The impact of childhood sexual abuse on gender and sexuality diverse survivors

This post discusses the impact of child abuse, so please exercise self care whilst reading, and afterwards if the content may be triggering or upsetting to you.

As a culture we struggle with a huge divide in our psyches around the abuse of children, and particularly if the abuse was sexual in nature. We consider those who abuse to be outside the pale. Vigilante groups have been set up to “hunt” online predators, the word paedophile is hurled by groups as diverse as sports fans to trolls on twitter as a term of abuse. Yet, for all this public vitriol, most people do not seem to actually want to think about child abuse, the victims and what impact abuse has on them. 

The desire not to think deeply, or even at all, about upsetting topics may be very human, but it means that many survivors feel they cannot tell their stories, because they do not fit the usual narrative.This can be especially a problem for LGBTQ+ survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It may not at first seem obvious as to why someone’s sexuality matters when it comes to recovering from sexual abuse, but it’s all around the dominant, often overly simplistic ideas which people usually hear.

One of the recurring themes I hear from LGBTQ+ survivors is a worry that their sexuality was somehow influenced by the abuse. We are used to telling those who have experienced an assault that a physical sex act does not influence or indicate sexuality. It is important to make this clear; a male survivor of rape by another man often has to wrestle with the idea some sex acts are “gay” and is left in distress about his own sexual identity. Sex acts do not have a sexuality, and even if there was some element of physical arousal during an assault, this says nothing about an individual’s sexuality.  However for gender and sexuality diverse  survivors the fear so often seems to be that if they had not experienced abuse (and sometimes pleasure) from someone, who in adulthood, would be their preferred gender/s for a consensual sexual relationship, then they might never have been LGBTQ+ in the first place. It’s a dark place of shame, guilt and blame, feelings common to so many, but exacerbated by our idea that all childhood abuse looks the same. When you never hear of abuse like your own, it can be very hard to challenge negative internalized beliefs about that abuse. A hugely healing moment can be simply realising you are not alone.

Things can be especially complicated for gay men who are also survivors, as for so long all sex between men under 21 was criminalised. Often sex that would have been seen as childhood sexual exploitation in other situations (a cisgender straight man and a cisgender straight girl for example) was seen as a right of passage, with the defence that the unequal age of consent was wrong and unfair. It was, but that did not excuse sex with children under 16. It can be incredibly difficult for survivors to separate legitimate arguments against unequal laws with abusers defending their actions. This is especially complicated if a child was discovering their burgeoning sexuality. Working with these survivors it is as if we are unpicking a complex web of thoughts, feelings and beliefs, all feeding into each other.

Bi and pansexual  survivors can also struggle with this idea that somehow the abuse “caused” their sexuality. As a society we carry many negative beliefs about bi and pan people, and one of these is that they are not a real sexualities, that they are stepping stones to being gay or straight. Some multisexual (an umbrella term for bi, pan and queer)  people absorb and internalise this belief, and wonder if in fact their sexuality is just a reaction to the abuse, not a part of them but a part of what happened to them.

Bisexual (and other gender and sexuality diverse survivors of childhood sexual abuse) may find that if they disclose their sexuality is pathologised. Sometimes sadly even therapists and those in the helping professions who should know better can seek to see abuse as a cause of sexuality. If someone was abused by someone of the same gender, it is often suggested that their adult sexuality has in some way been formed, in a way we would never suggest to a cis straight person abused as a child by someone of the opposite gender. It is worth pointing out here that many BDSM practitioners face similar patholgisation, but that will be covered in another post.

Many bisexual/pansexual, queer and asexual survivors of abuse feel that they would not even mention their sexuality in counselling, so great is their belief that it would just be dismissed as a product of their abuse. There is even an overtone to conversion therapy to some conversations, as some therapists seems to believe that the desired outcome is for the client not to be bi or asexual any longer. This is not just anecdotal, research shows multisexual people on the receiving end of direct and indirect discrimination and prejudice from health care professionals. 

In the days before the internet when the football results were given on a Saturday evening the presenter used to warn people to “look away now” if they did not want to know the results. Unfortunately this seems to be the prevailing attitude to childhood sexual abuse, we want to look away, unless we can use the abuse politically, or to attack others. This fails all survivors, but for many gender and sexuality diverse survivors the combination of silence, stereotype and myths leaves them struggling to even know how to voice what happened to them.

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