Still Cannot Believe I Was Sexually Molested as a Child

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Reader’s Question

I’m 19, in college, and have been depressed silently for almost all this year. I saw a counsellor twice in mid-year, mainly due to concerns about my academic progress. Then as the second semester started I had more trouble and felt myself falling apart. So I went and saw another counsellor and she has been much more helpful and I was able to tell her the things going on in my life which helped me acknowledge the difficulties.

What’s troubling me most at the moment is that when I was 5 or 6 years old I believe I was molested by a neighbour in a single occurrence. I have had memories and flashbacks of this since I was 12 as I started to learn more about life and sex. Recently, as the memory popped back after my counsellor asked about my childhood, I became obsessed about knowing the truth. So I asked a friend who was with me during the occurrence, and who I think was also molested. She confirmed every concern and fear I had. This shocked me to the core; I never thought this could be true. I still can’t believe I was molested; I couldn’t even say it fully to my counsellor. This is causing me overwhelming emotional pain and turmoil.

My flashbacks are of me sitting on his lap and him touching me inappropriately and making me touch him! Also, I am full of shame and guilt that I may have actually “enjoyed” this. My question is would this be considered molestation? What can I do to manage all of this pain I am living in? I find it hard mentioning all these details to my counsellor who is lovely.

Psychologist’s Reply

Your experiences are more common than you may think, and the struggle you’re having now highlights important differences between childhood experiences and adult understandings of those experiences. As we look back on childhood events that we now recognize as inappropriate, we bring to those experiences a whole set of concepts, judgments and feelings that were not present at the time simply because we were children. Indeed, the terms “molestation” and “sexual abuse” are highly loaded with judgment, imagery and emotion, and being a “victim” of such abuse brings its own set of issues.

I think it’s important to work on separating the events as you experienced them as a child from the meanings and associations you now have with those events when you view them through your adult understanding. Such separation helps with reconciling such disparities as the physical pleasure you may have experienced during the event and the disgust you now feel as you realize the context, the motives and abuse of power of the adult, and so forth. Distinguishing the child perspective from the adult perspective allows you to realize that, just because you did not feel negatively at the time, you were not condoning the adult’s abuse of power or reacting in an unusual way. There was nothing wrong with you for reacting the way you did at the time. Through your childhood understanding, there was no reason to suspect that your experience was shameful or unhealthy.

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I read in your letter some desire for an official determination whether your experience qualifies as sexual molestation or abuse. Rather than focus on definitions, though, I think it’s more important to process the experience as described here: realizing that your perspectives then compared to now are liable to be very different, and that’s normal. Because one definition of “abuse” is physical trauma, we may sometimes assume that sexual abuse must be experienced as physically unpleasant by the child. However, the “abuse” in sexual abuse frequently refers to the fact that the adult abused his or her power and more mature understanding for his or her own sexual gratification (taking advantage of the child’s na├»vete). Labeling your experiences one way or another does not change who you were or are, and until the recent realization that the neighbor was abusive, the experiences did not seem to hold much meaning for you (which I view as a good thing).

Mentally processing these issues is just the kind of work counselors are prepared for, and handling issues of inappropriate childhood sexual experiences is something experienced counselors are comfortable doing. So, I encourage you to address the issue with your counselor, with whom it seems you’ve established good rapport. Trying to avoid thinking about these issues is liable to simply make such thoughts intrusive, popping up at times that are disruptive. Instead, let your counselor help you gain perspective that will allow you to see your childhood experience in context and no longer be bothered by the labels or the meanings we often associate with such experiences because of preconceived notions and assumptions. Each individual and his or her experiences are unique and only understood in context; there is no right or wrong way to have reacted, then or now.

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