Article – A Divided Heart

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

Recovering From The Sexual Confusion Of Sexual Abuse

Published in The Association of Christian Counsellors Magazine
Summer 2005

In films there is a classic situation when the devastatingly handsome hero will instantly hate the stunningly attractive heroine but we all know by the end of the film they will be in each others arms. Unfortunately this is not the case in real life where love hate relationships usually end in disaster for both people.

For many people the reason they are so confused and divided emotionally in relationships is because they are dealing with the after effects of child sexual abuse. Pamela Stephenson writes in her biography of her husband Billy Connelly “Billy” ‘survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience sexual confusion in adulthood’ adding ‘Billy was no exception’.

Sadly Billy Connelly is far from alone. In 1991 a survey was done by the Child Abuse Studies Unit of North London and revealed that one in two girls (59%) and one in four boys (27%) will experience child sexual abuse by the time they are 18. (Definition of abuse: any event or interaction which the victim reported as unwanted/abusive before the age of 18).

More recently arrests and convictions for offences relating to child pornography on the internet more than quadrupled between 2001 – 2003. Home Office figures show 2,234 people were cautioned or charged with crimes in 2003 compared with 549 two years earlier. It is important to remember that each image represents a child being abused and this is inevitably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to child internet pornography.

For twelve years I have been running a support group for women who have experienced child sexual abuse called “Into the Light”. The group is a ten week course in which we focus on our behaviour patterns and styles of relating. Through the group I have witnessed the devastating sexual confusion and trauma left by the aftermath of sexual abuse.

This can happen on many levels; from a chance meeting with a stranger at a party to actually being in a relationship but running away when a certain level of intimacy is reached. But the story always has the same ending – you are running from something on some level you really desire. In essence you are experiencing deep ambivalence.

Sexual ambivalence

For most victims of abuse the ambivalence is most likely to be tapped into at moments of sexual awareness. This could be an attraction to another person or it could be at the moment of making love to your partner.

Ambivalence is particularly prevalent if the abuser was known intimately to the victim, for example a relation. If you are fond of the person and even love them and have a good relationship with them, the confusion of that person then going onto defile you understandably leaves your mind in chaos. A manipulative abuser who may notice body responses will even use this as a way out of taking responsibility and infer the victim “enjoyed it”. You can see how easily this could happen to a young man who is abused. This is of course totally untrue but leads to often a chronic sense of shame and false responsibility – as the very thing that was so despised brought some degree of pleasure.

This is especially true if there was very little love or support in the child’s life and the abuser was one of the few people who offered relationship or affirmation. Proverbs 27 v7 sums it up well: “To the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet”. Something you legitimately needed turns into something horrific and violating. It is a bit like biting into an apple and realising half way through you have eaten a maggot.

This ambivalence lives in the child into adulthood to confuse and distort the past, present and future.

Relationships with the opposite sex are confusing

Sexual pleasure is then connected with the betrayal and powerlessness of abuse. This carries on into adult relationships where legitimate sexual pleasure or even just a flirtatious incident carries shame and hatred, when it could be something that should be enjoyed and entered into. Relationships are then marked with the conflicting feelings – desire and disgust. This makes it very difficult for everyone involved in them – perhaps in no more area than that of dating and marriage.

This cycle of behaviour can continue for many years until perhaps a confrontation happens and you are made aware of a behaviour that is after all very subconscious. Tragically this could be at the point of divorce or when there is a relationship breakdown. Certainly my husband had a lot to put up with when I started dating him. As a victim of sexual abuse I felt incredibly ambivalent towards intimacy and ended the relationship every Wednesday for a year! I wanted to be with him but I did not like being in a relationship where I felt I was in danger of being hurt and betrayed. I also struggled with feelings of attraction and repulsion at the same time as the memories of the abuse often hit me on a very unconscious level.

Killing Off All Sexual Desire

Camila Batmangheldjh in her article “Life On The Edge” (CPJ Journal October 2004) discusses the therapeutic work she has been doing with children who have experienced extreme abuse, violence and neglect. She talks about how traumatised children “undergo a psychological transformation … they shut down their capacity to feel … in short term this a common reaction to traumatic events but in the long term when the defence of being emotionally shut down is sustained, the child is deprived of a rich emotional repertoire…. These emotionally cold children fail to illict care from those around them; they seem defensive as if wearing a suit of armour. Any kind of touch provokes rage or rigidity in them”.

Sadly this “shut down” frequently carries on into adult hood and with sexual abuse victims this is often expressed through a total closed down on their emotions especially their sexuality. This results in the victim in adult life killing off all desire for relationships and closeness and living a very isolated life. Dan Allender in his book about sexual abuse “The Wounded Heart” says victims of abuse fear the pain of the betrayal so much that they eliminate their natural emotional and sexual drives for relationship rather than “live at risk of further betrayal and humiliation.” This emotional deadness separates the heart from the soul and leaves the person very emotionally closed but from the victims point of view in control of their feelings because even though they may be emotionally dead “as long as we are dead we can’t feel pain”.

Addiction to sex

There is another side of this misplaced sexuality. That is not the repulsion to sex but rather using sex as a relief of pain and also to give sense of power. Sex can be used to substitute for proper relationships where there is no risk of intimacy or having to disclose the real self. Relationships where it is just straight sex and no attachments.

I once counselled a University Student, who during the day times was often humiliated by the young men in her class. However, in the evenings she took her revenge and would seduce and entice the very same men and then ruthlessly get rid of them, leaving them confused and humiliated. She didn’t like her behaviour but it did give her at last the sense of control and power over men she craved. In the long term though this led to feelings of even more self degradation and shame – compounding the problem.

It is also worth noting that sexual addiction in all its forms eg excessive masturbation, sleeping with many different partners or addiction to pornography is just a cover up for deep undealt with pain.

It can also be a response to the body being violated. Victims of sexual attack often feel that there is nothing worth treasuring and caring for in their physical self, leading to self neglecting and possibly self harming behaviours.

Friendships with the same sex can be distorted

Relationships with women and men of the same sex are often distorted after you have been sexually abused because you can misinterpret longings for intimacy with sexuality and subconsciously sexualise relationships, either in reality or fantasy. This is because intimacy and sex become so connected in mind patterns. As an adult this can make you feel that being cared for or being near a person can be confused with being sexually involved with them.

The consequences of this is that there is even more shame – and possible withdrawal from potentially healthy friendships because of fear of crossing a boundary. Or you may even worry the other person may find out what you are thinking and want to leave the relationship before they do. Again this leaves the friend feeling very confused and rejected – wondering why the relationship has come to such an abrupt end.

Overcoming Ambivalence

Connecting past abuse to current behaviour patterns is the way out of ambivalence.

This can usually only be done in a therapeutic relationship.

During the years that “Into The Light” has been running, the women within the group have themselves come up with some very practical measures about how you can take control in relationships when the trauma of sexual confusion starts to kick in.

These are a few of the key points the group has found helpful:

  • If you are in a relationship explain to your partner that sexuality is a difficult area for you as a whole – its not just about them and their attractiveness.
  • Build good physical boundaries that you are both happy with and you feel safe with. Do this before you start getting physical with each other – often there is not time once the boundaries have been crossed.
  • Take control to stop past memories intruding into present day. For example:

If you are in an embrace or kissing keep your eyes open so you stay focused on who you are with and your mind can’t be tricked into putting the abuser’s face there.

Get your partner to keep talking to you – to speak your name when you are physically involved – especially if you are having sex – this again will help you to stay in the present.

  • With outside support work on separating shame from pleasure.
  • If you have a trusted friendship and you feel the boundaries may be getting blurred for you, explain that the friendship is precious but raises issues for you. State your struggle with boundaries. Although this may be hard it is a much better choice than walking away from the friendship without explanation leaving the other person confused and rejected.
Looking To God

If you are a Christian God does have a way through the minefield of ambivalence bought on by abuse. David cries out in Psalm 86 to God for an “undivided heart”. We can ask God for the strength and energy to continue on our journey until we reach a place of peace. We can also look for outside information and resources in the shape of counsel, prayer and friendship to help us on our journey. God promises us in Jeremiah 32 to heal us from our ambivalence and confusion to understanding and clarity “I will give them singleness of heart and action” (v37).


Billy by Pamela Stephenson published by Harper Collins

The Wounded Heart – Dan Allended – Zondervan Press

CPJ Journal – October 2004