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Section 23
Traumatic Sexualization & Boundaries

Question 23 | Test | Table of Contents

Finkeihor and Browne (1986) described traumatic sexualization as the shaping of a child's sexual feelings and attitudes in a manner inappropriate for the child's level of development. For example, traumatic sexualisation may produce concerns about a homosexual identity in a young male molested by an adult male; sexual dysfunctions; overall confusion about sexual matters; and interpersonal relationship problems.

Homosexual 'identity'
It is clear from what has already been said that Mike and Stephen were confused about their sexual identity in response to their abuse. When boys are sexually abused by other males, fears about homosexuality are common. The experience of a homosexual act contradicts the child's understanding of sexual relationships. A victim may worry that he is homosexual; that there must have been something about him that was recognizably homosexual for him to have been singled out by another male. In seeking an explanation for why he was selected, self-blame and guilt are common responses. A male may attribute his selection to a particular aspect of his appearance, his speech, his clothing or any other personal characteristic that might be perceived as effeminate and to have contributed to the assault. Through perceiving himself in this way the male victim may blame himself for having attracted the abuser. If he does not actively resist the molestation this may be taken as further proof of his lack of masculinity. He may be sexually aroused which creates further conflict in his sense of sexual identity and he may define himself as homosexual.

He may fear that the abuse experience will make him homosexual and that others will think he is homosexual. Not only do male victims worry about these issues, but their parents and others related to the victim may also be affected by these fears. Parents of molested boys frequently asked about the possibility of this outcome.

Identity Confusion
The more closely the victim is psychologically identified with the perpetrator, the more intense and exacerbated are his sexual identity issues. Significant males, such as fathers and father figures, play a large part in the formation of the psychosocial identity of young males. When sexual abuse occurs between a boy and a psychologically close male, the victim is likely to be left with a confusion about his sense of self-identity as related to his identity struggles with the offender. This struggle may be conscious, causing severe distress and confusion, or unconscious and therefore integrated into the self-identity; the victim becomes psychologically identified with the aggressor. Such internalized messages as 'Like father, like son' and 'I am my father's son' may contribute to these sexual identity confusions.

In this situation a child will make the psychological adjustments that lead them to believe that the abuse is a consensual act. Neither Stephen nor Mike was in a position to consent - or to refuse their consent. Consent requires that the person is fully informed about the nature of what they are consenting to. As children they were not in a position to understand such information even if it was offered, and of course it wasn't - any discussion about sex was taboo within their home. Consent also requires that the person is able to refuse; as children and adolescents neither of them was in the position to refuse. The inequality of power and dependency in the relationship negated any possibility of refusal.

Most people understand that a small child is not in a position to say no when an adult abuses them. What is harder for us to understand - and this was very true for Stephen and Mike themselves - is why, as young men of 16, 17 and 18, they were not able to say no. The fact that the abuse had continued into late adolescence and young adulthood was a source of deep shame for both men; it also reinforced their view of the behaviour as homosexual. Stephen hid the fact that he was 18 when it stopped even after he had overcome the shame of admitting his victimization: 'Mike and I tell each other what happened to us. BUT I don't tell him how old I was when it finished.' It was nearly two weeks' later that he was able to admit this to his brother - even knowing that Mike had been 18 when he had stopped his own abuse.

Effects on Sexual Development
What neither of them was able to recognize was that children who are sexualized at such an early age are traumatically stuck in the addiction created by the arousal that overwhelms them and does not allow them to move on. It is often very hard for adults working through their abuse to admit to having been aroused and there is often judgment for those that do. When Stephen told his mother he had enjoyed it at the time, she reacted badly - making him feel guilty and responsible. The word 'enjoyment' is often confused with 'arousal'. What children feels is arousal and not pleasure. Arousal is a healthy and normal response to being sexually stimulated - it is important to separate out these two words if the adult is to be helped to reclaim his rightful ownership of his sexual feelings. Ejaculation is also confused with orgasm; ejaculation is a physical outcome of sexual stimulation, while orgasm is how the person feels emotionally. It is possible to have one without the other (Zilbergeld 1995).

This confusion is clear when Mike writes in his letter to his grandfather: 'Of course I enjoyed it - you'd been training my sexual responses since I was practically a toddler.' The child is trained by the adult to behave sexually - much as a dog can be trained to perform tricks. Mike recognizes this too: 'How did you get me to do it to you-I really don't remember - it was always there; just a learned response I suppose, like Pavlov's dogs.'

Once the child reaches puberty and can ejaculate, the experience takes on a whole new meaning. The powerful physical sensations during ejaculation fix the addiction in a way that traps him. Stephen recognizes something of the trap he is in: 'I can't break the habit of ejaculating with you. WHY, OH WHY, OH WHY?'

The abuse is like a drug - the addiction is every bit as powerful and we would not expect an 18 year old to walk away from heroin or cocaine, having been addicted from early childhood. Why then should we expect someone who has been sexually addicted to walk away from the abuse before they were able to recognize and meet the underlying need for attention, affection, privileges and gifts - the rewards that are received in return for sexual favours? Mike displays the addict's response of self-disgust after the craving has been met - the cost of short-term gratification is a growing long-term loss of self-esteem. The physical need for arousal that has been engendered in the child is also part of the addiction; so like drug addiction, there are both physical and social aspects of the addiction of sexual abuse.

Even his physical response is marred by its addictive quality. Addictive sex brings no sense of satisfaction. The boy becomes aroused by stimulation; arousal is followed by ejaculation but this is not followed by resolution as in the normal sexual response pattern. There is no relaxation but rather a sense of frustration that takes the boy back to the beginning; to the craving for a new arousal - hence the fruitless search for more that drives the boy back again into the addictive behaviour: 'I remember telling you how odd and shameful I felt after ejaculating, ha! And asking if you felt the same- no you didn't really understand did you?'

Research into sexual compulsiveness or addiction described by Hunter (1990) shows that 37.1 per cent of men and 65.2 per cent of women members of Sex Addicts Anonymous reported that they were sexually abused as children. Many other compulsions are also noted as well as sexual addiction; compulsive eating, drug and alcohol abuse are among those often noted. In Hunter (1995) useful innovations are described for the treatment of compulsions and addictive behaviours manifest as outcomes of childhood sexual abuse.

Compulsive masturbation can become a way of re-enacting the abuse - not by abusing others but by abusing themselves. The re-enactment is of the victim role but this time the abuser is also the victim. Raine (1999, p.193) explains: 'Reenactments are emotionally driven attempts to master the overwhelming too-muchness of the traumatic experience. The compulsion to re-live is an attempt to master the terror, helplessness, and rage of "mortal danger".'
- Etherington, Kim, Narrative Approaches to Working with Adult Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, Jessica Kingsley Publishers London, 2000.

Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking
of Minors in the United States

- IOM (Institute of Medicine) and NRC (National Research Council). 2013. Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information about traumatic sexualization. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

The more closely the victim is psychologically identified with the perpetrator, the more intense and exacerbated are his what? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 24
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