Child Abuse Prevention Month: Myths About Childhood Sexual Abuse
by Paul Gilmartin, Host of The Mental Illness Happy Hour
Comedian Paul Gilmartin hosts a weekly podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Each week he interviews people living with mental illnesses. Paul gives an empowering voice to the many who feel silenced by shame. While topics on the podcast are focused around mental illness, the stories often speak to the resillience of survivors of human trafficking, child abuse, and all forms of violence. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Paul wrote about the myths he encountered in his personal life and throughout his time hosting the podcast. This guest blog post is in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month.
1. It has to involve physical contact
Before I started doing the podcast I didn’t even know covert sexual abuse was a thing.
Examples of covert sexual abuse are:
- Talking to a child in a flirty or sexually inappropriate way
- Not respecting their privacy boundaries
- Barging in on them in the bathroom
- Bathing them beyond an age where they can do it themselves
- Inspecting their genitals to see how they’re developing
- Telling them that they’re “too shy” when they cover up in your presence
- Sharing details of your sex life
- Forcing them to share things about their sexuality
- Commenting on what you find attractive or unattractive about their breasts, thighs, butts or genitals
- Shaming them for their sexuality
- Ogling them
- Exposing them to pornography or sexually charged materials
- Looking to them to fill physical, mental or emotional needs like an adult partner
- Snuggling because the adult needs it instead of the other way around.
- Being naked in front of the child when it makes them uncomfortable
What all of these examples share in common is that the adult is putting their needs ahead of the child’s.
It’s important to note that all parents make mistakes but covert abuse, at least in my opinion, is a repetitive pattern. This isn’t about labeling a parent or caregiver as “a sexual abuser”; it’s about the survivor being able to make sense of their feelings so they can process them and heal. Many of the parents or caregivers have no idea that what they’re doing is harmful because it’s how they were raised or they hated the puritanical atmosphere they were raised in.
I thought the physical act of sexual abuse was the worst part but for many survivors it wasn’t. It was the humiliation, the objectification and the message that “you don’t matter; my needs are more important than yours”. Overt and covert abuse share that message.
2. Abusers are always male and victims are always female
I am a covert childhood sex abuse survivor. My abuser was my mom. I couldn’t call it that until I was 48 years old because I felt my abuse wasn’t valid. I experienced about ¾ of the things I listed. With the help of therapists, support groups, my wife and the book Silently Seduced by Kenneth Adams I was finally able to see the truth.
When I broke down and told my wife she said “I’ve been waiting 20 years for you to say this.” She could see how my mother treated me the first time they met but I refused to believe the truth because like most survivors it was easier to blame myself than admit I was powerless in the care of an abuser.
3. It will be obvious to the victim when it happens
My mother took my temperature rectally until I was 8 years old. She was overly curious about my developing body, chided me for covering up, looked to me for the emotional support my dad didn’t give her and had me get in the bathtub naked for a wound on my knee when I was 11 or 12. None of these are overt but they are classic examples of covert abuse.
I would often think to myself “It feels like my mom is getting something out of this. I feel tricked.” But I always brushed the thoughts aside because hey it’s my mom! Moms don’t do that. Yes moms do; so do sisters, aunts, cousins and babysitters. I have heard hundreds and hundreds of stories from people who were sexually abused by females.
As I opened up about my experience on the podcast hundreds of people, both male and female told me they had similar experiences and were struggling with feeling damaged but didn’t know why. We had learned to brush our feelings aside because that is what our abuser conditioned us to do. We stopped listening to our instincts and thinking about our own needs because we had been conditioned to think of our parents needs first.
4. There is never any emotional or physical pleasure
Sexual arousal or feelings of being loved is extremely common for victims during sexual abuse, even when there isn’t contact. Many survivors say that the times of abuse were confusing because it was when their abuser was the nicest or gentlest with them. Many victims experience orgasm or become so conditioned to it feeling like a normal experience that they may even desire or initiate abuse.
When my mother had me get in the bathtub when I was 11 or 12 I got an erection. I was mortified. I felt like a monster.
My instinct before I got in the tub was to wear a bathing suit and I remember thinking “It feels like she’s tricking me.” Then I heard my mom’s voice in my head saying what she often said “I’m your mom, it isn’t anything I haven’t seen before. I saw it before you ever did.” So I got in the tub naked. While she didn’t touch my penis, the atmosphere was sexually charged and that is one of the hallmarks of covert sexual abuse.
5. You Can Heal Alone
Many if not most survivors struggle with intimacy issues, depression, anxiety, self-care, trust, and moderation in their sexual desire; we tend to be overly promiscuous or sexually shut down, sometimes going back and forth between the two.
If we never talk about these complex painful issues it is nearly impossible to heal. To learn to trust and be intimate means taking the frightening first step of opening up about a taboo topic that has been steeped in shame and secrecy.
But by opening up with safe, appropriate people who deeply understand (therapists, social workers, support groups, other survivors who are healing) we learn to trust again, we learn intimacy, vulnerability, boundaries and even how to cut toxic people out of our lives.
I choose to not have contact with my mom, not because of what she did but because she can’t or won’t see how she still interacts with me. It pains me but it’s part of the self-care I learned thru opening up and healing.
I will probably always have a voice in my head that tells me “Your abuse isn’t valid. You’re a terrible son. You’re doing this for attention. You’re a baby.” But that voice has very slowly become quieter and the voice that says, “It wasn’t your fault” grows louder.