Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse, Trauma,
In my work with people who were sexually abused as children, the notion of a hierarchy of abuse regularly comes up. Sometimes, people diminish their own experiences because someone else has had more extreme experiences. I remind them that our abuse has many elements: There’s the physical experience itself; the effect that has on our psyches, and on our emotions – which is sometimes referred to as our ‘reactions’ to the abuse. What also impacts us is the severity of abuse, as well as the duration of it, and the existing relationship (if any) we have/had with the perpetrator. Then there’s the support – or lack of support – we get from the people around us. Trauma is caused, not just by what happens, it’s also caused by what doesn’t happen – the understanding, the support, the interventions. All these threads weave together to create the fabric of our trauma.
All traumas are not equal, and the impact that being sexually abused has can be very different from person to person. Some manage to come out the other side of their experiences relatively unscathed. Some don’t make it out alive. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle of that continuum – and slide a bit up and down it depending on how a given day is treating us, and on how our recovery is going.
Pitting survivors, and their experiences, against each other is singularly unhelpful. Pointing to someone who reveals they were abused and ‘are fine now’ as an example of how all victims should feel/act/behave without unpacking the differences in experiences diminishes the lived realities of those who were more affected.
For illustrative purposes, let’s take a look at two different, hypothetical women – Anne and Zoe.
Anne was sexually abused, several times a week, by her father from the age of three, until she was twelve, and he died of a heart attack. The abuse included oral, digital, and vaginal rape. Anne’s mother facilitated the abuse by ignoring the obvious signs of it, and telling Anne that she was a ‘very lucky girl’ to have a father who loved her so much. Anne was not believed when she disclosed to her teacher. When her parents found out she had disclosed, Anne was punished for speaking her truth. Further, her mother blamed Anne for her father’s heart attack, telling the child that her ‘lies’ had caused the stress that was responsible for his fatal cardiac arrest.
Zoe was shown pornography by a male neighbour, on several occasions, over a six-month time period, when she was eleven years old. Later, her neighbour coerced her into adopting poses similar to those in the pornographic images he had shown her. He then took photographs of her in those poses, for his own enjoyment. When Zoe disclosed her abuse to her parents, they immediately believed her, and told her that the abuse had not been her fault. They engaged with the authorities, and supported Zoe through that process. They also ensured she had appropriate therapeutic interventions.
It will come as no surprise to you that Zoe fared a lot better than Anne did in terms of recovery. To compare them, and to berate Anne for not ‘getting over it’ while Zoe carves a successful career in her chosen area, might help Zoe feel better about herself, but it’s not going to do anything to help Anne, or to help greater understanding in the community of the long-term effects of child sexual abuse.
Our experiences are unique to us, and our reactions to them are, too. To expect and ‘Anne’ to react to her experiences of child sexual abuse in the same way as ‘Zoe’ is unrealistic, reductive, and – ultimately – damaging.