The Harm of Sexual Abuse

'A study on child sexual abuse which suggested that its effects might not be so harmful on children after all has kicked up a storm in U.S. educational circles and sparked an angry reaction from lawmakers here.

The study, which appeared in the review of the American Psychological Association (APA), concluded that the effects of child sexual abuse may not always be harmful.

The study conceded that sexual relations between children and adults generally "cause harm" in young victims, leading to "severe or intense" side-effects with "an equivalently negative impact on both boys and girls." But "despite this widespread belief, the empirical evidence from college and nation samples suggests a more cautious approach," the study added.
The North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which advocates sexual relations between adults and "consenting" children, hailed the article as "good news" on its web site. "Pedophiles, including organizations such as NAMBLA, could use the study to deny that 'consensual' sex with a child is 'child sex abuse'," the Family Research Council said, warning that sex offenders could use such a defense in court.
Lawmakers point out that Bauseman, one of the study's authors, had published an article in Paidika, the Journal of Pedophilia, which they brand as "a publication advocating the legalization of sex with 'willing' children."'

Excerpted from Article questioning harmful effects of child sex abuse
kicks up storm of controversy
, Nando Times.

The study missed something, an effect that might not be easily measurable because its consequences probably wouldn't be traced to their real cause. The thing about child sexual abuse is that it teaches you at least one thing. Even if you don't think it hurt you, it taught you. That one thing is that sex is important. Very important. Important enough that this grownup, this big kid, whoever, was willing to break a lot of rules, risk getting into a lot of trouble, to get some sex from you.

Yeah, some say, rape and child molestation are not really just sex. They're about power. This is true, and most sexual things that take place between a minor and someone more than a few years older have a big element of power in them. But that power is being expressed through sex, and sex is the thing you're first learning about as a child or a teenager. Power you've dealt with all your life -- sometimes the type of power imbalance that abuse pounds home can leave scars, but sometimes it's not all that different from everything else in a minor's life. Grownups boss kids around for what the kids see as no reason -- read any children's or teen literature to see that viewpoint, or watch the movies aimed at the same audience.

But just like being beaten as a kid tends to make you used to violence as family interaction, being molested as a child, or even "introduced" to sex by someone substantially older than you with your (legally invalid) consent, tends to make you feel like sex is really important. And although sex is important in human lives, it's not important in quite the way that sexual abuse survivors tend to see it. It becomes the enticement that gets people to like you, or keeps them with you, or the thing that you can't stop pushing for in every relationship, or perhaps the thing you can't stand to have to deal with. Or all of the above at different times. All of this gets buried very deeply.

And none of these behaviors are exclusive to survivors, which is why some people are able to say, "My nineteen-year-old babysitter started me off when I was thirteen and it never did me any harm." Many of the people who say that are male; they can feel that way because it's culturally expected for men to be pushy about getting sex. Not always condoned, but it's rarely surprising for a guy to behave that way. They don't always even notice the behavior in themselves or at least don't think of it as an effect. If the sexes were reversed in their example, they'd probably at least give lip service to the idea that a nineteen-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl is wrong (although the number of web sites advertising "barely legal" women makes me wonder about what people really think).

I have a friend who exemplifies this. He was raped as a 7 year-old by two girls in in their early teens, and a few years later encountered a flasher masturbating in front of him in a train car. He doesn't think he was harmed by the first incident, and doesn't even classify the second as abuse (he was curious enough to go home and try masturbation himself). I feel that both incidents consist of people forcing their sexual desires on others without any consent even asked for, much less received. And I think my friend learned from that that sex is important, that these big people wanted it enough to take what turned them on without caring what other people wanted, and that this behavior was OK. And later in his own adult sex life, it was a big problem for him not to insist on sex when he wanted it, not to sulk like a child when his partner said "Not tonight," not to end up having unplanned-for sex outside the relationship he was in (this is not hypocritical for a polyamorist to point out, because the relationship that he was in was not negotiated as polyamorous). He's been working on these problems for years, and has much improved, but it hasn't been easy. I see it as a healing process, expunging negative habits and beliefs from the psyche, much as I try and remove the fears my grandfather's attempt to use me for sex planted in my head, gradually.

I exemplify another end of the spectrum of having it pounded into one's head that sex is important. I've had two relationships die partly because I felt "required" to give my partner sex, and tremendously stressed about this. And that kind of pressure kills any interest in sex I might have. I feel that Granddaddy Lonon was the one who really inserted the feeling of being required to; I couldn't get away with saying no to the grownup, the family member, the daddy of my mommy who mommy would tell me to listen to. I won't say my boyfriends' attitudes toward sex didn't bring this feeling back up, but they didn't plant it in my nineteen- or twenty-two-year-old head -- the fear is much too deep for their grousing and sulking to have caused.

Some people seem to see having been abused as like chicken pox -- you have a childhood disease, you recover from it quickly, you're done and immune. It's not like that, though, it's more like lower back pain. You may have wrenched your back badly once or many times, but after that have to be careful forever about what amount of weight you lift, how you sit, and anything else that might start the back at least aching, sometimes stabbing pains through you. You learn how to deal with it, the habits of being careful about the back can become second nature and you forget about the problem most of the time, but that doesn't mean a too-enthusiastic night of dancing or stretching too far to get that heavy volume off the top shelf won't land you right back in the pain.

Abuse is like that. You can work through things, find a loving, comfortable relationship to live in, stop thinking about your problems, and live a fairly normal life. But that doesn't make you immune from triggers, those situations that bring out the worst in you or the bits you still don't know how to deal with. Reaching an accommodation is a great state compared to active working through of abuse issues, though, a place I'm terribly happy to be, knowing that three years ago when some of the stuff on this site went up, I wasn't sure I'd ever reach that level of averageness.

So am I done? No. (And I wouldn't want to be completely "done" dealing with sexual abuse, because to me that implies that I would be stopping working for awareness of it and for the safety of others.) Am I better? Oh, definitely. Not cured, but better. Would I count in the psychological study as one of those who haven't been harmed, because I'm not currently in a bad space? Possibly. Would I have counted as unharmed in late high school before I started dating and the effects of having been abused became apparent to me? Probably. How about those I've met in survivor groups who are in their fifties or older before they figure out why they have the characteristics that have caused them so much trouble? I bet they'd be listed as unharmed if they were evaluated a year or a decade before figuring it out. I wonder if cases like us were considered in the results of this study before it suggested a "more cautious approach" to the idea that abuse is harmful?

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