Recently I read a book written by a 17-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by a family friend from early childhood into her teenage years. In the comments section, an Amazon reviewer wrote, “She tells somewhere in this book there are some experiences she doesn’t want known,” then the reviewer went on to suggest that she only shared experiences that would suit her narrative and not those that might incriminate her. Wow! I have no idea what that reviewer was thinking, but I do know there is a secret among survivors that produces untold guilt and suffering until it is properly understood.
That secret is that there can be pleasure even in unfathomable pain. God created men and women to find sex enjoyable. There are certain parts of our anatomy that produce pleasurable physiological sensations when touched. This is true for both rape victims and children who have been sexually abused. Most people are surprised to learn that orgasms can occur in both scenarios. There is nothing more mortifying for an adult survivor of sexual abuse than to remember how her body responded in a pleasurable way to actions that repulse her! If she fails to grasp that these responses were natural and in keeping with the way God created human bodies to react, she will be filled with shame and the mistaken belief that she somehow became a willing participant. To complicate matters even more, sometimes due to these pleasurable feelings and professed “love” from the abuser, a child will begin to seek the attention of her abuser and even unwittingly “invite” more abuse! I suspect the 17-year-old author of the book I read may have been alluding to such confusing experiences.
Added to the anguish of her own physical responsiveness is the mental torment that occurs in a child’s heart and mind when a relative or friend she trusts acts in ways she cannot possibly understand or consent to. Eventually, she will grow to realize those actions were taboo, and her sense of shame will be heightened by any pleasure she felt, any positive emotional connections with her abuser, and the false guilt that results from feeling complicit in decisions she was too young to fully understand. The abuser may even accuse a child of enjoying his actions and threaten to tell others if she discloses what happened! Consequently, many sexual abuse victims do not share their experiences for years, if ever. The resulting self-loathing may manifest in self-destructive ways like anorexia/bulimia, over-eating, sexual promiscuity, or cutting. The burden of false guilt and shame can be truly overwhelming. Sometimes the mental suffering from abuse is so great that memories are suppressed for decades, only to be experienced later in life in the form of unwelcomed flashbacks and body memories that lack proper context.
There are indeed many confusing aspects of sexual abuse that survivors may not acknowledge even to themselves. Yet, it is important for these realities to be explained in a way that can free survivors from burdens of false guilt. They may find it helpful to talk with a licensed counselor or trained sexual abuse advocate about these aspects of their experiences. Unfortunately, family and friends, religious leaders, and even casual observers like the Amazon reviewer who read the story of the 17-year-old, can add to a survivor’s burden of false guilt by their own lack of awareness. The reality is that all sexual abuse is not painful in the moment it occurs. The pain may not be fully experienced until the child becomes an adult and remembers what happened and any role she mistakenly believes herself to have played in her own victimization.
Jesus said, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck, than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2). That is how Jesus feels about perpetrators who remain unrepentant after causing their victims such harm. God knows when a crime has been committed, and he knows who is actually responsible! He does not blame survivors for the way their bodies naturally respond to sexual touch and neither should they blame themselves. If you have been carrying this type of false guilt around, please let go of the confusion of self-accusation and place the responsibility for the crime where it truly belongs—on the adult(s) who were in the room! It is helpful to always remember that an underage child or teenager is incapable of giving informed consent regardless of the perpetrator’s accusations or her memories of how she responded.
Recently, I looked up the Hebrew word for “broken” after meditating on Psalm 51:17: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite (humble) heart you, God, will not despise.” The Hebrew word for “broken”, shabar, means “to break in pieces, to smash, to shatter, to bring to birth.” Often when we read Psalm 51 we think of repentance of personal sin as in the case of King David’s sin with Bathsheba. However, as a survivor of sexual abuse, I know it is also possible to be broken by someone else’s sin, the false beliefs that result, and my misguided responses to those false beliefs. This is what happens when we blame ourselves for crimes committed against us. Our hearts are broken in response to someone else’s evil actions, coupled with any erroneous perceptions we hold. This verse helps me to understand that my shattered heart can become a sacrifice I offer to God in prayer rather than hiding from my pain any longer or punishing myself with false guilt. This verse assures me that God does not despise my brokenness, but rather longs to restore me to a place of heart-felt worship. My brokenness creates an opportunity for Him to birth something new in me—something true and in line with his knowledge of all that he created me to be. Genesis 1:31(a) tells us “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” This includes little boys and girls whose lives have been broken by someone else’s sin. My God is an expert at putting shattered hearts and lives back together again when we surrender all our broken pieces to him.