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“I was four when my father first molested me,” says Dana (her name, like others in this story, has been changed for the protection of privacy), a 36-year-old program administrator in Berkeley, California. Her face and voice expressionless, she continues: “It started with fondling. He’d bounce me up and down on his lap, or make me play hide-and-seek, and then molest me when he caught me. I got very good at hiding, but it didn’t help. By the time I was 12, he was raping me several times a month.”
Until she was an adult, Dana told no one about this abuse. “My father said, “If you tell, I’ll tell everyone it was all your fault,” she says flatly. “I was sure they would all believe him. My father was a successful businessman; our family looked completely normal from the outside.”
Dana left home when she was 18; she was married at 20. “Joe was the most non-male man I’d ever met,” she recalls with just a hint of a smile. “He created a real sense of safety for me. He was completely passive, easy to control. When I told him about my father, he was very understanding. I thought that being safe for the first time in my life would be enough to make me happy.”
But eight years and two children later, the marriage ended. “I just wasn’t able to be there, emotionally or sexually,” Dana says. “In eight years I think we had sex 15 times. To the day we got divorced, we never had an argument, but we didn’t share much happiness either.” She adds, “You see how I talk about all this, without any feeling? That’s how I coped with being molested: all through my childhood, I was detached, unemotional. My mother tells me she never saw me shed a tear after I was eight years old. Shutting down was the best I could do as a child. But it just didn’t work for me as a wife.”
A 1985 study conducted by the Los Angeles Times concluded that at least 22% of all Americans–27% of all women and 16% of men–have been victims of child sexual abuse. Like Dana, most of these children never told anyone: only 3% of the abuse was ever reported to police or other agencies.
Incestuous abuse is any kind of exploitative sexual contact between relatives that occurred before the victim turned 18 years old, and it accounted for 23% of the abuse victims in the study. 41% were molested by friends or acquaintances; 27% by strangers. Two-thirds of those victimized were girls and 93% of their abusers were men. Not all abuse involves intercourse but the effects are similarly devastating.
The Psychological Effect
“Untreated sexual abuse,” says Padma Moyer, MFCC, a San Francisco therapist who works with adults survivors of incest, “is a time bomb. Sometimes it ticks so quietly that even the victim doesn’t hear it. But if it isn’t defused, eventually there’s an explosion.”
The fallout from this explosion was reported in the book, Father-Daughter Incest (Harvard University Press, 1982), by Judith Herman. She found that 65% of adult incest survivors suffered from severe depression; 55% had sexual problems; 35% became promiscuous; 20% became alcoholics and/or drug addicts. For many adults who were molested as children, self-destructive behavior is the only visible clue that abuse has occurred. Selective amnesia is common among survivors, whose memories may be blocked by years of threats to “keep Daddy’s secret–or else,” and by the tendency of the childhood psyche to repress traumatic experiences.
Marriage is the spark that ignites the time bomb within many survivors, says Eugene Porter, MFCC, an Oakland, California therapist who counsels couples in which one or both partners is an incest survivor. “Making the commitment to marriage brings up all the issues connected with the betrayal of being molested: intimacy, trust, sexuality,” concludes Ms. Moyer. “And when marriage is perceived as an obligation to take care of their partners’ sexual needs, it recapitulates their worst childhood experiences–being trapped and unable to say no.”
If the abuse hasn’t been resolved, victims blame themselves for the molestation, Mr. Porter says. And the resulting disturbances – depression, anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem–often put a strain on the spouse. “On the one hand the spouse feels the urge to cure the survivor; on the other, there’s a resentment about having to take care of this vulnerable, fragile, often withdrawn partner,” he continues. Survivors often have difficulty forming close emotional relationships and trusting their partners. Many female survivors project the rage they feel toward their fathers onto their husbands.
Mark, 35, a copywriter in Oakland, California and his wife Ellen, 31, an accountant, says: “When Ellen and I first got together she told me she’d been molested by her brother all through her childhood. Neither of us knew at the time how much that would affect our relationship. All I knew was that every time we started feeling close to each other, Ellen would freak out: she’d accuse me of cheating on her; she’d say she knew I was planning to dump her; she’d start threatening to leave me before I could hurt her. Then she’d go into a deep depression,” Mark sighs. “Meanwhile, I was getting hurt, because no matter how I tried, I couldn’t convince her that I loved her. Finally, Ellen started seeing a therapist. Then she figured out that she was afraid to trust me; she thought I’d betray her the way her brother had.” When Ellen first asked Mark to see a therapist with her, mark was resistant. “I thought it was her problem,” he recalls. But eventually Mark agreed and now says that therapy saved their marriage. “She started being able to distinguish me from her brother,” he says, ” so she could interpret our interaction as it was–not as a replay of what he’d done to her. That took the pressure off me. I stopped feeling like it was my job to prove that she was entitled to be loved. We’re a lot more relaxed and loving now.”
Sex is a particularly problematic area of marriage for molestation survivors, whose most traumatic memories involve sexual acts.
Jane, a 35-year-old nurse in Oakland, California remembers almost nothing of her childhood years. But she knows that both of her sisters were raped repeatedly by their father, and her own out-of-control behavior and nightmares have convinced her that she, too, was sexually abused. “Before I got married, I’d sleep with anybody,” she says. “But with my husbands, I was totally disinterested in sex.” Sighing deeply, she adds, “I’ve never been able to believe that there’s any reason to make love besides that it’s how men use you. I’ve never had an orgasm. I’ve never been able to say no to a man, and I’ve never felt close or cared for.”
Many incest survivors have “flashbacks” while making love, says Julie Robbins, LCSW, a therapist specializing in child and adult survivors of sexual abuse. Women who had orgasms while being abused as children may punish their bodies for “enjoying” the abuse, becoming non-orgasmic, obese, or anorexic as adults, she says.
Some male survivors suffer impotence, most often under circumstances reminiscent of their molestation. “Men who have been molested, particularly by their mothers,” says Mr. Porter, “experience a tremendous amount of guilt. Society thinks of mothers as sacrosanct, virginal, so the self-blame among these men is acute. Also, mothers who molest often transmit an expectation of fidelity to their victim sons, which distorts male survivors’ view of what fidelity means. One patient of mine thought he was abnormal and deceptive because he occasionally fantasized about women other than his wife. Another was totally compulsive about sex as a reaction to his molestation by his mother, who had been quite insistent that she be his ‘only one.’”
Alcohol and drugs are used to dull sexual responsiveness, a well as the pain of repressed or remembered abuse.
“Until I started therapy last year at the age of 36,” says Laura, a legal secretary in San Mateo, California, “I had no idea why I could never undress in front of my husband, let alone have sex with him, unless I was completely drunk. Or, why I used to get smashed at parties, or whenever there were any strange men around. Now my memories are coming back; I know that my father was messing with me and I know I used drinking to keep myself from realizing why I’ve been so terrified of men all my life. But now I have two problems to deal with: being molested, and being an alcoholic.”
Breaking the Cycle
Perhaps the most devastating effect of childhood sexual abuse is that it has proven to be a key link in the multigenerational chain of emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Parents United, the nationwide incest treatment agency in San Jose, California reports that 80% of the sexually abusive parents, and 60% of the physically abusive parents they treat, were themselves molested as children. And, it is highly likely that children of untreated survivors of molestation will also be abused, both in and outside of their families. Eighty percent of the molested children treated at Parents United have mothers who were sexually abused.
How can adults who have suffered the anguish of childhood sexual abuse do the same thing to other children that was done to them?
Some molesters have sex with children because low self-esteem (due to self-blame for their childhood molestation) convinces them that no adult will willingly have sex with them.
Many women who were abused perpetuate the cycle – not necessarily by molesting their children, but by putting them at risk. “If a female survivor’s feelings and memories remain unconscious,” says Ms. Moyer ,”and she doesn’t examine the family dynamic in which she grew up, she may choose a husband like her perpetrator, and create a family like her own family. In that way, she may inadvertently lay the groundwork for her children to be abused.”
The tragic repercussions of multigenerational abuse can be prevented. In the past 10 years, researchers and therapists across the country have developed specialized treatment techniques that can help to heal the wounds of childhood sexual abuse, and thereby lessen its impact on future generations. “When people deal with what happened to them, and the pain of it,” says Ms. Moyer, “they’re much less likely to re-enact it.”
Mr. Porter advises survivors of sexual abuse who are considering marriage and/or child rearing to tell their partners that they’ve been molested before proceeding. Therapy for one or both partners, and relationship counseling is recommended. “In my experience,” he says, “most women tell their fiancées; most men don’t. But the first step toward establishing healthy family is establishing honesty within the couple. Often the safest way to disclose is to come in as a couple and work it through together in the safety of a therapist’s office.”
What can a couple expect from the therapeutic process? The “disclosure phase,” Mr. Porter says – the breaking of the secret – often precipitates a good deal of stress in the relationship. The survivor worries about being rejected; the spouse feels confused and disoriented, wondering how he or she should feel, should treat their partner, etc. And, while feeling bad for the partner, they may also feel anger–a “why didn’t you tell me?” reaction. Therapy can help navigate these complex responses.
Spouses of survivors who must have ongoing relationships with their abusers often experience a range of intense emotions. “The first time I met Ellen’s brother,” says Mark, “I wanted to murder him…slowly and painfully. It was the strangest feeling to realize that this man was not only the person who had hurt the woman I love, this was also a man who had sex with my wife. Neither Ellen nor I could stand to be around him. First we stopped going to family gatherings; then we moved to California, partly to get away from him.” Ms. Moyer says that the relationship between an incest survivor and the person who molested her is usually either non-existent or problematic. “Survivors whose offenders are still living,” she says, “have a variety of ways of coping with that relationship. Many simply cut off contact. Many have minimal contact.”
Ms. Moyer states that counseling offers other great benefits. “It’s a stressful thing to go through,” she says, ” but it can also be a time of building a bridge of intimacy that can bring incredible love and solidarity.”
Dana began therapy shortly after her divorce in 1980, to work through the aftermath of the abuse she suffered from her father. A few years later, she was married for a second time. “This time around, marriage is really working for me!” she asserts.
“And I can safely say that being in therapy made all the difference. It’s been very painful, but worth every teardrop. For the first time, I went beyond knowing in my head that the incest happened – I connected with my feelings about it. Now, I don’t’ retreat emotionally the way I used to. I’ve learned to say no, and strangely enough, that’s helped me to become more sexual. I used to just do it and not be there, but now I’m able to acknowledge I’m a sexual person.”
But the greatest reward of the healing process she has gone through, Dana says, is watching her two children grow up happy and healthy. “I’ve taught them they have control.”
Working through this issue makes it possible to make conscious choices and to break old patterns. Says Ms. Moyer: “People who work to heal from child sexual abuse are changing the legacies of future generations.”
Edited for readability from: meredithmaran.com/mag_bride_abused.htm
Meredith Maran is the author of many books including My Lie: A True Story of False Memory. She’s on twitter @meredithmaran