Mental Aftereffects of Sexual Abuse/Incest
When the child’s physical boundaries are violated, his or her mind is also violated. The insidious nature of the mental abuse can be explained by using the analogy of the reactions of a deer when its eyes are exposed to the headlights of an oncoming car. The deer becomes so disoriented by the blinding light that it jumps toward the car instead of away from it–so it is with the child who has been sexually abused. Once abused, the child believes his or her body is something that others control.
Frequently, survivors protect their psyche by way of a dissociative response. Survivors report they .left. their body or .checked out,. .zoned out,. so the abuse happened .to my body and not to me.. The signs of a dissociative state are .freezing,. .spacing out,. difficulty with concentration (diagnosed as ADD), forgetting, staring, emotional numbness or unreality. All of these states hinder the person in achieving healthy, appropriate functioning. Reality is defined by the perpetrator who uses many methods of distortion and deception. Frequently, the perpetrator tells the victim that what she or he thinks is happening is really not. Often, the abuse is ignored or even denied by everyone in the family. Anyone who dares to discuss the topic is told that they are crazy, that it never happened. The fairy tale, The Emperor.s New Clothes has become the family dynamic. The survivor is subsequently labeled a .little liar,. who cannot be trusted.
Another violation of the child that causes mental trauma is to blame the victim; this is done by convincing everyone (usually the mother) that the child .wanted. or allowed the sexual contact and enjoyed it.
Additionally, perpetrators often rename the abuse. The sexual activity is presented as a .game. and the perpetrator is .choosing. the child as his special play partner. Effects of this type of sexual violation cause the victim to place uncertainty and shame upon themselves; victims may wonder, .What is .wrong. with me that I feel so ‘bad,’ and ‘yucky,’ when this is supposed to be fun and I was chosen because I am special..
Perpetrators use a plethora of explanations to justify the abuse; they tell the child such things as, .I am doing this so you will know what sex is about.. A female client’s father used sexual abuse as punishment for bad behavior. If she and her sister had sibling arguments, the punishment for her, the older of the two, was to perform oral sex on him. She explained, .How my mother did not know this was going on, I do not know. He took me into the family room, unzipped his pants and told me to take his penis in my mouth. I complied for fear of other more grave consequences..
No matter which justification technique is employed, the outcome remains the same–the child learns to distrust his or her own view of reality. Even more traumatic is when the abuse takes place after the child is asleep. Frequently, the child reasons and believes that his or her only defense is to lie still and act as if they are asleep, hoping the abuser will leave. Sometimes the child cries out, assuming the parent will stop because .they are being hurt..
In some circumstances, the abuser may act as if he or she is comforting the child after a bad dream. The child is then faced with a reality dilemma, .Did I dream it or did I experience what I think I experienced?. The abuser does not discuss it openly; if he does, the motive is to dissuade the child from believing the experience. This covert abuse is particularly powerful in convincing the child not to trust his or her thoughts and perceptions of the world.
As described in physical aftereffects, dissociation is a common response for survivors. Dissociation also affects mental aspects of sexual abuse and incest. Unfortunately, the dissociating response often continues into adulthood and many people dissociate, even in situations that are not abusive. This response keeps them emotionally distant and unable to achieve a high level of intimacy with others, or to function effectively at work. Frequently, people such as this are given labels, such as: .stupid,. ‘air heads,’ ‘slow,’ ‘ADD,’ obsessive compulsive disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizoid disorder of childhood or adolescence, schizoid personality disorder, or other schizophrenia types. In some incidents, survivors who use the dissociative response are diagnosed as mentally retarded. These same misdiagnoses are placed on children who have been physically punished.
One of the most damaging aspects of sexual abuse is the development of a ‘victim mentality’. When a person is abused and then left to cope with it alone, they begin to form a defeatist belief about themselves and the world around them. The abused child sees the world around them as unsafe, unpredictable, dangerous, and uncontrollable. ‘No one can really be trusted,’ becomes their belief system. Furthermore, the victim has learned from being abused that what she or he thinks, feels, does, wants, or needs makes no difference. Although the abuse has stopped, he or she continues to perceive himself or herself as ineffective, powerless and worthless. A person with a ‘victim mentality’ frequently asks questions such as, ‘Why?’ ‘Why me?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ They conceptualize the abuse as, ‘happening,’ rather than ‘my mother or father hurt me,’ because the reality is too painful to accept. They perceive themselves as powerless to change anything, as was the case when they were abused. This belief system persists until the core wound from the abuse has been healed.
The .perpetrator mentality. is the most insidious aspect of the sexual abuse and/or incest trauma. While the .victim mentality. is one of self-blame, the .perpetrator mentality. is one of other-blame. These two debilitating mentalities fit together perfectly–the survivor believes she or he is to blame while the perpetrator believes the survivor is to blame. Even more disturbing is the fact many .perpetrator mentality. beliefs are accepted by overall society. The perpetrator leads himself to believe such things as: .The child seduced me.. .I couldn’t help myself.. .What was she doing wearing only her panties in the living room?. He describes the child as a seductress. In other words, he is saying, ‘I can’t control myself and it is [his/her] fault.’ Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, et al, promote the perpetrator mentality. under the protection of the freedom of speech act.
If the perpetrator does not blame other people for the abuse, he may blame circumstances for it. For example, parents often report crowded sleeping arrangements as reasons for the abuse. However, researcher S. K. Weinberg, Incest Behavior, 1955, reported that frequently when children were .forced. to sleep with a parent and were sexually abused, there were other alternatives and space limitation was merely an excuse to justify the behavior.
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