When I made the decision to end communication with my sexual abuser I still wasn’t sure if the relationship that occurred could be categorized as “sexual abuse.” I knew I was tormented by the entirety of the situation and I knew that what my abuser did was wrong on a moral level. However, I blamed myself entirely for engaging with him because of my age at the time of the relationship (16, 17, 18) and the attachment I had developed to him. I also deeply feared that my situation would be used to deter others from the Catholic Church. Within a year of focused discernment and constant encouragement from a very small group of trusted friends (none of which were mandatory reporters) who were completely removed from the community where the abuse occurred, I eventually realized my age, along with my situational vulnerability, and the methods used by the offender were exactly why what happened to me could be classified as abuse.
Since coming forward I’ve learned that this is a common predicament for many victims and perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of being a victim of sexual abuse. Below are a list of sources that have helped me put a name to what I experienced.
Common Forms of Sexually Abusive Behavior
Below is a far from exhaustive list of sexually abusive behavior. In the process of coming forward it can be difficult to name the specific form of sexual abuse that may have been suffered by the victim as there is often overlap between terms. This difficulty can prevent a victim from coming forward as it may cause the victim to believe the situation does not warrant a formal report.
- Sexual Harassment
- Defined: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
- Key Features: lack of consent (inclusive of the inability to give consent because of age or disability), pressure on victim to engage in sexual discussion or activity
- Helpful Links: https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-harassment
- Sexual Grooming
- Defined: Sexual Grooming typically occurs in stages in which the offender gains the victims trust, isolates the victim, desensitizes the victim to sexual touching or discussion in order to coerce the victim into sexual activity. In sexual grooming, victim manipulation serves as a protective factor for the offender as it reduces the chances that the victim will come forward. The victim is manipulated into thinking that they cooperated with the offenders advances and boundary violations through the formation of attachment.
- Key Features: gaining the victim’s trust (and often the trust of the victim’s community), maintaining a “secretive” relationship, isolating the victim, can occur online or in-person
- Sexual Assault
- Defined: Any form of sexual contact or behavior that occurs in the absence of consent.
- Key Features: lack of consent
Psychological and Emotional Signs You Or Someone You Love Have been Victimized
- Social Withdrawal
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Difficulty Maintaining Focus
While everyone processes trauma differently, it is important to recognize the increased risk that victims of sexual abuse possess for the above symptoms and behaviors.
Effects Specific to Abuse Committed by Spiritual Leaders
- Increased risk of social isolation and rejection from faith community
- Secondary traumatization of the faith community
- Increased risk for spiritual crisis