Karen Pollock discusses how for many survivors of child abuse, the fact they are LGBTQ+ impacts on how they are treated, and their ability to heal.
This post discusses the impact of childhood sexual 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 beyond the pale. Vigilante groups have been set up to “hunt” online predators, the word paedophile is hurled around by groups as diverse as sports fans to Twitter trolls as a term of abuse. Yet, for all this public vitriol, most people do not actually want to think about child abuse, the victims and what impact abuse has on them. It is as if there is an element of performance, in showing you hold the right opinions, which allows people to say, “this is a terrible thing”, without ever allowing their minds to rest for more than a few moments on the reality for so many children.
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 expected 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 about the dominant, simplistic ideas which people usually hear.
Yet, for all this public vitriol, most people do not actually want to think about child abuse, the victims and what impact abuse has on them.
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 experienced an assault that a physical sex act does not influence sexuality. A male survivor of rape by another man often has to wrestle with the idea some sex acts are “gay”. They are not, and even if there was some element of physical arousal during an assault, this says nothing about an individual’s sexuality.
However for LGBTQ+ 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 prefered 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.
One of the recurring themes I hear from LGBTQ+ survivors is a worry that their sexuality was somehow influenced by the abuse.
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 cis heterosexual man and a cis girl for example) was seen almost as a rite 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, especially if, as is perfectly natural, 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.
Things can be especially complicated for gay men who are also survivors, as for so long all sex between men under 21 was criminalised.
Bisexual survivors can also struggle with this idea that somehow the abuse “caused” their sexuality. As a society we carry many negative beliefs about bisexual people, and one of these is that it is not a real sexuality, that it is a stepping stone to being gay or straight. Some bisexual people absorb and internalise this biphobia, and if they are also survivors wonder if in fact their sexuality is just a reaction to the abuse, not real, not a part of them but a part of what happened to them.
Bisexual (and other LGBTQ+ 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 heterosexual person abused as a child by someone of the opposite gender.
Bisexual survivors can also struggle with this idea that somehow the abuse “caused” their sexuality. As a society we carry many negative beliefs about bisexual people, and one of these is that it is not a real sexuality.
Many bisexual and asexual survivors of abuse have told me 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 of conversion therapy to some conversations, as a therapist seems to believe that the desired outcome is for the client not to be bi- or asexual any longer. Whilst I am aware this is just anecdotal it has come up far too often not to be listened to.
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 LGBTQ+ survivors the combination of silence, stereotype and myths leaves them struggling to even know how to voice what happened to them.
If you need support after reading this post some organisations who can help are:
The National Association of Children Abused in Childhood.
Survivors Manchester (for cis and trans male survivors)
If you believe a child may be at risk, you can report, anonymously, to the NSPCC
Follow Karen on twitter (@CounsellingKaz)