The Devastating Wake of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sexual abuse leaves a continual path of destruction long after the crime has ended. Most people acknowledge child sexual abuse is heinous, but when we educate others or use legal terminology to describe the crime, we rarely capture the devastation it brings. Many avoid reckoning with the long-term impacts of sexual abuse because it is uncomfortable, frightening, and a reality they do not want to believe. It is a lot easier to dismiss a victim’s story when you do not think about what the future holds for them.

Through counseling, medication, and most importantly, my faith in Christ, I have experienced brighter days and I have rebuilt many parts of my life that I initially believed were permanently compromised. Each time I find places mutilated by my abuser’s crimes; it feels like I die another death. Because of Jesus, I am still here. It is through the assurance I have in God and His promise of redemption and goodness, that I press on, using this space and my voice to fight for greater awareness of the dynamics of abuse and its impacts, stricter laws, more victim-centered judicial processes, and for others to know that their voice matters and deserves to be heard.

I hope you will read the rest of this post, despite the discomfort it may cause. I hope when you hear about childhood sexual abuse occurring in your community, you will think about what the victim’s healing will involve before you think about what the perpetrator may lose. I hope you will have greater insight into why we cannot simply “get over it.” We did not choose this path- our perpetrators chose it for us.

I will never forget the day I realized my imagination had been broken, destroyed. I loved playing with Barbie dolls as a child. I could spend hours with a hundred different narratives to play out. When my abuser forced me to do things that a child should never know exists, it altered the lens through which I saw the world. The world was no longer a safe place. My playtime was interrupted by the new reality of what I believed (step)daddies and daughters were to do. When I looked at the barbies after the abuse started, I did not see a safe, loving, Barbie and Ken doll to take care of and nurture the little Kelly doll. That narrative was no longer my reality. Children need to engage in imaginative play for healthy cognitive, relational, and language development. Abuse steals imaginations.

I have shared in several previous posts about my experience of a man exposing himself while I swam in a hotel pool, and he was in the nearby sauna. I keep sharing it because it so clearly demonstrates how abuse destroyed the way I saw myself and my responsibilities. Though I was still in elementary school, I wholeheartedly believed that it was my duty to enter that sauna to do the same things with that man that my abuser had done to me. Had it not been for my younger siblings in the pool with me, and my desire to protect them, sweat and tears would have poured from my face in that sauna. I struggled to see a future beyond what abuse required of me. Abuse defaces self-image.

As I moved into my teen and young adult years, it became evident that the rules I lived by because of the abuse dismissed my desires in relationships. It is without question that childhood sexual abuse causes difficulties in trusting others, but it also causes difficulty in trusting oneself. I was taught not to trust my gut. My gut instinct as a child told me that what my abuser did to me was uncomfortable and maybe wrong. But the prevailing belief was that adults do not hurt children. The only way I could reconcile these conflicting experiences was to reject my gut feelings. In later relationships, I did not trust my gut instinct because the abuse narrative would hijack my cognitive processes and pressure me to yield to the desires of others. I did not believe I had the right nor the authority to reject what others wanted from me.  Abuse maims autonomy.

I think one of the most disheartening impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the sensory triggers that we literally cannot control. Over the years, many of the triggers that once plagued me daily have been desensitized- thanks to time, distance, therapy, medication, and God’s mercies. I can remember the days in high school and college when I would experience multiple triggers in a single day. Trauma triggers activate our sympathetic nervous system resulting in the perception of danger. Our fight or flight response takes over and our sense of safety evaporates. It sometimes feels like the abuse is happening again. Over time, I have learned to identify many of my triggers, but I am not always able to prevent them and I discover new ones each year. Triggers can disrupt a seemingly normal day at the most inopportune time. It is hard not to feel defeated because, in some ways, my abuser’s choices still impact me. Abuse dismantles felt safety.

I could continue with more examples of the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse but I do not like for these posts to be too long. I hope this post has provided a greater understanding of how childhood sexual abuse affects a person long after physical freedom from the abuser has been granted. I believe when we think about the future of survivors and the path they will travel toward healing, we are more likely to hold abusers accountable for the choices they make that leave such a path of devastation. Maybe then our courts will wield heftier consequences for this crime. Maybe then perpetrators’ futures will not be considered more highly than victims. Maybe then, more disclosures will be met with belief and support.  

Photo by Jim Richter on