Child sexual abuse is often perpetrated by someone the child knows and depends on, resulting in a type of betrayal that can lead to long-lasting difficulties for the survivor. According to Betrayal Trauma Theory, a violation of trust and safety (like child sexual abuse) within a high-dependency relationship overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. This results in the survivor experiencing symptoms like dissociation, impaired memory and even a feeling of an unbalanced or fragmented personality.
Since child sexual abuse takes place within relationships, survivors tend to experience relational difficulties well after the abuse. Examples include: difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, difficulty building trust, overly attuning to another person’s needs at the expense of their own and more. For any survivor, trying to connect with others in the aftermath of abuse may be difficult. For the survivor who experienced abuse within a historically marginalized community, however, the difficulty of building connections may be even more complex.
Experiencing Oppression and Betrayal
To buffer against oppressive experiences, marginalized community members may develop a sense of intracultural trust with one another: a sense of reliance, safety, protection, loyalty and kinship. According to Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (CBTT), having intracultural trust is an important strategy for survival within an oppressive system. However, abuse can still occur within oppressed communities, resulting in a unique form of betrayal called cultural betrayal trauma.
In this form of betrayal, not only is the survivor betrayed by a person whom they believed would protect them, but they may also be betrayed by other members in the community who attempt to conceal the abuse to protect the collective (i.e., intracultural pressure). Historical events in which marginalized communities were targeted by systems, such as the legal system, has led to distrust among many communities. In turn, this may further impact relational difficulties the survivor experiences, including their sense of protection and safety within their community.
Taking the Path Toward Connection
Despite the relational difficulties that result from child sexual abuse, connection and belonging are vital human needs. Survivors may experience a longing for relationships, even though they may be afraid of them. The process of moving toward connection may be difficult as the journey involves not only learning how to connect with others, but also with ourselves. Below, I offer things to remember for those of you who are taking this journey of healing:
You Are Not Alone
While it may often feel isolating and lonely, please know that there are others out there that may relate to your experiences. Current estimates of child sexual abuse are in the U.S. are 1 in 4 among girls and 1 in 13 among boys. However, these rates may be even higher as child sexual abuse is vastly underreported. If we consider the additional layer of “keeping things in house” in marginalized communities, rates of underreporting may be even higher still. In other words, there may be more people out there who can relate to your pain than you think.
It’s Not Your Fault
Survivors often grapple with feeing like they had done something to “deserve” the abuse. However, such feelings of guilt are often taught and instilled by others. People in your life may have been “gaslighting” you (or saying you were the problem), not believed you or even blamed you for the abuse. However, you must remember: It is never ok for a child to be abused.
You may also have received messages from broader society that this was your fault due to stereotypes, hypersexualization and infantilization of your identities (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, race, ability). Thus, recognizing when thoughts of self-blame come up is vital to start discerning where that guilt is coming from and begin creating space for more self-compassion.
You Deserve to Be Heard, Believed and Protected
Being sexually abused by someone who was supposed to love and protect the child can be extremely confusing and disruptive to how worthy a survivor feels. Survivors who were further denied protection by other adults in their lives may feel like their experiences don’t matter and, in turn, that they don’t matter.
Have you ever felt this way? Shame from child sexual abuse often embeds itself deeply into the nooks and crannies of the survivor’s sense of who they are. So much so that shame can get in the way of loving yourself, despite your generous offerings of love and compassion to others. Thus, engaging in daily practices that help to build self-compassion are paramount for healing. For tips on how to foster self-compassion, see here.
You Learned Ways to Protect Yourself — and That’s Incredible.
Detecting signs of danger is something that was developed and often necessary for surviving sexual abuse as a child, as well as navigating an oppressive society. Due to the dire need for safety, you may have relied on protective strategies frequently, and they quickly became second nature. Examples of this behavior include:
- Scanning faces and body language
- Distrusting others
- Pleasing and appeasing others
- Finding ways to mentally escape by retreating into your inner world or feeling as though you are floating away (also known as dissociation).
If we think of how old you were at the time of the abuse, we can start to see just how incredible it was that “little you” figured out how to survive. Yes, such strategies may not be as helpful in other situations where abuse is not occurring, particularly in adulthood (like at work, school, friendships, or even when interacting with strangers). However, acknowledging the ways that you have protected yourself in a non-shaming way can be a step toward healing.
It’s Ok to Ask for Help
Healing from child sexual abuse is a dynamic journey. While there may be several reasons to distrust others, consider reaching out to people who can offer a private and confident space for you to share your story. You don’t have to be silenced anymore. If you were abused by someone within your family and/or community, consider looking outside of that circle. Examples include a religious or spiritual group, survivor support group, mental health agencies focused on supporting survivors, mentor, family member, friend, hotline or therapist. You don’t have to do this alone.
Amira Y. Trevino, M.Ed. (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology. She provides psychotherapy and conducts research on cultural processes in psychotherapy and the impacts of sexual abuse on multiracial survivors. She also writes poetry, op-eds and blog posts focused on social justice, higher education and trauma healing.