(WOMENSENEWS)–April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but we need more than a month to address a violent act that occurs every 107 seconds in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Let’s think on that for a moment. In the time it takes you to microwave a bag of popcorn, someone is being sexually assaulted. Usually–80 percent of the time, RAINN reports–that victim is under age 30. And often–44 percent of the time– victims are under age 18.
During the 2014 launch of the It’s On Us initiative against college campus sexual assault, President Barack Obama called sexual assault "an affront to our basic humanity." No question.
In my 14 years of work with survivors of sexual assault I have found that, in the land of the free, many children and adults live in internal cages, trapped in traumatic reactions and enslaved by the assault’s continuous attack on their psyche, emotions, physiology and spirit.
I have seen how abuse shatters a victim’s sense of self. If a child is abused, there can be deeper ramifications.
We begin to develop our sense of self when we are children, and during that time we are most influenced by our external environments and people to tell us who we are and should be.
Sexual assault can rupture healthy development of safety, security, worth, trust, love, empowerment, control and self-perception. For instance, a child who is sexually assaulted can internalize the message that his or her only value is to be used by others for their needs and then grow up to be an adult focused on meeting others’ need to feel worthwhile and useful.
Since sexual assault is an interpersonal trauma, survivors sometimes seek reparative experiences through relationships, but many times the relationships become more disempowering.
For example, I worked with a female adult who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father during childhood. (All case scenarios have been modified to protect client confidentiality and privacy.) During her teens and young adulthood, she tried to have control over her body and males by flirting and attracting men. She then rejected them, which made her feel in control and powerful, but sometimes this approach brought on aggressive sexual advances that then made her feel like a victim. Unfortunately, these cycles left her feeling more empty and angry. What she avoided facing was the internal lack of power and control she struggled with constantly.
From my experience, the most devastating impact of sexual assault is on a person’s relationship with self.
Seeking corrective experiences outside of one’s self misses the deep healing that needs to occur in the places of fear, anger, pain, void and powerlessness.
When people are able to comfort and soothe themselves they can find freedom from a cycle of self-punishment and depending on externals to fulfill their emotional needs. If not, they often keep seeking it through cutting, substances, sex, stealing, shopping or food. It’s helpful to receive support from others, but depending solely on it limits one’s ability to self-nurture and feel empowered.
Internal work can be challenging because it knocks on the door of the defenses we use to protect ourselves, like avoidance, repression, denial, projection, rationalization. That’s why I say that therapy is not for the crazy but the courageous. Of course, therapy is not the only way to heal, but it’s often an effective way.
It’s important to acknowledge the courage and resiliency it takes survivors to live each day. Compassionately validate that their trauma does not define them, they define their trauma and that they have the power to liberate themselves.
Not at Fault
A defining moment for a young boy I worked with in therapy was when he said he knew he was not at fault for being sexually assaulted and that he is good. With this understanding, he felt less vulnerable to others taking advantage of him because he wouldn’t need their approval and acceptance to define him as good.
On a broader scale, how can we help contribute to prevention, increase chances of youth having brighter futures and foster safer environments?
I believe the answer lies through empowering our youth to develop their connection to intuition, engage in the process of self-discovery and giving them permission to self-protect and have a voice.
Through introspection, a female teen who had been sexually abused by her brother chose to stop talking to friends who were persistently negative because being with them sabotaged her efforts to make safe and healthy choices. She developed the ability to listen and act on her internal voice that told her what was right for her evolution. She said she realized she will always be growing and understanding herself better, and that learning from her struggles has deepened her ability to differentiate who she is from who others say she is. She strengthened her courage so she could be more assertive and stand up for herself, which allowed her to express and experience self-love.
Self- love is the kind of love that no one can take away and is always there for you. If you are a survivor, remember, you are worthy of love, including from yourself.
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