The Hidden Consequences of Child Rape

The rape of a child is ‘soul murder’ and inflicts wounds that may never heal. It can lead to a long, dark night of the soul, where life holds no joy.

“The amount of sexual abuse that takes place in our country is unacceptable, and even less acceptable is our nation’s sense of apathy,” wrote Dr. Boyce Watkins on his blog this week in response to recent arrests of eighteen men (thirteen adults and five juveniles) in Texas, on charges of gang raping an 11-year-old girl late last year.

Since the inquiry is ongoing and more arrests are likely, the details of what took place are scant. However an affidavit filed to support a search warrant where the attack took place, reported in the New York Times on March 09, stated that the men involved forced the girl to have sex by threatening her with a beating if she did not comply.

While Dr. Watkins fears that the young men may not get a fair trial in Texas, a state which “incarcerates and executes more black men than any state in America,” he is also shocked at how many of his female friends were raped or sexually abused at an early age. One friend he had was also gang-raped at the age of eleven. He suggested that it is critically important that we teach young girls the dangers of being alone with men, for the trauma of rape can last a lifetime.

However what Dr. Watkins may not be aware of, or understand, is that the majority of rapes occur within a child’s home with trusted fathers, grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers, mothers’ boyfriends, family friends, and even siblings. The horrible truth is that more goes on behind closed doors than we care to believe or acknowledge.

The fact that such a gang rape can occur in a ‘civilised’ society is shocking enough, but worse is our apathy to do anything about child sexual abuse—not only because too many perpetrators are in denial that having sex with a child is necessarily a ‘bad’ thing (the ‘Sex before eight before it’s too late’ group comes to mind), but also because victims are invariably filled with pervasive, demoralizing feelings of badness created by the abuse and are therefore too ashamed to come out of hiding to reveal the secrets they have often been sworn to keep.

Apathy is why child pornography is now a multi-billion dollar business, where many images show babies as young as a few months old being anally raped. According to The New Zealand Herald in January, 2010, at least 310 adults have been convicted here for supplying objectionable material over the internet in the past 13 years. Among them, Stephen John Laing, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2008 for collecting and distributing images of babies and toddlers being raped and tortured.

Perhaps these men rationalize that no harm is done to these babies and children other than a bit of tissue tearing and bleeding, and anyway, children are so resilient they soon heal and recover. Such rationalization is the furthest thing from the truth one can find, for many therapists witnessing the devastating consequences of all types of child abuse within their adult clients years later, now call such abuse “soul murder”. It sets off alarm bells that we all need to come out of denial that child abuse leaves life-long scars that may never heal, and do our utmost to protect our vulnerable (and often not so resilient) children from such outrageous and inhuman acts.

The truth is that sexual abuse and rape dehumanises children as objects for adults’ sexual gratification. Rape destroys a child’s integrity, that is, their sense of wholeness, and often leaves them struggling with physical, mental, and emotional health problems for the rest of their lives—not to mention the heartache and anguish of not being able to form happy and lasting adult relationships. ‘Simon’, whose father anally raped him at three during an access visit after his parents divorced, brought the following words he wrote as a song to a counselling session with me while struggling to release over twenty years of repressed rage and anger…

You murderous bastard
You deflowered my soul
You ripped me in half
before I was whole
A fragile flame
a beauty then still
collapsed into the night
with the collapse of your will.
What are these emotions
These feelings inside
that erupt through my skin
like they’ve nowhere to hide;
that erupt from my skin
and fall to the floor
must I pick up the pieces
and make me once more?

This is an accurate picture of what rape does to a child. A study revealed that of 14 juveniles condemned to death for murder in the United States in 1987, 12 had been brutally physically abused and five had been sodomized by relatives as children. This does not necessarily mean that all children who are physically and sexually abused will commit murder or other violent crimes. There are, however, multitudes of ways to avenge or release the pain and trauma experienced in childhood. Another client, ‘Greg’, said while reflecting upon his childhood experience of emotional neglect, “I made a pact with the devil to live a life of hate.” It was a chilling truth upon which he had built a life of social isolation, drinking and gambling.

The struggle to become ‘whole’ again after childhood abuse can last a lifetime. Often it is unsuccessful because the toxic shame that says “I am dirty…” “I am bad…” “I’m wrong…” “I don’t deserve love…” create self-loathing and a loss of self-esteem and respect. For many, they form hurdles too high to jump.

There are many horror stories in my counselling files of sexual abuse. Most of them involved family members. One woman raped by her father at fourteen became pregnant. After she gave birth, the father buried the baby in the back yard. Unrelenting depression after she married shut her children out of her life, sending one daughter into alcoholism to cope with the deep anxiety of rejection she felt.

Sexual abuse of a child invariably creates another trauma: the betrayal of trust. Not only does it shatter a child’s world view and sense of safety, it leaves deep wounds that never heal. Sexual abuse also makes children vulnerable to further abuse, giving them what Freud called the repetition compulsion.

I became aware of this several years ago after a lawyer friend explained to me that men were hunters, capable of sensing which women they could easily have their way with. Such women, he said, invariably came from abusive backgrounds and men picked up on their vulnerability. It is therefore no coincidence that women sexually abused as children have a significantly higher risk of being raped as an adult.

What happened, I wonder, in the 11-year-old girl’s life that led to the brutal gang rape she experienced? Was she brutally raped as a very young child like the two-year-old Christchurch girl whose father repeatedly sodomised her while she struggled and screamed? The father got only ten years in prison for that. His daughter will likely suffer the emotional and psychological wounds of such a gross act for a lifetime.

If there is a fast-spreading cancer that has the capacity to destroy our whole ‘civilised’ society, the rape of our children is it.

I remember a conversation with a woman in Australia many years ago about ‘racial cleansing’ and how horrified I was when she said that the most effective way of destroying the integrity of a culture or race of people was to rape the women.

I now understand through my counselling work with women sexually abused as children, that when a woman’s integrity or wholeness is destroyed, it not only negatively impacts her ability to form healthy and lasting relationships, but also her ability to develop secure attachments with her children so vital for their happiness, health and well-being. Often she is unable to maintain a stable, safe and nurturing home environment for them because of the many mental health issues (and often drug and alcohol issues as well) that arise from childhood sexual abuse. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), for example, most often resulting from childhood trauma and abuse, usually creates a chaotic style of parenting where children grow up feeling profoundly shamed, anxious and ‘bad’ because they cannot make their parent happy, nor ever do the ‘right’ thing. The result is a ripple effect of dysfunction sent into the whole of society: a force that drives the violence and social and health problems experienced worldwide.

For both men and women, rape is the highest risk factor for developing PTSD. Numerous studies now reveal that PTSD is a significant risk factor for domestic violence, child abuse, problems in interpersonal relationships, violent crimes, incarceration and problems with the judicial system, depression, substance abuse/disorders, suicide, smoking, high risk behaviour, teenage pregnancies, eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, cancer, lung disease, asthma, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, benefit dependency, and homelessness. However, we must be careful not to remain fixated upon the problems PTSD creates and simply attempt to medicate the symptoms, as we are currently doing with millions of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. It is imperative that we remain clearly focused on the risk factors that lead to the development of PTSD, and then do something to heal the cause rather than simply treating the effect.

It is interesting to note here that according to the National Center for PTSD in the United States, the risk factors for developing PTSD for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon and childhood physical abuse. For men the risk factors are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect and childhood physical abuse. All these risk factors require our urgent attention. The development of PTSD, depression and the host of mental disorders currently identified and labelled, represent the ringing of alarms we have been ignoring too long in favour of the easier solution of developing drugs to sedate the effect, rather than making the difficult and urgent changes to the way our societies parent and treat children.

Steve Maharey, in his ‘Social Development in Action Speech’, in July, 2005 said, “The growth in the number of people relying on a benefit due to disabilities or ill health has become the single biggest issue in welfare in every country in the world.”

According to WWO, depression amongst 15-44 year-old men and women is now the second biggest contributor to the global burden of disease. However it may well be that undiagnosed anxiety disorders are an even bigger global burden. Robert Hirschfield, M.D. wrote in his research paper, The Comorbidity of Depression and Anxiety Disorders, that the “presence of an anxiety disorder is the single biggest clinical risk for the development of depression.” PTSD is classed as an anxiety disorder and, left undiagnosed, will become chronic. Once this happens, depression invariably sets in, making it comorbid with the PTSD. A further complication is that there is some overlapping of the symptoms of depression and PTSD, making the PTSD difficult to detect by those doctors lacking the training to recognise its symptoms.

Dr. Hirschfield further states that “patients who have depression and anxiety comorbidity have higher severity of illness, higher chronicity, and significantly greater impairment in work functioning, psychosocial functioning, and quality of life than patients not suffering from comorbidity.” He says that out of the anxiety disorders, PTSD has the highest rate of comorbid psychiatric disorders, including alcohol abuse.

John Briere wrote in his book Child Abuse Trauma that “it is likely that society’s problems with drug addition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide would be reduced substantially if child abuse were prevented and/or successfully treated.

The reason why nothing changes is that too many of us have either repressed, or are hiding dark secrets of abuse that are much too painful and shame-producing to confront. I continue to discover that most people do not want to confront the pain of their past and would prefer to sedate the effect in any way they can—often with food, drugs, alcohol, and even sex.

As a counsellor, and while doing the research to write a book on child abuse, I have seen adults abused as children repeatedly fail to thrive on every level—including the inability to create financial security and happy and harmonious relationships. Many live in poverty on every level.

Virginia Woolf, who was diagnosed with manic depression (bipolar disorder), suffered years of anguish and turmoil as a result of sibling sexual abuse. The way in which the men received her revelation of what a half-brother did to her when she read out her autobiographical essay, 22 Hyde Park Gate, to the Bloomsbury Group still, unfortunately, applies today. From what Virginia Woolf wrote about the incident in her diary, it clearly demonstrates why many women never speak out about such abuse. The experience left her “most unpleasantly discomfited,” she wrote. “I couldn’t help figuring a kind of uncomfortable boredom on the part of the males, to whose genial cheerful sense my revelations were at once mawkish and distasteful. What possessed me to lay bare my soul!”

It is ironic that one of the Bloomsbury Group’s stated goals was “absolute frankness.” However when it reveals unpleasant family secrets that most people spend their whole lives trying to hide, many of us ‘switch off’ our ears and pretend nothing was ever said, or exile the person who said it into the backwaters of our minds.

Judith Herman wrote in her book Trauma and Recovery:

“To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims… The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level… Like traumatized people we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future. Therefore, an understanding of psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history.”

While arrests are now being made in Texas over the rape of the 11-year-old girl, the community is being torn apart. Unfortunately that outer ‘tearing apart’ probably mirrors what has already happened to this young girl inside. It is very unlikely that she will ever find happiness in her life without a long, uphill battle to learn to replace the shame and self-loathing resulting from such heinous acts, with self-love and self-respect.

And if people are wondering how these young men could have acted in such a demeaning way, John Bradshaw wrote in Homecoming: “In my early teens I ran with other fatherless guys. We drank and whored to prove our manhood.” While Bradshaw clearly demonstrates that abused children grow up feeling powerless, perhaps Pat Conroy sums up more succinctly in his book, The Prince of Tides, the problem many men have in their personal relationships while trying to reclaim it: “I equated f*cking with power and hated the part of me where that flawed and dangerous truth dwelt.”

There is, however, a more potent way of reclaiming lost power. And that requires journeying into childhood pain to remember what caused it and connect with the feelings of anger repressed for years. Harnessed in a creative way, this anger is a powerful force which imbues us with the energy to live life. It can become a driving force to help us achieve goals that grace our lives with purpose and meaning. And for those who can develop the capacity to forgive, they will also discover the joy of peace in their hearts.

If we could all do this, we would have world peace at last.


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