Inspiring Courage, #MeToo and Shining the Spotlight on Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse was in the news again last week. A parade of remarkably courageous women testified in the sentencing hearing of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing scores of teenage and pre-teen female athletes over decades. Nassar also worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee, and his victims included Olympic Gold Medalists.

Many of the women described the ripple effects of the abuse that have damaged their lives over the years – depression, including thoughts of suicide, post-traumatic stress and PTSD symptoms, anxiety, issues with drugs and alcohol and self-harm behaviors, such as cutting.

Now some of Nassar’s victims are suing USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic Committee, arguing that they either knew or should have known about the abuse over the decades while Nassar was under their employ. Several lawsuits have also been filed against Michigan State University, where Nassar served as a doctor in the athletics department.

Tragic though it is, this is not an unusual story. A few years ago Penn State was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal in which coach Jerry Sandusky was found to have been molesting teenage boys for 15 years. That case finally ended just last year when the three remaining criminal defendants were sentenced.

The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the Mormon Church and dozens of other organizations have been embroiled in sexual abuse scandals. Last week Pope Francis found himself in the thick of it over accusations that the Catholic Church in Chile covered up covered up sexual abuse by one of its priests. Former Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein has been in the headlines for months

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, we’re beginning to witness just how prevalent this social epidemic really is.

If you suspect a child is being abused:

Also, school personnel, counselors and therapists, law enforcement and most healthcare workers are mandated to report child abuse.

I’ve been offering abuse and trauma therapy for many years. And there are generally two abuses in each of these cases. Survivors are traumatized and angry with the perpetrators. But I’ve also observed that people are often angrier at the parent, priest, school official, etc. who knew about the abuse and did nothing. Those who know children are being abused, and do nothing to stop it, are equally as guilty as the perpetrators.

In fact, the most important factor in how well a child will recover from sexual abuse is how the parents respond when child abuse is disclosed. Children are more likely to recover when parents respond appropriately to quickly remove a child from an abusive situation and get them into therapy right away. But when parents ignore or don’t believe a child’s reports of abuse, those children suffer prolonged trauma, along with a sense that they have been abandoned by the people who are supposed to protect them from harm. The results can be devastating.

According to the Washington Post, one young woman eventually committed suicide after Nassar’s abuse was disclosed and not immediately stopped. The story also recounted how another family was destroyed after a mother believed Nassar’s denials over her daughter’s reports of abuse.

Child sexual abuse is a tragic social ill that cuts across all social and economic barriers. And the numbers are shocking. According to statistics compiled by Darkness and Light, a sexual abuse prevention program in South Carolina:

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 18,
  • 1 in 5 children are sexually solicited over the Internet,
  • There are about 39 million sexual abuse survivors in the U.S.

Among children who have been sexually abused:

  • Between 30 percent and 40 percent were abused by family members,
  • Another 50 percent were abused by someone outside the family whom they know and trust,
  • About 40 percent are abused by older or larger children whom they know.

During the mid-1990s, I co-facilitated therapy groups for adult and adolescent child molesters. Men and women in these groups included high powered lawyers, college professors, wealthy executives, low-wage blue collar workers and middle-class office workers - in essence a sampling of everyone.

 I no longer work with adult sex offenders, but I continue to offer trauma therapy for adults who were sexually abused as children. Again, these people cut across all social, economic and ethnic lines.

Sexual abuse is extremely traumatic, and its effects can go on for decades. It takes away a child’s vital sense of safety. It is also extremely confusing, since it often happens at the hands of someone a child knows, loves and trusts. Children who are sexually abused experience tremendous anxiety, have trouble trusting and forming relationships with others and often feel that they are somehow dirty or damaged.

I've worked with young adults and senior citizens to help untangle the sometimes devastating effects that childhood sexual abuse has had on their lives. These people are inspiring examples of courage and tenacity in the work they've done to heal their lives.

 Many sexual abuse survivors experience problems that include:

  • disturbing memory flashes,
  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • dissociation - sometimes to the point of multiple personalities,
  • nightmares and insomnia,
  • problems with alcohol and drugs,
  • feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or that they are somehow bad or damaged,
  • trouble with sexual boundaries,
  • trouble functioning in relationships,
  • difficulty trusting other people,
  • eating disorders,
  • issues with body image,
  • general inability to feel good about themselves.

While these symptoms may be severe, there is ample opportunity for hope. The affects of sexual abuse can be treated. I've seen people come from severe trauma and grief, who have found ways to reach into their hearts to discover how strong and good they are, and go on to lead good lives free from the pain of their sexual trauma.

With therapy, sexual abuse survivors can learn to feel good about themselves and their lives and regain feelings of confidence and control.

 In 1896 Sigmund Freud presented his findings that sexual abuse was a major contributor to psychological disturbance. In fact, he found that all of the women in his study had been sexually abused and that their pain and suffering were directly related to the abuse. Unfortunately, Freud's findings were roundly criticized and dismissed by the psychological establishment of the day, and Freud retracted his findings. It would be decades before childhood sexual abuse and sexual abuse survivors would be taken seriously again.

Only in the last 30 years has childhood sexual abuse received the validation and attention it deserves. Now the #MeToo movement again thrust the issue into the public eye. This is a good thing because many abuse survivors never reveal what happened to them or get help healing the trauma. I hope this new attention will encourage more sexual abuse survivors to come forward, to get the help they need, to get the beautiful life they so richly deserve.

If you’re still struggling with the effects of childhood trauma, or if you believe a child you know if being abused, I’m here to help. I offer therapy for adults who were abused as children. I also have resources available for parents seeking therapy for children. You can download my booklet “Self-Care Tips for Trauma Survivors” here. You can also find more self-care tips on the Resources page of my Web site. Feel free to contact me at (812) 371-6330, or at ken@insight-counseling.org.

Again, If you suspect a child is being abused:

Also, school personnel, counselors and therapists, law enforcement and most healthcare workers are mandated to report child abuse.