What sexual abuse steals from its victims–and how they can get it back

Scared young girl with an adult man's hand covering her mouth
Young people who are sexually abused by someone they love are through that trauma robbed of something essential that those never so betrayed keep intact with them throughout their lives: their ability to trust in themselves to know when they are safe and when they are not.

The lesson abused kids learn is that in their lives no safety zone exists. They live in a state of feeling constantly vulnerability. They never know who they can and can’t trust. They lack (they believe) the instincts others seem to have for anticipating from what direction harm is going to befall them.

The one thing that the poor victimized child learns right away is that life cannot be trusted. What they have imprinted on every fibre of their being is the certain knowledge that at any time, from any direction, and by any person, they can be obliterated. And when that inevitably happens to them there will not be, they believe, anything they can do to stop it, because (they believe) they lack an internal warning system.

They believe they are incapable of telling the difference between someone who loves and will protect them and someone who will harm them. And that, they believe, means that they cannot trust anybody.

What a horrendous burden to place on a kid.

But the great thing about kids is that they grow up. We all get to develop into people more equipped for life than any child can possibly be. Age and knowledge bring power. And chief amongst the powers granted the adult who was abused as a child is the ability to go back and really look at what happened to them. To see it not as the child they were but as the adult they are.

And what can they see in their past? They can see that what happened to them happened to them. That it absolutely wasn’t their fault. That it doesn’t mean they have to spend the rest of of their lives distrusting everyone, or fearful of becoming emotionally vulnerable. That it doesn’t mean they can’t trust themselves to know the difference between a good person and a bad person. That the love they felt for the person who took advantage of that love and ultimately used it as a weapon against them doesn’t mean anything but that the person who hurt them is a tragic, deeply tweaked human who is or was operating far outside the pale of everything that is healthy and good.

They can see that they were just innocent kids stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that there’s no shame in that. And there’s no such damage done there that can’t be undone by simply calling it what it was: an adult or older person taking terrible advantage of a younger person who trusted and loved them.

They can see that it wasn’t about them. That it was never about them. That it was always only about the sickness in the heart and mind of the person who victimized them.

They can see, and they can learn, that what happened to them is not their baggage to carry. They can see that it’s not their burden.

They can see that they are perfectly free to once and for all put that weight down, and walk away from it.

One of the most onerous legacies left to the victim of sexual abuse is the feeling they’re alone in their pain: that only they know the shame and fear they do.

Below is a table I made based on data that I gleaned from two sources: a 2009 study published in Clinical Psychology Review that examined 65 studies from 22 countries, and a 1994 study published by Princeton University, Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Abuse.


If you are a victim of sexual abuse, you are hardly alone. As you can see from the table, you belong to a group that consists of at least 625,544,337 others.

You weren’t wrong; you have nothing to fear; and hundreds of millions of people share you’re experience.

You’re okay. You’re more than okay.

You’re righteous.

I’m the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question:

unfair-cover-xsmallPaperback. Kindle. NookBook. Signed and inscribed by me according to your direction.

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  • BarbaraR

    This is awesome.

    And may I say that it doesn’t apply only to children who were victims of sexual abuse. This could easily have been written for anyone who grew up where no safety zone exists. My childhood home was completely given over to being co-dependents and enablers of an adult alcoholic and this is exactly how it was for me too. Thanks, John.

  • Yes, I’m so glad you said that, Barbara. Exactly right. Thank you.

  • Guy Norred

    Thank you for this. I wasn’t abused as a child, but it helps helps me put two and two together about someone I know who was.

  • I wasn’t abused sexually, but verbally and emotionally. You’ve described so much of what I experienced – it’s so hard to feel safe.
    Telling me I’m not wrong and I don’t have to fear, that I’m okay – well, it’s everything I need to keep hearing. Thank you, very, very much.

  • BarbaraR

    Despite being happily married four years (together 11), I still have a hard time asking for what I want for fear that it will cause him to do something bad or not love me.
    I hear you.

  • Matt

    Thank you for re-writing and re-posting, John. One of the thoughts that frequently comes into my mind is, “I’m not looking for perfect, just someone I can count on.” You eloquently expressed why.

  • anakinmcfly

    Thank you for this. I also wasn’t abused sexually, but my mother deeply ingrained me with the fear of it – for instance not allowing me to be alone in a room with my uncle or grandfather or cousin “because they might rape you”, even though none of them had ever shown any inkling to that nature and had shown me nothing but love. It made me doubt that love, be constantly suspicious and fearful and keep my distance from them, and be incapable of trusting anyone or my own judgements of character, because that ‘what if’ was always there at the back of my mind, and is something which still affects me deeply to this day.

  • Pavitrasarala

    I’m sorry your mother did that… at the same time, I honestly have to wonder what happened to your mother or what was going on inside her to cause her to behave that way. A normal, sane parent does not typically identify their own family members as potential sexual predators.

  • Pavitrasarala

    Thank you for writing this. I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and incest. I also have experienced other types of abuse from the same people who sexually abused me – often other types of abuse are reinforcers for controlling and silencing victims – and I agree emotional, verbal, and physical abuse can produce the same outcome without sexual abuse in the mix.

    I experienced what John described and more. I ended up with PTSD and a whole host of other problems that affected my ability to function as a parent, spouse, friend, worker, etc.

    I’ve been able to get help through a lot of intensive counseling, EMDR, and other techniques/resources I’ve tried, some of which have worked, some not so much. I’ve met some amazing people online and in person who have literally saved my life, including my husband, who did volunteer work that crossed paths with sexual abuse victims before I met him. Because of his experience, he knew something was up with me before I ever said anything. You can’t tell me God didn’t set that one up.

    I’ve been trying to pay forward the blessings I’ve received by volunteering for an organization that helps survivors of sexual abuse and rape, and by supporting friends I’ve met in real life and online who have disclosed that they’ve been abused. I’ve learned a lot from listening to other survivors and from my own healing journey.

    Yes, we survivors can grow up, we can see it wasn’t our fault. At the same time, we often need to hear that message from others and get all the help we need to find resources and support so we can heal. We can end up so broken and devastated that we need an outside voice to guide us, be it God’s, a friend’s, someone, anyone, so we can take that first step to getting our lives back.

    Sadly, it’s harder to get that support than it should be. Many people still want to discount survivors. The majority of the time, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim and to others, and others do not want to believe the perp is “that kind of person.”

    Many times the abuser is in a position of authority, from parent to police officer to pastor, and are usually on some sort of pedestal, if not within the community then within their own families or among their buddies. Case in point: Everyone in my birth family is so wooed by the power and stature one of my abusers carries, and that they grant to him, that it was all too easy for him to brand me as a liar and turn our relatives against me when I finally found the courage to tell. Talk about an experience that makes you question if you really know people anymore and vice versa.

    Many people also want to blame the victim, still, even in the 21st century, and even when the victim is a minor. Look at what that 11 year old girl whose gang rape made headlines a couple years ago got put through – oh, she dressed provocatively, she is older than her years, so she must have wanted it. The fact that she was only *eleven* and therefore developmentally and legally incapable of giving consent was completely dismissed by some! That’s an outrage, it’s disgusting, and it shows how deeply flawed parts of our society still are to cling to such beliefs.

    That kind of mentality is so ingrained in incestuous families. Victims are automatically invalidated and ostracized, perpetrators are often on a pedestal and blindly defended. That has been my experience, and in my volunteer work for an organization that helps other survivors, that is sadly a very common occurrence I hear about over and over. It also allows the cycle of abuse to continue because then others prone to abusing, or who are conditioned to believe it’s okay, can see that they can get away with it, too.

    Perpetrators depend on the isolation and shame survivors feel to keep getting away with abusing them and others. Ditto with the power that comes with intimidating their victims into silence, and the cover they get from people who defend them. Often an abuser will claim multiple victims before they get caught the first time – IF they get caught. Resources I’ve read said the number could be anywhere between 7 and 70 victims, but let’s be honest, even one is too many.

    It’s not only the rejection I experienced when I tried to warn others in my family about my abuser that was disheartening. It’s the knowledge that he has the potential to continue hurting others and get away with it, and there’s not a damn thing I can do. It would have to take other victims coming forward when there shouldn’t have to be more – and there wouldn’t be more if they were willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of those who can’t defend themselves.

    I don’t know what I would do if I heard that he did indeed hurt someone else. I’m not sure if I would be able to provide support, or if I’d just be hollering in rage at everyone that they shouldn’t have been so stupid. God only knows if anyone else in the family would be willing to talk anyway, now that they’ve seen how everyone handled my coming forward.

    The victim-blaming, invalidation, and isolation can end up being a prison that keeps us survivors silent and blaming ourselves well into adulthood. I know of victims who don’t tell what happened to them until they’re elderly – and I can’t imagine how many take the secret to their graves.

    This is why it is so important for those of us who have survived abuse, and for those of you who always believe, support, and love us survivors unconditionally, to educate, educate, educate. We must eradicate the ignorance and stupidity that comes with defending perpetrators and blaming the victim.

    We have to keep pushing for a change in societal attitudes. Even if all we can do is create a tiny ripple within our own families, friends, or local community, that’s still something – and we can pray that eventually those ripples will touch, so that maybe, one day, very few if any people out there will believe rape and sexual abuse are acceptable on any level or in any culture.

  • anakinmcfly

    I think part of it was that she grew up in a Muslim country, and while not Muslim herself she internalized a lot of the social beliefs around it – e.g. that adult men are all sexually raging animals who cannot control themselves if given the slightest opportunity. She also had friends who *were* abused by their relatives when young, so I guess she projected a lot of that fear into me and wanting to protect me from that. And, well, it does happen, scarily often, as John’s article points out, with kids being molested and raped by family members they loved and trusted. So I understand where she was coming from, but it still sucked.

  • Pavitrasarala

    That makes a lot of sense… and yes, that really sucks. I’m sorry you and your mother went through all you did.