The Disempowerment Of Sexual Abuse: Times Up?

“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 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.

Rebuilding Boundaries
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 recognize that rights in relationships goes both way. Others have rights with us and we have rights with them.


(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