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19 May, 2015

I’m going to stick my neck out a bit with this topic, but I’m hoping that the central message will be reassuring to some survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

When I was doing background research for my first paper on the sequelae of childhood sexual abuse, among the other papers I read was one in a prestigious clinical social work journal which posited that the psychic damage to survivors was due to an inability to discharge the sexual tensions aroused during their abuse.  The author actually said, in effect, that if the victims had developed the capacity for having an orgasm, they’d have been fine – that if they’d have been able to have orgasms they would have had no symptoms in adulthood.

If the reader of this has read my other posts, she or he will understand my outrage at that hypothesis.  It focused solely on sexuality at the expense of of the powerful dynamics of horror and rage in the genesis of the symptoms that follow such abuse. I wanted to take that author to task in my paper but was forced to delete my comments about it by the journal that published my research.  While I understood my disdain was out of place (journal articles are not an appropriate venue for criticism of other authors or their views), I was disappointed, and I was concerned that there were those who might read that author’s hypothesis (deeply rooted in century-old psychoanalytic principles) and believe it, published clinicians tending to have an aura of expertise implied in their publishing.

That being said, what about the possibility of a victim experiencing some sexual arousal during their abuse?  Can it happen, and what does it mean?  One survivor in a group I was conducting was unusually forthcoming about that.  She had been molested regularly by an older brother starting early in her school years.  She recounted not only some arousal in some of the incidents but her preference that she be the recipient of stimulation rather than manipulating her brother.  She agonized that the fact had made her a “slut” from the time she was young and was tearful in recounting those episodes and her subsequent view of herself.

While it is true by far that incidents of sexual abuse do not always result in sexual arousal, it can happen.  Unfortunately, to say the least, there are proponents of sex with children who point that out and claim they are simply introducing minors to sexual pleasure and the methods of inducing same.  That means nothing when it comes to those instances in which any victims felt aroused.  I hasten to add that childhood sexuality is a reality, however uncomfortable for adults (‘normal’ ones at least) to accept. It is more than normal for children to “play doctor” with each other.

Here’s the thing:  A victim does not have any more conscious, executive control over sexual arousal that might occur than she does over her heartbeat or digestion.  Arousal is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, the same system that keeps us breathing when we sleep and makes us perspire when we are overheated.  Absent any immediate emotions of terror, betrayal and repulsion to override it, arousal is possible.  However, as exemplified in the survivor noted above, that hardly persists as pleasurable or fond memories.  Quite the contrary, it is just one further source of distress for some survivors.  On top of that, any pleasure experienced does nothing to mitigate the eventual well of horror and rage that power symptoms.

Those survivors who may have experienced any sexual arousal should not take it as a sign of the complicity they are so often accused of, nor as a comment on their character.  Neither should adults blame them any more for that arousal than for their heartbeat increasing with exertion.  Childhood seduction of adults is a myth, pure and simple.  It is the adult who allowed their perversion to lead them to abuse who is at fault, always.

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