Monday, January 23, 2012

THRIVING After Childhood Sexual Abuse
One Size Doesn't Fit All

Teri HatcherTeri Hatcher (Image via Goods? I don't think so.

In the wake of the death of Joe Paterno, and the scandal that overwhelmed his legacy in recent months, I want to bring up a new angle on the whole issue of sexual abuse of children.

I won't ever argue that childhood sexual abuse is a good thing.  I think we can pretty much all agree, it's a horrible thing.

BUT... at the same time, I am concerned that the outcry over the (alleged) Penn State scenario  - kids seduced and/or forcibly raped by a powerful pedophile over the course of many years, while those in a position to stop it (like Joe Paterno) knew and did little to end it - actually goes a little too far.

"These boys' lives are ruined forever!"  "These kids will never be able to live a normal life!" "They should <insert horrible torture here> to that man because nothing is as bad as what he did!"  We keep the names of a rape or assault victim hidden in news reports to "protect" her (or him).

Outrage and anger is much better than turning a blind eye or condoning abuse, yet...  Along with the outrage, we are sending the message that being a victim is something shameful, something from which no one ever really recovers, that once you are raped or assaulted, you are damaged goods forever.

I'm not suggesting that childhood (or adult) sexual abuse ain't no big thing, or that those who experienced it should just "stop whining and get over it."  However, from the victims' perspective, there are many different layers of hurt and recovery.  I know from personal experience.

I have been molested (boyfriend's dad, age 12), date-raped (17) and stranger raped at knifepoint (19).  The experiences have impacted my life, absolutely.  Even substantially changed the direction it might have taken.  Still, they did not ruin my life, my sexual expression, or my future.  I refuse to feel ashamed of violence directed at me by some a$$clown.

What happened to me isn't a big secret, though I don't put it on my job resume, or out front upon meeting new people, "Hi, I'm Beverly, I write rom-com novels and I've been raped and molested a couple times.  Nice to meet you."  Really, how would somebody respond to that?  "Nice to meet you, have you tried the cocktail weinies?"'

I have met and become friends with many people who have experienced childhood sexual assault in various forms; to themselves, to their spouses and stepchildren, and sadly, to their own children.

I do support anonymity for victims of assault who prefer not to be assaulted a second time by the press trying to obtain a scoop.  (When I was raped at 19, the local paper listed my age, the street I lived on, the "hundreds" block, and my place of employment.  So anybody I worked with, or my neighbors, reading the local paper, wouldn't have had much trouble putting the pieces together.)  These days, it wouldn't surprise me to find reporters actually walking into my house if I left the door unlocked, or hacking my e-mail.

Still, I also support those who do come forward, names and all.  Because getting assaulted or raped, at any age, is no more the victim's fault than having a plane fall on you.

Abuse and assault is part of my life history and experience - it doesn't define who I am.  I'm even a little repelled by the term victim, because it feels like there's something a bit condescending and smugly complacent in its usage - we always feel sorry for the poor victims, whether of sexual assault or hurricanes, don't we?  (Not that I have a better alternative word.)  I don't care for "survivor," either, because that conjures up an image of a plane crash, filthy clothes, and someone barely clinging to life.  In the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, surviving as a goal isn't enough, we want (and deserve) to THRIVE.

I'm well aware that one size doesn't fit all - not in clothing, not in experiences or attitudes. Although my childhood was majorly screwed up in a variety of ways, I was also blessed with a healthy sexual education and was taught to believe that sex was a normal, desirable, and rather fun part of life, not something dirty or nasty of which I should be ashamed.  I've experienced slut-shaming (and unwelcome sexual advances) by men who would've liked to have made me feel bad about being a sexual person, but it only swayed me for a little while.

I'm not suggesting if you or someone you love, have experienced childhood (or adult) sexual assault, that my life or attitudes are the way you/they "should" feel.  I do want to encourage you that not only surviving, but thriving is possible.

Damage and recovery is impacted by who the abuser was; who, if anyone, ignored, condoned, or supported the abuse; if the abuse was one incident or many over a long period of time; how old the child was; his or her personality; what her/his experience was when s/he disclosed the abuse, and the support s/he did or did not receive.

Tyler PerryTyler Perry (Image via fourteen-year-old who gets flashed by a stranger in a parking lot will probably not be as traumatized as the child who is molested every other weekend by Grandpa beginning when s/he is eight and going on till s/he is eleven or twelve.

Still, rather than constantly dwelling on the terrible damage inflicted on childhood victims of sexual assault, I think we should spend as much or more time talking about the recovery, the possibilities for growth and bright futures, even for those who've been abused.

Reality: even those who have experienced horrific assaults upon their bodies have usually recovered and gone on to live successful  and productive lives.

Oprah WinfreyTyler PerryJaycee DugardTeri HatcherElizabeth SmartThis brave young woman, going by the name of Gypsy. Elisabeth Fritzl.

As one friend who was sexually molested by a neighbor beginning she was about eight, continuing for about a year, discussed with me, when somebody is in a car accident and it's reported in the news, usually there's also an accounting of the victim's condition.  "So-and-so is in serious but stable condition at This-and-That Hospital.  She is expected to make a full recovery."  There's an implied social expectation that most people, even if severely injured, will recover from physical injuries.

Absolutely, psychological wounds can be deeper and harder to predict.  Recovery can take a very long time - and there can be relapses, and dark times when the most "recovered" person struggles to get through the day, week, or even year.  Sadly, some who experienced childhood sexual abuse do become depressed, and even commit suicide, but that isn't the way the story has to end.

We all have the power to write a happy ending to our story. No matter how horrific the experience, no matter how terrible our internal demons may be, we still have the strength to defeat them.  If we believe recovery is unlikely/impossible - it will be.  Part of why people learn to believe that is because of lies told by our abusers - that we deserved it, that's we're unworthy, that no one will want/respect us if people know what they did to us.  And part of it is because society sometimes reinforces those lies, by making sexual abuse something that nice people don't talk/think about.  By engaging in language that is victim-blaming, rather than empowering.

Which is where everyone can help.

If you are not living in a cave, but have friends and family, you know people who were sexually abused as children.  Even if you don't know you know them, because they have never talked about it to you.

Create a safe space for children and adults by:

If I didn't know (now) this was Ted Bundy, serial rapist
and murderer, I would think he was hot.
  • Dropping the "rapists/child molesters are creepy-looking, easy to spot" mythos.  Actually, they look just like everybody else.  The press often feeds into this by posting the scariest-looking, most unflattering photos of those arrested or accused of sexual assault they can find.  The unspoken message that is delivered to victims when people talk about how gruesome a rapist looks is, "You should have recognized that s/he was a pervert, and stayed away."
  • Teaching children they have autonomy over their own bodies.  No tickling (unless they ask to be tickled, some kids do love it), no having to kiss Aunt Gertrude or sit in Santa's lap if they don't want to.
  • Educating yourself about sexual assault and rape.  While it's good to educate children about "Stranger Danger," most child molesters are not random strangers, but a family member, family friend, teacher, coach, or neighbor, who has groomed the child by befriending him/her and building trust for a long time. Be aware of signs that a child seems uncomfortable around an adult, especially if this is someone who's been a best-buddy until recently.  No matter who in the family it may be, do not dismiss the idea of sexual assault being possible, because your sister/husband/cousin would never do such a thing.
  • Teaching children proper terminology for body parts.  Penises, vaginas, vulvas, nipples.  Do your best not to impart shame to children about the way genital stimulation feels good, if they remark upon it during normal bathing processes.  Or at other times.  "Yes, Billy, it does feel good when you touch your penis, but it's not polite to do it when we're watching movies together as a family.  If you want to share the popcorn, you need to go wash your hands now."
  • Being approachable.  If a child begins to speak to you and tells you, "I don't like when we go to Uncle Jack's house," don't either shut them down and tell them they're silly, or launch into a white-light interrogation.  Tease out, if you can, why the child doesn't like Uncle Jack's house.  Maybe it's because Uncle Jack always yells when they change the TV channel, or they don't like Uncle Jack's grouchy parrot, or maybe it's something more serious.  If there is something troubling going on, a child may or may not tell you right away.
  • Talking with other adults; admit how frightening you find the subject.  Talk about your own experiences, being mindful about creating a conversational place where a victim would feel safe to share.  Be conscious of whether what you have to share is in any way victim-blaming, "Why didn't those kids say something?" or "How could the parents not know?"  
  • Avoiding the chest-thumping, self-aggrandizing statements, "I would have charged in there and kicked some a$$."  Unless you have already behaved so in a similar situation, you don't know that.  And even if that's true - so what?  You didn't save those kids in that situation, but you want people to give you a medal or pat you on the back for being a potential hero?  How does such a statement serve anything but your ego?

If a child confides a sexual assault to you:
  1. Believe him/her.
  2. Ensure the child's immediate safety.  Better to "embarrass" a friend or family member over a false alarm than endanger a child.
  3. Contact the authorities.
  4. Give the child verbal, and if desired by the child, physical reassurance via hugs, etc., that s/he did nothing wrong.  That s/he is brave and wonderful in your eyes.
  5. Tell him/her that you are so glad and proud s/he told you, not "Why didn't you tell me before?"
  6. Save your fury and wild grief and other extreme emotions for a time when you can safely vent, away from the child.  S/he may have hesitated to tell you, because s/he feared you would react dramatically.
What other tips do you have about making it safe for a child, or an adult victim of rape or childhood sexual assault, to speak out?  Are there any myths you'd like to see busted?  Do you have a story you feel safe to share?

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