This is article covers the ninth technique used in spiritual abuse. Sexual Abuse is the most complicated topic and by no means is this simple article able to sufficiently address how to heal or how to prevent it, but we must start by thinking and talking about it.
The ninth technique used in spiritual abuse is sexual abuse. Through countless stories and teachings faith groups have the opportunity to shape a believer’s view of sex, sex roles, behaviors, and what is right and wrong. In healthy groups, parents teach their children, in age appropriate ways, about their body and about boundaries. Leaders show a concern for children and ensure they are valued and protected members of the group.
In abusive groups, the leadership teaches the group what the norms are, with little concern for the developmental stages of a person’s lifespan. Great effort is expended in controlling sexual expression and in keeping member’s in their proper roles. The effect is a host of negative consequences, including physical sexual abuse, entitlement, imbalances of power, feelings of shame and guilt.
Abusive groups control people’s sexual lives by an over emphasis on keeping people in their “proper” roles. At their worst, rigid roles train girls to be submissive and create boys who feel entitled, which can produce disastrous results in adulthood. Part of the problem with rigidly defined roles is a denial of one’s humanity; sex is reserved for married adults and married adults only. This means any expression of sexuality outside of marriage is deemed unacceptable. It is as if members of the group are to have no sexual impulse until the day they are married and then they are to flip a switch and begin.
Rigid roles also inflict pain and suffering upon members who are lesbian, gay or transgender. There is no place to belong and no way to be true to one’s inner experience. Results can include suicide, leading a double life, or marriages that should never have happened.
Scientists and psychologist have a lot to teach about how sexuality develops and can outline, age by age, the steps along the way. Abusive groups pay no heed to this body of work. Instead they create a climate of secrecy, shame, and denial. For example, very young children may be interested in the differences in boys and girls body parts. If they explore, touch, or look at a peer, it can be treated as if they are deviant, and punishment is meted out that results in feelings of shame. If they touch their own body because it feels good, they are taught that it is wrong.
Many groups teach about sexuality in ways that are not age appropriate. By publically teaching against specific sexual behaviors, children may be exposed to adult concepts and activities. This can take away innocence and expose them to too much too soon. They are not taught what is right (such as mutually consensual, loving activity).
A result of this life time of shaming is that children must conform or lose their status; children are literal and may sincerely believe that they will be destroyed by God if they have a sexual thought or fantasy. The child has few choices. The child can adopt the teaching and suppress their feelings and questions, sort of becoming asexual. They can go underground and continue to experiment and try to learn, while feeling guilty for doing so. They can continue to try to learn and feel by turning to the internet, or by preying upon someone younger. They can’t really ask their parents because they know their parents will repeat back group teachings and judgments.
All of these dilemmas become more pressing as the child grows into puberty. Teachings conflict with hormones. Teens are not given healthy alternatives or education in decision making. They are not taught about consent (because consent implies activity, and that activity is reserved for married people only). Their only choice is abstinence. The result can be that sexual activity occurs in risky ways, leading to bad consequences like teen pregnancy, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted infections. Those results can also lead to the group expelling or abandoning the teen.
Attending to proper roles also can result in the group justifying the protection of pedophiles or rapists. Blind obedience to elders or other leaders can prevent people from going to the police. A mentality of “wait on God to bring justice” or the group imposing “spiritual discipline” can allow the pedophile to continue targeting other children. Group teaching can facilitate relationships between adults and children (i.e. polygamy), teaching that one’s obedience to God and one’s eternal reward are dependent upon the relationship. Male entitlement can lead to marital rape.
Healing from sexual abuse will likely require professional help. Studying sexual development over the life span can be very helpful in understanding how you as a child developed, where your behavior was on target and where the group teaching caused harmful feelings of secrecy and shame.
Understanding consent can contribute to healing. Consent is a freely given agreement to participate. When two people who are equals in a relationship agree and talk, they begin to create boundaries that help them feel safe in the relationship. That kind of mutual respect is non-negotiable and leads to a healthy sexual relationship.
Parents can use the concept of consent to help children develop healthy boundaries around their own body. Children can be taught to not hug someone if they do not want to. They can be taught the words for their body parts, and taught that no one can touch where a swimming suit covers. They need to be taught to make an excuse to leave if any adult is in their bubble. Children need to be taught to respect other’s privacy and that no means no.
It can help to review the group’s written materials or media, and look at what is written as if you were a reporter. Do the materials reflect what we know from science? Is it true? What is the effect on the reader? Does it create fear and shame? Is it age appropriate? Does it reflect statements that are misogynistic? What will be the result of believing the message? Will the reader feel that sexuality is natural and a beautiful gift from God? Or will the reader be left feeling ashamed? It is liberating to discover the manipulation in the message and reject it. It is liberating to navigate through the shame-inducing messages, decide what works for you, and control your own body.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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