will accuse them of lying and exaggerating, reproach the victim for bringing up the past and incite her to forget, even to "forgive" because they are concerned about their own peace and quiet and have a "what will everyone say" attitude; the worst danger is that the victim risks being perceived as responsible for the abuse. Therefore, the psychologist should support the victim, encourage her and assure her material and psychological protection. The therapist will help the victim to evaluate the price of the battle to be waged to get out of the quagmire of sexual abuse and to realize that the desire to pull through will often be opposed by those who should help most: the family or people in charge of institutions.
It is to be noted that for fear of a scandal, when the abuser is part of an institution whatever it may be, the management of the institution often decides to "cover it up" and therefore to remain in denial of the abuse rather than publicly recognize the existence of a sexual deviant in the midst of the institution.
There is a consensus of disapproval for the person who has the courage bring up horrible things: the fact that she continues to be like the living dead isn't important. The most important thing is for the person to remain quiet.

4. The victim is ashamed

Sartre said that shame is "a hemorrhage of the soul". Sexual abuse marks the person with a branding iron, dirties them, pushes them to hide themselves from others. Shame is a mixture of fear of rejection and of anger toward the abuser, which doesn't dare to express itself.
The appropriate feeling that the victim should feel is anger. Feeling this liberating feeling will help the victim cope with the shame. Time is sometimes necessary for the victim to be able to express her indignation faced with the injustice she has experienced. This expression of anger can express itself in a real way in front of the abuser or in a symbolic way if this isn't possible for reasons of personal security. In any case, it is for the victim to decide.
This shame is linked to the view that the victim feels for herself; she sees herself as dirtied for life. It's the victim's view that must change. The victim will begin to heal by changing her viewpoint.

5. Contempt

In feeling ashamed, the abused person has two solutions: hating herself or hating the abuser and anyone like him. In both cases, the result is the same: the victim self destructs because hate - of herself or of another person - is destructive.
Self-contempt can be in regard to her body, her sexuality, her need for love, her purity, her self-confidence.
This self-contempt has four functions: it diminishes her shame, smothers her aspirations of intimacy and tenderness (self-contempt blocks desire), gives her the illusion of controlling her suffering and prevents her from trying to heal herself.
When the self-contempt is very intense, it can lead to bulimia, self-mutilation and to suicide; in these three cases, the person punishes her own body because it exists and it has desires.

6. The true enemy

If you were to ask a person who has suffered sexual abuse what is her enemy, she will undoubtedly respond: "It is the guilt of the abuse." This seems so obvious.
The victim has a choice: either she fights by cultivating her hate for her abuser, brooding over her vengeance against him; or she flees by trying to forget, by hardening herself to no longer suffer, by shutting herself down, by becoming insensitive so as to no longer feel emotion or desire.
But these two solutions are in vain because the enemy isn't the abuser. Of course, he presents a problem, but the good news is that he isn't the main problem. The real adversary is the person's determination to continue to suffer in her spiritual and psychic death and to refuse to live again. Paradoxically, the enemy remains in the victim herself!
This third step toward healing is without doubt the most difficult to take. The person must understand that she has life and death before her and it's her choice whether she remains dead or chooses to live again.
Once the counselor feels that the victim has made the decision to end this death wish and enter into a "life wish", the counselor will undoubtedly have the opportunity to speak with her about the three major kinds of damage that the abuse has caused in her life which must be repaired.


The damage caused by sexual abuse

This damage constitutes a tumultuous torrent which sweeps through the soul and which includes: a feeling of helplessness, that of having been betrayed, and the feeling of ambivalence, as well as several other symptoms.

1. The feeling of helplessness

The sexual abuse has been imposed on the victim. Whether it happened one time or one hundred times, with or without violence, nothing changes the fact that she has been deprived of her liberty of choice.

a. This feeling stems from three reasons

 She couldn't change her dysfunctional family, if it concerns incest. Her relatives didn't protect her as they should have; her mother or stepmother didn't see anything or pretended to see nothing.
Whether the abuse was accompanied by violence or not, whether there was physical pain or not, the victim couldn't escape, which creates weakness, solitude and despair in her. In addition, the aggressor uses threats or her shame to keep her silent and to continue in total impunity, which increases her helplessness.
She isn't able to end her present suffering. Alone, the decision to kill herself would block her pain, but she's unable to bring herself to do it, so she continues to live, and to suffer.

b. This feeling of helplessness leads to serious damage

 The abused person loses her self-esteem, doubts her talents and believes she is mediocre.
She abandons all hope.
She desensitizes her soul in order to no longer feel the rage, suffering, desire or joy. She buries and represses the horrible memories of sexual aggression in her subconscious.
As a result of giving up feeling pain, she becomes like the living dead. She loses the feeling of existence, seems a stranger to her own soul and her personal history.
She loses wisdom concerning human relationships, which explains the fact that victims of sexual abuse often become involved again with a sexual deviant, which reinforces their feeling of helplessness.

2. The feeling of having been betrayed

Many people know Judas, the traitor but ignore the names of the eleven other apostles. Why? Because most people feel that nothing is worse than being betrayed by someone who is supposed to love you and respect you. The abused person feels betrayed not only by the abuser in whom she trusted, but also by those who, either by negligence or by complicity, did nothing to end the abuse.
The consequences of the betrayal are: an extreme distrust and suspicion, especially regarding very nice people; the loss of the hope of being close to and intimate with anyone and to be protected in the future because those who had the power to do so didn't; the impression that if she was betrayed, it was because she deserved it, due to a fault in her body or her character.

3. The feeling of ambivalence

It consists in feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. Here, the ambivalence gravitates around negative feelings (shame, suffering, helplessness) which were sometimes simultaneously accompanied by pleasure, whether it be relational (a compliment), sensual (a caress), or sexual (touching genitalia), in the first phases of abuse.
The fact that the pleasure was sometimes associated with suffering causes considerable damage: the person feels responsible for having been abused, because she a "cooperated" and felt pleasure; the memory of the aggression can return during conjugal relations; she is incapable of being fulfilled in her sexuality which for her is too linked to the depravity of her abuser; she controls and even forbids herself any pleasure and therefore any sexual desire.
The counselor should explain to the person that she is not responsible to have felt a certain pleasure, because it's normal that she appreciated the "tender" words and the gestures of the abuser. It's nature that gives this capacity for feeling pleasure to human beings.
What isn't normal is the perversion of the one who premeditated an affectionate attitude to catch an innocent prey in his trap. He is the sole person responsible.

4. Some other symptoms

You might consider the possibility of sexual abuse if the client :

- Suffers from repetitive depressions.
- Presents sexual problems: lack of desire, disgust, frigidity, impotence, fear or distrust of men or women, fear of marriage, compulsive masturbation. In a child, a problem with self-eroticism, as well as bedwetting, might be caused by sexual abuse.
- Destroys oneself by the abusive use of alcohol, drugs or food. Obesity, in particular, allows young girls or women who were raped to subconsciously make themselves less attractive and therefore to protect themselves against another aggression.
- Suffering from stomach aches, repetitive gynecological infections.
- Has a very specific relationship style with others: either he is too nice with everyone, or he is inflexible and arrogant, or he is superficial and fickle.


Help the victim to live again

The victim must stop listening to the voices inside her head which maintain her feelings of guilt and shame and start listening to the voice of truth, the voice that will liberate her.
She should also abandon the dead-end solutions that well-intentioned but untrained people ("little helped" help!) suggest: deny the abuse, minimize it, forget, forgive the guilty person even if he hasn't seriously shown remorse, turn the page, stop complaining, etc.
The path leading to getting better has two steps: facing reality and deciding to live again.

1. Look at the blatant reality

Little by little, memories of the abuse will come back to the person; she will admit the damage and start to feel the appropriate feelings.

a. Dig up memories of the abuse

The victim often prefers to forget, because the memories disgust or terrify her so much. Or perhaps she tells her story coldly, as if it happened to someone else. But this denial is an obstacle to healing. The abuse should not be erased but faced.
With great tact, encourage her to dig into her past, sometimes very far back, because only a burst abscess can heal.
The return of buried memories will be progressive during the psychotherapy sessions. The person's subconscious actively collaborates through dreams or images that come back.
Sometimes, certain events also bring back the forgotten trauma, for example: running into the abuser, a pregnancy, menopause, another aggression, the fact that one of her children is reaching the age she was when she was abused, the fact of finding herself in the place where the aggressions took place, or the death of the abuser.

b. Admit the harm

This painful return into the past will allow the victim to admit the following brutal truths:
 I was the victim of one or several sexual aggressions. It is a crime against my body and against my soul.
Being a victim, I am in no way responsible for this crime, no matter what I felt.
As a result of this abuse, I suffer from feelings of helplessness, betrayal and ambivalence.
My suffering is intense, but healing is possible, if I admit there is a wound.
This healing process will take time.
I shouldn't cover my past with a veil of secrecy or shame; but I don't have to discuss it with just anyone.

c. Feel appropriate feelings

Guilt (which is a very frequent racket feeling here), shame, disgust, helplessness, hate, despair, should little by little become replaced by more appropriate feelings such as anger against the abuser and his accomplices and sadness over the damage suffered. This sadness should not lead to death, to despair, but to life, that is to say to faith, hope and renewed love.
The counselor will prefer the expression of these two feelings, in a real or symbolic manner, but always in complete security, meaning in the protected environment of therapy sessions.

2. Decide to live again

Why should the victim of sexual abuse decide to live again after everything she has suffered and still suffers? Very simply because it is better to choose life over death.

For the victim, choosing to live again means:

a. Refusing to be dead

The victim finds it normal to live with a dead body and soul; paradoxically, this allows the victim to survive, by no longer risking feeling joy or pain.

b. Refusing to distrust

The victim is wary of everyone. A raped woman in particular sees all "men" as "bad". The victim needs to learn to transform her wariness toward men into vigilance, something quite different.

c. No longer fear pleasure and passion

These two elements bring her back to the drama she has suffered, so she flees. In doing this, she deprives herself of these two gifts.
Having been the victim of desire (deviant, but still desire) of someone, she "cuts off her nose to spite her face", meaning that in rejecting the abuse she suffered, she also rejects all desire, including her own.
She needs to realize that it's not because someone had a deviant desire for her that she should abandon her own desire forever.

d. Dare to love again

She should progressively abandon her self-protecting attitude and rise from her withdrawal to once again experience the joy of loving others and to create safe and warm relationships.
She will leave her shell to find her warm heart once again, capable of taking the risk of loving those she meets. She will abandon her defenses, but that doesn't mean that she will not surround herself with protection. A protection is not a defense.
She will then discover that even if one or several people betrayed her, the vast majority of others are trustworthy.


Unveiling the abusers

1. Who are they?

The vast majority of abusers are men, young or old, from all social classes and all milieus.
They are often in the victim's circle of relations: a school friend, a neighbor, a scout leader or a youth group leader, a babysitter, a teacher, a boss, a work colleague, a priest, etc.
They are also very often family members: the father, the uncle, the grandfather, the great uncle, the step father (more and more common due to the increase in remarriages and recomposed families), the brother, the step or half-brother, the father-in-law, the cousin, etc. In this case, it is called incest or intra-family sexual abuse.
It is much more rarely someone unknown to the victim.
It is important to know that 80% of aggressors were themselves victims of sexual abuse in the past, which in no way excuses them, but can in part explain their behavior.

2. The unveiling

A victim has great difficulty denouncing her aggressor; she will more easily reveal the abuse itself. Yet this denunciation has a huge therapeutic reach and it's necessary to encourage the victim to break the silence. Once it's spoken about, words become easier and are no longer forbidden, as the abuser wished.
But this denunciation is often poorly accepted by society. As long as the sexually abused person doesn't reveal her abuser, she is considered a victim. But the day she decides to seek Justice, she is then considered guilty of having accused someone and the crime committed against her will be denied.
This is an example of the reason why the large majority of rape victims resign themselves to remain victims for life and remain quiet, for fear of ultimately being accused of the crime they denounce. But they should never hesitate to place the blame where it belongs: with the rapist.
It should be recognized however that if filing a complaint has a therapeutic scope, the legal process is long, painful and expensive. The repeated interrogations, the lack of respect and of tact of certain people , the shame of unveiling one's story before everyone, the impression of not being believed leads to what is called "secondary victimization". Each time the woman describes the rape, she feels violated once again.
Materiel and psychological support from organisms specialized in helping victims of sexual abuse is priceless in this type of procedure, even more so as the verdict, too often mild, seems disappointing and unfair to the victim and revives her pain.
If you learn of a case of sexual abuse, the first thing to do is to get the victim away from her abuser to avoid the abuse continuing.
In the specific case of abuse on a minor, the second step is to inform the competent authorities (social services and police).
The law compels you to reveal this situation and in this case, you should break the professional secret. If you don't, you can be legally considered as an accomplice. This denunciation aims to protect the victim and other potential victims and to force the guilty person to cease their acts.

3. The reactions of the abusers at their unveiling

A recent European conference on sexual violence established that 82% of abusers don't admit their responsibility (53% completely deny the acts). Only 18% admitted their acts, and then only because they had to after being confronted with their victims, and not without having accused their victims of having "provoked" them.
This negation of the facts allows them to continue in their perversion therefore being able to continue in their pleasure, the only thing that matters for them.
When they can no longer deny the facts, they admit them but minimize the importance or deny the disastrous consequences for their victims, especially if there was no physical violence. If they have remorse or regrets, it's never about their crimes, but about having been caught and having to stop.
If a psychologist shows indulgence toward a deviant because he wants to put a quick end to a situation that is incomprehensible or disgusts him, he risks being manipulated by the abuser who will pretend to be remorseful "enough" to peacefully continue his hidden deviant activity. In so doing, the abuser makes the psychologist his accomplice, which is grave.
Following is a possible reaction of someone guilty of sexual abuse: he dirties and he befriends. He dirties the victims or other innocent people by accusing them of the harm he commits; in doing so, he relieves his guilt. At the same time, he befriends those who can become his allies and his defenders (an incestuous father allies himself with his wife so she'll allow him to abuse their daughter).
A deviant who is unmasked and who refuses to show remorse can become panicked, depressed, an alcoholic or commit suicide; more often however he hardens and continues his deviant behavior in an increased manner.
It is extremely rare that a sexual delinquent shows true remorse, (at the most, he might express some vague "regrets"), but you should always give him the opportunity to apologize.

In conclusion, all therapists should be formally trained in this very special field if they wish to work with patients having suffered from the drama called sexual abuse.

Jacques and Claire Poujol
Marriage and family counselors
Web Site: www.relation-aide.com

(Extract from the book by Jacques and Claire Poujol: Manuel de relation d'aide: l'accompagnement spirituel et psychologique, Empreinte Temps Présent, 1998.)


Abus sexuel. L'enfant mis à nu, Gijsechem (Van) Hubert, Méridien Psychologie.
La personnalité de l'abuseur sexuel, Gijseghem (Van) Hubert, Méridien Psychologie.
La violence impensable, inceste et maltraitance, Gruyer F., Fadier-Nisse M., Dr Sabourin.
Le viol du silence, Thomas Eva, Aubier.
Le viol, Brownmiller Susan, Stock.
Le viol, Lopez Gérard, Piffaut Gina, Que sais-je ? n° 2753, PUF.
L'enfant violenté, Rouyer M., Drouet, Bayard.
La famille maltraitante, Cirillo S., De Blasio P., ESF, 1992.
Viol à domicile, la loi du silence, Bigourdan Paul, Delachaux Niestlé.
Violence et abus sexuels dans la famille, Perrone R., Nannini M., ESF, 1995.
Violences sexuelles en famille, Chemin, Drouet, Geoffroy, Jezequel, Joly, Erès.


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home l domestic violence | rape and sexual abuse | harassment | prostitution | homosexuals | birth control and abortion
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