Shame and Disempowerment of Sexual Abuse: Times up?

Published On Mind and Soul Foundation Website Spring 2018

“I was told that wasn’t even worth considering because of the disparity of power.” (1) An aide of the disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein reflects on the legal advice she was given and why she did not take action against her former boss when she discovered he assaulted a colleague. Sadly, as we have seen in recent media revelations, national inquiries and disgraced public figures, her experience is not an isolated one.


Power And Abuse

Power is the dynamic that opens the door to sexual abuse and violation and often keeps it going. That power could be running a multi million dollar film empire; or it could be the elderly sick grandpa in a family that no one dare question in case the stress causes more ill health. Power is also found in other more spiritual circles. Margaret Kennedy who founded a support service for Survivors of clergy abuse describes religious settings where “The value placed on obedience to authority figures: male God, male headship”(2) can provide conditions for unquestioning power and for abuse to take place. The truth is then suppressed often with the collusion of other authority figures; as illustrated in several high profile cases where judgement and conviction has finally taken placed decades later. Justice of some kind; but often the survivor has had to live out their entire life under the shadow of the traumatic damage of the past.

As a long term victim of sexual abuse myself “Why didn’t you say anything?” Is a question I have been asked and asked myself many times. In reality however, securing help if you are a vulnerable person; especially a child is rarely possible. It certainly was for me. With a violent father, a frightened mother and teachers too stressed to talk to I was left isolated and with nowhere to turn. Sadly this is not uncommon. Children have very little real power in our society and can be trapped in horrific abusive situations where they are:

  • Helpless – they cannot speak out about the abuse and be understood
  • Powerless – they cannot leave the family/abusive situation
  • In dreadful pain – they cannot be relieved from their anguish

This causes huge internal damage where natural given desires for love, respect, dignity and intimacy are gradually crushed out and replaced by fear, rage and often revulsion.


Impact On Mental Health

This tragic situation can have a devastating impact on the mental and emotional health of the victim. People who experience childhood sexual abuse may have a higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder),3 depression,4 eating disorders,5 dissociative disorders6 and personality disorders.4 “Graham Wilmer founder of The Lantern Project For Survivors says “You are dealing with a massive, massive problem. From what we have seen, if you don’t provide the right level of support and intervention to support people when they come forward you see very significant health problems – mental health and physical health – which have a direct cost to us as a society. We look upon child abuse and its impact now as a national health epidemic”. (7)


Carrying The Shame

The other critical dynamic that keeps Survivors in a stranglehold of isolation and pain is the shame of the of the violation. Shame is the big issue with abuse. Sadly, victims of abuse can internally carry the shame that belongs to the abuser. Penny Parks says in her book “Rescuing The Inner Child”: “The aggressor projects the blame and guilt onto the child and the child accepts that projection as truth. It is like life imprisonment for a crime that someone else has committed.”(8) In some ways then the victim lives out of that shame that is not theirs because:

  • it is a taboo subject.
  • it is an assault on dignity and personality.

Life is very gruelling when live under the shadow of shame and the shame plays out in significant ways in the how we relate to others and ourselves including:

  • Feeling that “there is something wrong with me” and everything becomes coloured by a shame filter
  • Self punishing – often through negative self talk
  • People pleasing with no idea how to get real needs met
  • Depressed through having to hold all the feelings and anger inside
  • Avoiding being emotionally vulnerable or authentic
  • Strong desire for self protection to avoid being exposed
  • Entering into negative patterns of behaviour – e.g addiction or self medicating to keep the pain at bay

This leads to a life that is isolated and lonely impacting social and mental health.


Is There A Way Out?

Are Survivors of sexual abuse therefore destined to serve a “life imprisonment” for someone else’s offence? It is my experience both personally and professionally that it is possible to break out of the shame and powerlessness of the past. However, the road to recovery is often long and arduous. Additionally, If you are a Christian (as I am) it can also be littered with well meaning believers who throw scriptures, prayers and even deliverance at you which can often increase the journey and compound the sense of shame and disempowerment.


Whose Shame Is It?

If you are beginning to look at shame, start with intention: the intention of the abuser and your intention when you first met. Hold onto this no matter how long the abuse continued or if there were any “exchanges” e.g. money, affection or favours. Consider what realistically were your choices then and not as you remember them now. Remember the power balance: even if that person was a “weak” character

  • Who originally initiated things?
  • What was your original motive when you met this person?
  • What was the abuser’s original motive?
  • Who was leading? Who was being led?

With support (that could be a friend or a counsellor or both) try letter writing:
Write a letter to yourself at the time of the abuse assuring him/her that they were in no way responsible for the abuse.

Write a letter to the abuser giving him/her the full responsibility and shame of the abuse. If self compassion is a challenge for you; think about what you would say to a child or vulnerable person who told you they were being abused and try and apply your response to yourself.


Rebuilding Personal Power

A way to gain a healthy sense of power is by looking at boundaries. The powerlessness of the abuse can lead to victims being unable to set appropriate boundaries in their lives. Boundaries let the good in and keep the bad out. Boundaries that were have been violated by sexual abuse or assault can often be impaired. Learning new boundaries is a difficult task but the first step is to try to recognise where boundaries are. Try to assess your relationships as they are now:

  • Do people respect your opinions and wishes or do you find yourself backing down to the demands and desires of others most of the time?
  • Can you think of any ways you seek to control your life or relationships?
  • Do you feel you hold back in relationships for fear of the other person taking over?
  • Have you found yourself in situations where you have felt that something is wrong but felt unable to confront the situation?
  • Do you find it difficult to trust your own judgements about situations?
  • When pain comes up do you use any mechanisms to close down?

It is possible to learn new healthier ways of relating and behaving and recognise that rights in relationships goes both way. Others have rights with us and we have rights with them.


Talk About It

The way out of the loneliness of abuse is to talk about it with trustworthy people, this will also help to break shame. However, this is the action people often find it hardest to do, but start by confiding in one trustworthy person.

Look out for services, groups, workshops and counsellors that provide specialist support to Survivors and have the experience and expertise in working with sexual abuse. Try not to be limited by spiritual beliefs even though this may be important to you. Don’t stop until you get the support you deserve.

Reclaiming your power and dignity is not easy if you are a Survivor; and even though you have been through a sickening life changing event; I can personally say, (and having been privileged to be alongside many others in their journey) change is possible, and as dreadful as sexual violence is – you don’t have to be defined by it.



(1)The Guardian 28032018
(2)Christianity and Child Sexual Abuse – Survivors informing the care of children following abuse – Paper given by Margaret Kennedy – Royal College of Psychiatrists -2003
(3)Penza, K.M. et al. (2003). Neurobiological effects of childhood abuse: implications for the pathophysiology of depression and anxiety. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 6, 15-22.
(4)Pearlstein, T. (2002). Eating disorders and comorbidity. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 4, 67-87.
(5) DSM-IV-TR, p. 521 (dissociative amnesia); DSM-IV-TR, p. 525 (dissociative fugue); DSM-IV-TR, p. 527 (disocciative identity disorder); DSM-IV-TR, p. 531 (depersonalisation disorder).
(6) Spataro, J. et al. (2004). Impact of child sexual abuse on mental health: Prospective study in males and females. British Journal of Psychiatry, 184, 416-421.
(7) Sky News 8/12/2014
(8) “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series: Published 1990 p 43