Someone sent me a question the other day about sexual abuse and about the book The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy. I’ll admit, it’s been a few years since I read the book, but from what I recall, Clancy, who is a psychotherapist, makes the case that classifying sexual abuse as a “traumatic” event is often inaccurate and does those who work with “survivors” and the “victims” themselves a disservice because it isn’t necessarily how they experienced the event and that incorrect bias makes it harder to actually help them.
I remember thinking at the time that I read it, that a lot of what Clancy said was spot on, but I worried that if her ideas caught on in a superficial way (as scientific ideas often do) it would lead to there being less help for “survivors” of sexual abuse. –I use quotation marks because I take issue with a lot of the language that we use around trauma and abuse, but that’s another post.
Anyway, as someone who was officially abused as a kid, I did realize that there is something important that I do want to say about the experience of being sexually “abused” as a kid. And that is: Sex Feels Good.
OK, from what I’ve heard, having vaginal, penetrative sex with a male for the first time can be painful for a girl. So, there’s that. And being forced to have sex with anyone is obviously scary. But I’m not talking about rape here. I am talking about most sexual abuse. Sexual abuse most often occurs with someone the “victim” knows, usually trusts, is often a parent or a close friend of the family. Children who are neglected in general are more likely to be abused. And the abuse most often takes the form of fondling and petting and other light sexual activities.
So here’s what we really have most often: a child who is mostly ignored and doesn’t get touched very often is fondled, kissed, and used for oral and digital sex by someone she (cus it is mostly she) knows well and is expected to trust. Now obviously this is likely to be confusing. Especially for a child too young to really know what sex is. It is a new set of experiences and feelings. The child is likely to feel ambivalent. What she is not likely to feel is horrified. Or afraid. She is much more likely to enjoy it. Remember, she doesn’t get touched very often and she has some level of trust for the person. And SEX FEELS GOOD. I mean, come on. Really?
Most of our first voluntary sexual experiences were likely to be fairly embarrassing. We’re often engaging in them with someone of the opposite gender who is as inexperienced sexually as we are and we have hang-ups about our bodies and whether we will be any good at it and how the heck their bodies work and we’re hormonal nightmares as it is.
But that’s not what’s going on with most child molestation. Horrifying as this sounds, the molester probably knows about giving and receiving sexual pleasure and the child doesn’t have anything to compare it to or any hang-ups. It’s just a physical act that is confusing maybe, but mostly not painful. And I’m guessing that a lot of little girls, as I did, kind of liked it.
Am I saying it’s good? Of course not. Am I saying it hasn’t caused any problems for me as an adult? Hell no! But, to be honest, I think the biggest problem for me has been that I was taught after the fact to feel really ashamed of what had happened. And I honestly think that that shame has caused more problems for me as an adult than the original abuse did.
Kids aren’t great at understanding complexity surrounding an issue, act, or event. So what I mostly took away from the whole experience was that me feeling sexual pleasure was BAD!!!! That there was something deeply shameful about my own sexuality. Now THAT, my friends, has caused me trouble. A lot more than the skeezy caresses of “Uncle Bob” originally did.
Now you may be thinking, “What did they say to that child?” Well, not much, honestly. His roommate asked me if he ever touched me, and when I said “yes,” she said, “Why didn’t you tell him no?” Well, because it never occurred to me? Because I didn’t know that I ought to? Because it felt fucking good, you witch, now leave me the hell alone! (Of course I said none of that at six years old.) And when the police got involved after that, they asked me what I wanted to have happen to him, and I answered: “I don’t want anyone to hurt him because he is still my friend.”
See, kids don’t process things the way we think they should or the way a psychology text book says they do. They mostly think: “This guy is paying attention to me. And it feels kinda weird. But it feels kinda good, too. And oh no, don’t hurt him, he’s the only person who is nice to me.”
And yeah, I think we need to figure out how to get skeezy old men to stop using little girls for their sexual pleasures. But as far as the little girls are concerned? I think we need to be damn certain that we don’t accidentally make them feel like they have done something wrong or that their sexuality is inherently bad. So that’s what I have to say about that.