Groomed: Childhood Sexual Abuse and Cycles of Trauma

On Wednesday 30 November 2016, three men were arrested in Kwa Zulu-Natal by the province’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit for possession of child porn which they had been involved in producing, sharing and distributing. The one suspect was found with images of a 6-year-old child on his cell phone, believed to be the daughter of the man’s neighbour. The man is being charged with rape, sexual assault and the sexual grooming of a child. This is not uncommon in South Africa where one in every three young South Africans has experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lives (A study by the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.) By the age of 17, the study reported that a total of 784 967 young people had been exposed to sexual abuse with boys and girls being found to be equally vulnerable. These are identified as Adverse Childhood Experiences that are directly linked to future risky health behaviours and a prevalence to future victimization and perpetration, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death.

Clinical Psychologist Jillian Butterworth recalls the chilling words of a client. A woman who had survived multiple instances of sexual violence, the client had been “fiddled with” by many men before the age of 5. Reflecting on years of abuse, the woman observed to Butterworth that “the first guy who fiddled with her” had (unknowingly) groomed her for the others. It was a terrifying and profound observation. Butterworth ponders whether there is “something in the collective unconsciousness” of perpetrators of sexual abuse, something encouraging them to groom victims for one another. As a psychologist specializing in sexual trauma, she has witnessed the effects of their crimes at first hand.

Butterworth confirms that childhood sexual abuse often sows the seed for future exploitation, by creating vulnerability and setting a cycle in motion. But in prefacing our conversation, she is careful to emphasize that patterns of abuse are complex and it is easy to end up “blaming the victim” when talking about cycles of abuse. She notes that rates of sexual violence are extremely high in South Africa, so that sometimes, when a person is violated multiple times over the course of childhood and adulthood, it is a result of this societal problem, not the victim placing themselves in harm’s way. She emphasizes that we must place blame where it belongs: on perpetrators.

Butterworth notes that a lot of childhood sexual abuse takes place in the home. This creates a deeply complicated and confusing situation for victims. When your own family – the very people you need – are your abusers, how do you speak out? Moreover, what is the impact on children of being unsafe in their own homes?

Butterworth explains that one area of impact is trust. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse in the home later describe a strong conviction that the other parent, or other family figures, knew what was going on and did nothing. This creates the impression that the behavior was accepted – perhaps even endorsed – by trusted adult figures, and hence the behavior must have been acceptable. This puts victims in a difficult position as adults: given the fact that those they trusted assented to their abuse, how can they assess trust-worthiness in others? Moreover, how can they identify abuse? The difficulty of their position means many survivors of childhood sexual abuse end up in abusive relationships as adults, due to trusting the wrong people.

Butterworth describes many interactions with clients who simply did not know that things could be different. When the relationship template established in childhood is one of unequal power and abuse, this can become entrenched as “normal” or even ideal.

Butterworth notes that, “Abuse weaves its way into the personality”. This relates, not only to the acceptance of abusive narratives as normal, but to the clinical disorders with which victims present.

Butterworth offers depression and dissociation as examples of some clinical disorders found in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Dissociative tendencies, in particular, can make survivors impervious to the safety (or lack thereof) of situations later on in life. This is part of the reason why survivors of childhood sexual abuse often end up placing themselves in unsafe situations.

Another part of the reason is that “the unconscious looks to repeat patterns to master them”, Butterworth says. Victims of childhood sexual abuse tend to establish a narrative about themselves and then keep repeating that narrative to “fix” childhood trauma. This narrative is not only repeated in the context of romantic relationships, but other relationships as well – such as, for example, with one’s boss.

One narrative often observed in survivors is that they were “promiscuous” as children and are “tarts” or “sluts”. Butterworth points out that sexual violence can sometimes provoke sensations of pleasure, and this can be extremely confusing for victims, who come to conclude they “asked for it” or were otherwise consenting participants.

Perpetrators, similarly, often express the belief that, in acting flirtatiously, children themselves instigated sexual encounters that were in fact “consensual”. Past attitudes about children as “little adults” sometimes prevail in the present.

But as Butterworth points out, children lack the “cognitive capacity” to consent to sexual encounters. She often asks perpetrators who insist children should “be allowed to make their own decisions around sex”, “Would you let this child do the financial budget for the family?” While perpetrators acknowledge children are not mature enough to take on the responsibility of balancing budgets, they still cling to the idea that children are mature enough to understand and process the implications of sex.

Sometimes, children who are sexually abused do experience sexual satisfaction. Butterworth describes it as turning on a “sexual switch” before a child has the capacity to regulate that switch. Consequently, children begin to seek out sexual contact. For such children, sexuality does not develop organically, going through the normal developmental phases. She notes that the same outcome results from the widespread availability of porn today: children are being groomed by hardcore pornography. Their sexual arousal template has been changed. Young people who have watched pornography often come to their first sexual experiences with a very violent and objectifying template for sexual relating.

In describing these phenomena, Butterworth notes that “we have forgotten to ground intimacy in relationships”.

This relates to another point Butterworth makes – that people often lack an awareness of what it is like to be the other party in sexual encounters. There is a lack of empathy which can cause us to abuse others in implicit, if not explicit, ways.

Perhaps we have all been groomed, to an extent, by the exploitative culture in which we live?

While we welcome the arrest of a group of producers and consumers of child porn in KwaZulu-Natal, we need greater vigilance to interrupt the cycles of trauma associated with being a child victim of sexual abuse including of sexual grooming.



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