Recognizing and Treating Sexual Abuse – Part 1

I define sexual abuse as a roadblock to healthy sexuality resulting from events or traumatic experiences that arrest healthy sexual development. Most sexual abuse survivors have other areas of their development which are affected as well. Sexual abuse impairs the development of a healthy ego and many times results in inappropriate sexual behavior, negative body image, sexual acting out or the reverse which I call sexual anorexia. This can carry into food anorexia as well.


Sexually abusive behaviors occur in the form of both overt and covert behaviors. The overt behaviors lend themselves to the legal description rather than the clinical description of abuse. These behaviors relate to sexualized touching such as fondling, penetration, oral and anal sex, and kissing.


The covert abuses are often less physically intrusive but are not less damaging. Many victims I have worked with have experienced verbal sexual assaults, name calling, exposure to pornography, voyeuristic acts and emotional seduction by a caregiver or parent. The behaviors of visual abuse also may include exposure to inappropriate nudity. It includes voyeuristic and exhibitionist behaviors. Some survivors I have worked with have described these events as feeling “stared at” or “looked at” in an invasive way, while others report having had holes drilled in the walls of bathrooms where someone was watching toilet activity. Visual violations happen with children as well as in the workplace with adults in the form of sexual harassment. Survivors of this type of abuse often minimize its effects, not thinking it is actual sexual abuse. The latest recognition of sexual harassment has generated more interest in the covert forms of abuse, offering more concrete ways to define it.


Part of what is being discussed may also be classified as emotional incest because the behavior is not overt in nature. I define emotional incest as when children are used to meet the emotional needs of a parent or caregiver. When children are pulled into the role of meeting the emotional needs of the parent as either a surrogate spouse or parent, it damages their ability to be present in their adult relationships, is a setup for a variety of obsessive behaviors especially over-eating and sexual acting out.

Children’s sexual boundaries are violated when this happens and it clearly interferes with healthy sexual development. Many times, survivors of childhood sexual abuse will vow to not hurt their children in the way they were hurt, but will all too often do it in a different way — through verbal, visual, or emotional abuse. Emotional incest is similar to physical incest in that it also leaves the child feeling powerless, in other words, they do not get to choose whether to meet adult needs and they are not equipped to do so.

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