Why Is Shame the Most Damaging Aspect of Child Sexual Abuse?
Childhood sexual abuse creates the most shame of any childhood abuse.
Posted December 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Connecting childhood sexual abuse and the negative behaviors you practice can be the first step toward healing shame.
- Shame is not one feeling or experience but a cluster of feelings, experiences and beliefs.
- The cluster of shameful feelings includes humiliation, helplessness, and self-doubt.
Shame is the most disturbing experience an individual will ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.– Gershen Kaufman
If you were sexually abused as a child, you probably know that the abuse has negatively affected you in multiple ways. But what you might not know is that shame, and the consequences of shame, are among the most destructive and debilitating of the many negative effects of child sexual abuse.
Victims often suffer from the following as the result of the shame they experience after having been sexually abused:
- Self-destructiveness (engaging in dangerous activities such as unprotected sex and reckless driving)
- Disgust and hatred of the body or certain parts of the body
- Neglect of the body
- Self-sabotaging behavior
- Extreme fear of criticism, judgment
- Isolating and withdrawing behavior
- Addictions, including alcoholism, drug addiction, food addiction, and sexual addiction
- Defenses, such as putting up walls, need to be in control
- Re-enactments (continuing to be victimized, either emotionally, physically, or sexually), getting involved with people who are replicas of one’s abuser
- Rage and abusive behavior (emotional, physical, or sexual)
- Relationship problems, including negative patterns, difficulties with intimacy
- Sexual dysfunction, sexual anorexia, compulsive sexual behavior, and fantasies
- Suicide ideation
Making the all-important connection between the sexual abuse you suffered and the negative behaviors you practice can be the first step toward healing your shame.
Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) experience. But what is shame exactly? Shame is a painful self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of self, a desire to withdraw or isolate oneself, and feelings of distress, exposure, powerlessness, and worthlessness. In its extreme shame, as is experienced in cases of CSA, the victim can develop an internalized idea of self as defective, defiled, unlovable, and unworthy.
The word shame originates from the Teutonic root word “skem,” which means “to cover oneself.” This makes sense because a significant aspect of shame is an intense fear of exposure–of having one’s badness or inadequacy seen by others. This fear of exposure prevents the person from feeling “a part” of life and creates a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Many former victims live in fear of “being found out”–of those around them finding out about the sexual abuse. The secretive nature of child sexual abuse and the likelihood that many former victims have kept the abuse a secret only adds to their shame.
A Cluster of Feelings, Experiences, and Beliefs
As you can see, shame is not one feeling or experience but a cluster of feelings, experiences, and beliefs. The following list was taken from my latest book, Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse:
1. The feeling of being humiliated. We tend to feel humiliated whenever we become conscious that we are involved with wrong or foolish behavior. Sexual abuse almost always has an element of humiliation to it since it is a violation of very private parts of the body, and there is a “knowing” on the child’s part that incest and/or sex between a child and an adult is taboo. (This is true in nearly every culture in the world, with the exception of a few obscure tribes in Africa where sex with an adult is considered a rite of passage).
2. The feeling of impotence and helplessness. When a child comes to know that there is nothing he can do to stop the abuse, he feels powerless, helpless, and impotent. This feeling of powerlessness can be humiliating, especially for male victims.
3. The feeling of being exposed. When a child is sexually abused, she feels exposed to herself and anyone else present, and she wants to disappear.
4. A sense of self-consciousness, inadequacy, and deep self-doubt. This follows quickly as a by-product of shame, causing the person to go deeper into despair.
5. The feeling of being defective or less than others. Most victims of sexual abuse report feeling defective, damaged, or corrupted following the experience of being abused.
6. The feeling of alienation and isolation. Shame can cause us to feel isolated—set apart from the crowd. In fact, in primitive cultures, people were “banished” from the tribe when they broke society’s rules. Being shamed feels like being banished–unworthy to be around others. And while victims may long to talk to someone about their inner pain, they feel immobilized, trapped, and alone in their shame.
7. Self-blame. Victims almost always blame themselves for being abused, and this adds to their shame. Shame typically develops in childhood when the brain doesn’t yet have the ability to comprehend the full picture or understand the reasoning behind someone else’s words or actions. This is because the area of the brain, the frontal lobe, is still developing. This part of the brain helps us analyze data, solve complex problems, and make deliberate choices. It is key to us assessing situations, events, or behaviors that are initially confusing or even hurtful.
For children and teens, the ability to analyze and comprehend complicated situations remains especially challenging, as their frontal lobe is still in development, and their limbic system (the automatic part of the brain that seeks to avoid what feels bad and pursue what feels good) is in the driver’s seat. When a child or teen is sexually abused, they don’t yet have the ability to understand why something so painful would happen to them. For example, they aren’t able to yet comprehend that the person who molested them had emotional or behavioral issues or was re-enacting the same trauma that was done to them.
Whatever the contributing factors, the person who abused them was entirely in the wrong and violated the boundaries of the child. However, given that the analytical, problem-solving area of the brain is still in development, the child may not be able to recognize that they carry no responsibility for the abuse. As the child tries to fill in the gaps on their own to understand why someone would abuse them, they may come up with reasons like, “I did something wrong,” or “I asked for this.” And while none of these thoughts reflect reality, the accompanying shame can be powerful enough to convince a former victim that they are true.
If you were sexually abused as a child or adolescent, you undoubtedly suffer from shame. Your shame may come from the fact that the things that were done to you or the things you were forced to do made you feel dirty, contaminated, or damaged. Your shame may come from the fact that you blame yourself for the abuse. It may come from the fact that you felt some physical pleasure. Or it may come from you continuing to go back to the abuser because you were lonely or you felt unloved, and the abuser paid attention to you. Finally, you may feel shame because you never told anyone and your perpetrator went on to abuse other children.
There are many reasons why former victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) are often overwhelmed with shame, in fact, haunted by shame. One major reason is the way that victims are perceived and treated in our culture. Being perceived as a victim is synonymous with being seen as weak or a loser, and we tend to despise weakness in any form. This is especially true for male victims. In our culture (and virtually every culture in the world), we blame victims for their own victimization.
There is an implied (and often verbalized) belief that no one is a complete victim—that they must have played a role in their own victimization. This is because if we recognize that someone can be a true victim through no fault of their own, this will remind us that we are all vulnerable—that we can also be a victim at any given time–or that we have ourselves been a victim in the past.
In addition to feeling shame because you were a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you may feel shame because you haven’t been able to move past it. We not only ignore and blame victims but also expect them to recover from their adversity in record time. In our culture, we are supposed to “get over” adversity and “move on,” Many people don’t have much tolerance or patience for those who don’t.
The truth is it takes time to recover from adversity, especially one such as childhood sexual abuse. Most victims did not receive the help they needed when they were children or adolescents. In fact, most victims don’t seek help for the abuse until many years after the abuse ends, and many never recognize that they need professional help.
Even when victims begin to receive professional help, there is no “quick fix.” It takes many years for most former victims to heal from the multitude of effects of childhood sexual abuse. They aren’t malingering, they aren’t just trying to get attention, and they shouldn’t be shamed because they are still suffering.
Engel, Beverly (2022). Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse. New York, NY: Prometheus Books.
Gershen Kaufman. (1992). Shame: The Power of Caring. New York, NY: Schenkman Books.