In my last article on the categories of sexual abuse, I gave an overview of four different types: subtle, confusing, overt, and ritualistic. I briefly touched on what makes each one unique and difficult to work through.
In this article, I will expand on the Subtle Type of sexual abuse, why it is considered abuse, and why it can be difficult to work through during Counseling. Many people don’t identify this as abuse. But when this type of abuse is overlooked, it continues to take place. When its impact is minimized, it is very difficult to heal as “there should not be anything wrong.” On the other hand, when the specific events that took place are acknowledged, the full impact can be understood and this is where healing can happen. Classifying this as abuse is not meant to point a finger, but rather to allow appropriate understanding, make sure further wounding is not passed on, and to heal.
First, labeling it sexual abuse might make many people uncomfortable. Is that because they don’t really think it is abuse? Should it have a less offensive name? Or is it actually a very common, incredibly serious problem that many are not willing to face? My stance is towards the latter because to minimize this particular issue leaves far too many people wondering what is wrong with them instead of taking appropriate action to heal.
Subtle abuse is one where you might not realize how much it affected you until years later. You might have a vague feeling that there was something wrong, but have a hard time identifying the source. Even if you have an idea about what it was, most people would prefer to say that it wasn’t a big deal or that it didn’t really affect them. Often, somebody dealing with subtle abuse experiences symptoms of:
- Dislike or hatred of the body
- Intimacy issues especially dealing with sexuality
These symptoms will likely be present with no understanding of why they exist, or where they came from. If a person has an idea of what happened, they might not understand why it is affecting them like it is. They will likely continue to minimize what happened by telling themselves that they are overreacting, or that they shouldn’t be feeling what they are feeling. However, these thoughts and feelings are more accurate than most are willing to admit, and they deserve attention in order to heal.
A woman remembers being shamed as a young girl after walking in on a movie that her siblings were watching right as a violent rape was taking place. She acts like it didn’t affect her, but inside she is deeply wounded and doesn’t have the ability to understand what happened. Now, she just wants to pretend it never happened and wasn’t that big of a deal. Thoughts and images roll around in her mind as her young mind attempts to make sense of what she came in contact with. The images still live in her mind to this day.
A young child stumbles upon pornographic material. The images are new, interesting, and exciting, so the child begins devouring the material as if it were candy. The child might even have an idea that they are not supposed to be looking at the pictures, but now that their minds have been opened to that world, it is hard for them to stop thinking about it. Something has been awakened prematurely and from a very early age, their sexuality has already been impacted and altered.
Some families are overly overt about talking about sex in non-age appropriate ways. It is a dinnertime subject of conversation. Other families will never talk about it at all. It is the most off limits, taboo, shameful thing you could bring up. Both sides of the coin speak to issues of overexposure or neglect and are both harmful. Neither side treats sex with the respect and holiness required. Sex is extremely powerful. It is meant for good but is often used for harm. If not handled with respect and an understanding of its power, someone is going to get hurt.The reason this needs to be treated seriously is that it adds layers of immature experience and understanding about sexuality that can prevent people from developing intimate relationships to the degree that they were meant to. If a young child is exposed to pornographic images, then their views on beauty and sex have been altered. When someone is teased about body related issues they will likely have insecurities about their body, develop an eating disorder, deal with depression or struggle with anxiety. When a family holds a distorted view of sex, the child will do so too and that misguided view will be woven into every romantic -and sometimes nonromantic-relationship that they enter into.
I would encourage you to take a close look at your thoughts and feelings about sex. You might ask yourself these questions:
- What messages did I gain from my family or church about sexuality?
- Do I have any shame around issues of the body or my own sexuality?
- Did I run across any pornographic material as a youth?
- Is there anything that I am hiding in my mind that I especially do not want anyone to know about?
- Why do I act and feel the way I do about sexuality and my sense of masculinity or femininity?
Quality Christian counseling can be especially powerful for working through sexual abuse. When scripture is used well, it offers a powerful ability to give us a baseline morality, healthy relationships, and true understanding of love. But what is most important in any conversation about sexual abuse during counseling is that it is talked about with lots and lots of grace.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.net – “Sex Mouse” by Danilo Rizzuti and “Girl Looking Angry and Annoyed” by Stuart Miles
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