Briefly defining abuse (extract)
Written by Tonya Alexandri
Abuse is an assault on one’s sense of self and it involves violation of another person’s boundaries, which results in the loss of innate human potential. Traumatizing children in their formative years and denying them the right to dignity, ‘arrests their development and prevents the self from fully developing’ (Haddock, 2000), and basically, ‘the child or adolescent is put in a state of spending energy on survival rather than growth and self-actualization (Bradshaw, 1990). In Reclaiming Myself after Child Sexual Abuse survivors write ‘looking back in our childhood we realise that when other children were developing the building blocks for a strong identity, understanding that they were unique and worthwhile, able and OK, we were stuck in a world that taught us we could never amount to anything’ (Loon and Kralik, 2005). Especially, prolonged abuse in childhood involves attachment exploitation and abuse of power and consistent and relentless intrusion, which robs the child of his or her childhood, sense of self, space and dreams. It is a savage violation of the child’s rights and as Stone claims ‘it is a violation of body, mind and spirit’ (2004). Abusing a child involves exploiting her or his inherent tendency to love and to see their parents’ actions and behaviours in a more favourable light and during abuse ‘a child’s natural and healthy helplessness is transformed into terror and despair’ (Sanford, 2006). Thornton writes that abuse happens any time someone ‘takes away the child’s right to exclusive ownership of her body either through manipulation of the child’s feelings or by force’ (cited in Bass and Thornton, 1991). Sexual and physical abuse involve treating a child’s body as an extension of the adult’s body and ‘if body integrity is violated frequently enough, the child feels annihilated’ (Sanford, 2006) and it also means that a child is bombarded by developmentally inappropriate stimuli and knowledge, which he or she cannot tolerate or understand. Kosof has stated that ‘the child, harboring anger, guilt, and a frightening secret, experiences immense confusion. … [it] defies the belief that the parent is the source of trust, security, and guidance. It confuses the notion of affection and love. It alienates the child from the mother and father. It accelerates the child’s sexual development and destroys the normal process of sexual maturation and growth’ (1985, cited in Brookes, 1997).
In particular, sexual abuse is about abusing power and maintaining dominance over another, and it is about robbing the other of their vital inherent right to be and to have choice over their body. Although sexual abuse may seem to be a sexual act, it is motivated by urges to satisfy underlying emotional needs and a need to maintain control (Mayer, 1983, cited in Brookes, 1997). Perpetrators may compensate for their sense of powerlessness and unmet early needs by maintaining absolute power over those who cannot defend themselves. Child abuse is about reversing roles where the adult has his/her physical and emotional needs met by a child, and each time a child is abused it ‘learns that power and authority dominate human relationships not trust and tolerance’ (Allport, 1979, cited in Brookes, 1997). Through the violation of their boundaries and rights survivors are taught about power indifferences. In her book, Thinking Class, Joanna Kadi writes ‘…Widespread child sexual abuse supports a racist, a sexist, classist and ableist society that attempts to train citizens into docility and unthinking acceptance of whatever the government and big business deem fit to hand out’ (Kadi, 1973). Furthermore, during man inflicted assault and trauma ‘the victim is depersonalized, stripped away of its personhood, individuality and humanity’. It ‘shocks the body and emotions and rocks one’s basic beliefs about the self, human nature and the nature of the world’ (Matsakis, 1996). This is especially true if we consider abuse in ritualistic settings where perpetrators’ basic aim is to gain ultimate control over other human beings through torture, mind control, indoctrination and rape.
Abuse is also interwoven with issues concerning safety, vulnerability and self-esteem. Bratton (1998) claims that ‘any kind of childhood abuse violates the child’s quest for safety, second only to food and shelter in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs’ and survivors lose their sense of invulnerability and that the world is an orderly place. Stone (2004) further claims that abuse and the silence that accompanies it ‘strike at the very core of a survivor, damaging self-esteem, causing depression, limiting potential…’ and in the case of children their entire view of the self and the world will be clouded by the effects of her/his abuse. Additionally, she suggests that ‘for a child who is abused by a family member, all the meanings of family and her foundation for being-her very core-are distorted and damaged’… ‘For where is her anchor if her anchor is the source of her pain’ (Stone, 2004). As a result survivors may often feel a confusing blend of negative and positive feelings towards their perpetrators if they were caregivers and family. Sanford (2006) writes that ‘there is perhaps no form of violence in which the victim is more emotionally conflicted-both toward the abuser and toward the self than in cases of domestic sexual abuse and violence’.
Finally, abuse comes at a very high price because at some level it never ends for survivors until they are able to shed their denial and face it square in the face. Bratton (1998) actually suggests that healing begins when abuse is redefined as assault because it cracks down the wall of denial and minimizing. Meanwhile, survivors may be flooded with sensations, feelings and thoughts that they cannot assimilate or understand. They may constantly undermine their safety, their health and potential, witnessing the ongoing repercussions of trauma long after its occurrence and spending energy on suppressing traumatic experiences and coping with the multiple somatic complaints and physical manifestations of what they have been through. However, keeping traumatic experience dissociated and suppressed requires tremendous effort and energy because ‘the energy of the original trauma remains in the body like an electrical storm that reverberates tension throughout the biological system’ (cited in Bradshaw, 1990) and ultimately this undischarged energy takes its toll on survivors’ lives. Levine and his colleagues claim that trauma is not an event, but it is in the nervous system because ‘in trauma the mind becomes profoundly altered’ leaving undischarged survival energy in the body. In other words, it remains in the body and it is in the effect of the event and until these natural responses to trauma and threat are discharged or competed they will remain symptomatic (Levine and Frederick, 1997; Levine and Kline, 2006).