Health and Well-Being

The Hidden Consequences of Child Rape

Screenshot from Out of Shadows, a must-see documentary.

The amount of sexual abuse that takes place in our country is unacceptable, and even less acceptable is our nation’s sense of apathy.” ~ Dr. Boyce Watkins

I first published The Hidden Consequences of Child Rape in March 2011 on my Self-Regeneration website, where it remained one of the most read articles. Although the initial story that prompted me to write the article is now old news, the psychological trauma caused by childhood rape does not, like ‘old news’, fade with time. In fact, it is likely to create a cascade of physical and mental health problems in adulthood that doctors will fail to link to childhood trauma.

When Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote on his blog, “The amount of sexual abuse that takes place in our country is unacceptable, and even less acceptable is our nation’s sense of apathy,” he was reacting to the March 2011 news that eighteen men (thirteen adults and five juveniles) were arrested in Texas on charges of gang raping an 11-year-old girl. The New York Times on March 09 stated that the men involved forced the girl to have sex by threatening her with a beating if she did not comply.

It is critically important that we teach young girls the dangers of being alone with men, for the trauma of rape can last a lifetime.

While Dr. Watkins feared the young men might not get a fair trial in Texas, a state which “incarcerates and executes more black men than any state in America,” he was more concerned over how many of his female friends were raped or sexually abused at an early age. One friend was also gang-raped at the age of eleven. He suggested that it is critically important that we teach young girls the dangers of being alone with men, for the trauma of rape can last a lifetime.

However, from my experience as a counsellor, the horrible truth too many people are unable to confront is that the majority of rapes occur within the supposed safety of a child’s home with trusted fathers, grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers, mothers’ boyfriends, family friends, and even siblings. Far more goes on behind closed doors than we care to believe or acknowledge. While I was warned as a child to “beware of strangers,” things happened in my home that no one dared speak about. Being forced to keep secrets can sometimes cause the most lifelong damage, for within secrecy healing cannot take place and is likely to cause the traumatic wound to fester into disease.

The fact that the gang rape Dr. Boyce was so angry about can occur in a ‘civilized’ society is shocking enough. Far worse is our denial that sexual abuse does great harm, which then creates the apathy where very little is done about it. Abusers are likely in denial that having sex with a child traumatizes them. A men’s group mantra, “Sex before eight before it’s too late” readily comes to mind. Victims of such heinous abuse, often forced under various threats to keep it secret, are invariably filled with pervasive and demoralizing feelings of shame so deep that they are often terrified to come out of hiding to tell the truth of what happened to them – even in adulthood. And if by chance a sexually abused child is able to gather up enough courage to reveal all, the family can go into denial and throw them out onto the street, withdraw emotionally from them, or turn them into a family scapegoat. And the list goes on. I was a witness to the damage this caused in the adults who came to me wanting to heal their life after such abuse.

The many horror stories in my counseling files of sexual abuse most often involved family members. One woman raped by her father at fourteen became pregnant. After she gave birth, the father buried the baby in the back yard. She became chronically depressed after she married, which caused her to become emotionally absent to her children, sending one daughter into alcoholism to cope with the deep anxiety of rejection she felt. What then happened to her children? The ripple effects of such traumatic abuse can be devastating and become inter-generational.

Apathy about the necessity of healing the injuries caused by childhood rape is why child pornography is now a multi-billion dollar business, where many images show babies as young as a few months old being anally raped. How disgusting is that! According to The New Zealand Herald in January, 2010, at least 310 adults have been convicted here for supplying objectionable material over the internet in the past 13 years. Among them, Stephen John Laing, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2008 for collecting and distributing images of babies and toddlers being raped and tortured.

Perhaps these men rationalize that no harm is done to these babies and children other than a bit of tissue tearing and bleeding, and anyway, small children don’t remember such events and are so resilient they soon heal and recover. Such rationalization is furthest from the truth one can find. It was family therapist, John Bradshaw, who first called the sexual abuse of a child ‘soul murder’. That alone should set off alarm bells that we all need to heed. For a start, we need to come out of denial that child abuse leaves life-long scars that may never heal, and do our utmost to protect our vulnerable (and often not so resilient) children from such outrageously inhuman acts. As for being too young to ‘remember’ such acts of terror, it is now known that our bodies store implicit memories which can be triggered through our five senses during similar future events, causing us to emotionally and physically react in ways that are puzzling, confusing, and sometimes downright terrifying. In other words, our bodies remember everything – even when an event was so traumatizing we developed amnesia to cope emotionally with it. Amnesia is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that has lifelong debilitating ramifications.

Rape is not only an abhorrent invasion of one’s physical boundaries, but also psychological boundaries. Bradshaw pointed out that such abuse causes “toxic shame.” I bear witness to how it can literally derail a child’s adult life by the negative ripple effect it causes – especially if there is no social support for a child after such abuse or worse, the perpetrators go into denial that the abuse ever took place. While sexual abuse can cause tearing of skin tissue, it also tears apart a child’s self-esteem, reduces their resilience, causes them to feel bad, dirty, undeserving of good things, and opens them up to a plethora of physical and mental health issues down the road. Seeking security or someone to love them as adults, they can become trapped in abusive relationships which lead to poverty of the soul.

Childhood sex abuse victims are more likely to suffer mental health problems like borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug addiction, alcoholism, and physical health problems like psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, and more – this list is not exhaustive. As adults, victims of sexual abuse may even have to abandon a much loved vocation due to a low stress threshold caused by the trauma, and all the attendant mental health issues. And then there is the very concerning fact that they may even become perpetrators and do unto others what was done to them as a child. Why do you think there are so many pedophiles out there.

The truth is that sexual abuse and rape dehumanises children as objects for adults’ sexual gratification. Rape destroys a child’s integrity, that is, their sense of wholeness. ‘Simon’, whose father anally raped him at three during an access visit after his parents divorced, brought the following words he wrote as part of a song to a counselling session with me while struggling to release over twenty years of repressed rage and anger…

You murderous bastard
You deflowered my soul
You ripped me in half
before I was whole
A fragile flame
a beauty then still
collapsed into the night
with the collapse of your will.
What are these emotions
These feelings inside
that erupt through my skin
like they’ve nowhere to hide;
that erupt from my skin
and fall to the floor
must I pick up the pieces
and make me once more?

This is an accurate picture of what rape does to a child. On an earlier occasion Simon rang me around one a.m. to sing another song he had composed, needing someone to bear witness to his emotional agony before he could finish his last university assignment for his final year that night. He later confessed that he also battled with urges to do to a child what was done to him. Sometimes the only path out of such acute pain is to become a perpetrator and snatch back the inner power lost when made a victim. It is an act of redemption, therefore, to make someone else a victim?

One study revealed that of 14 juveniles condemned to death for murder in the United States in 1987, 12 had been brutally physically abused and five had been sodomized by relatives as children. This does not necessarily mean that all children who are physically and sexually abused will commit murder or other violent crimes. There are, however, multitudes of ways to avenge or release the pain and trauma experienced in childhood. Another client, ‘Greg’, confessed while reflecting upon his childhood experience of emotional neglect, “I made a pact with the devil to live a life of hate.” It was a chilling truth upon which he had built a life of social isolation, drinking and gambling.

The struggle to become ‘whole’ again after childhood abuse can last a lifetime. Often it is unsuccessful because the toxic shame that says “I am dirty…” “I am bad…” “I’m wrong…” “I don’t deserve love…” creates self-loathing, self-hate, and a loss of self-esteem and self-respect. For many, this forms hurdles too high to jump. Another chilling spin-off to this is that a person often shuts down their feelings by hardening their hearts in order to stave off the sense of overwhelm that accompanies abuse. When this happens, it also shuts down any ability to empathize they once had – not only for others, but for themselves.

Sexual abuse of a child invariably creates another trauma: the betrayal of trust. And this shatters a child’s world view and sense of safety.

Sexually abusing a child also makes children vulnerable to further abuse, caused by what Freud called repetition compulsion, which can set up cycles of abuse lasting into adulthood as if a new default program has taken over their life. I became aware of this several years ago after a lawyer friend explained to me that men were hunters, capable of sensing which women they could easily have their way with. Such women, he said, invariably came from abusive backgrounds and men picked up on their vulnerability. It is therefore no coincidence that women sexually abused as children have a significantly higher risk of being raped as an adult.

What happened, I wonder, in the 11-year-old girl’s life that Dr. Watkins wrote about that led to the heinous gang rape she experienced? Was she brutally raped as a very young child like the two-year-old Christchurch girl whose father repeatedly sodomised her while she struggled and screamed? The father got only ten years in prison for that. His daughter will suffer the emotional and psychological wounds of such an evil act for the rest of her life.

If there is a fast-spreading cancer that has the capacity to destroy our whole ‘civilized’ society, the rape of our children is it.

I still vividly remember a conversation with a woman in Australia many years ago about ‘racial cleansing’ and my horror when she said that the most effective way of destroying the integrity of a culture or race of people was to rape the women. I would now also include their children.

Through my counselling work with women sexually abused as children, I learned that when a woman’s integrity or wholeness is destroyed, it not only negatively impacts her ability to form healthy and lasting relationships, but also her ability to develop secure attachments with her children so vital for their happiness, health and well-being. Often she is unable to maintain a stable, safe and nurturing home environment for them because of the many mental health issues (often made worse by self-medicating on drugs and alcohol as well) that arise from childhood sexual abuse trauma. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), for example, most often resulting from early childhood sexual abuse, usually creates a chaotic style of parenting where children grow up feeling profoundly shamed, anxious and ‘bad’ because they cannot make their parent happy, nor ever do the ‘right’ thing. The result is a ripple effect of dysfunction sent into the whole of society; a force that drives the violence and social and health problems experienced worldwide.

For both men and women, rape is one of the highest risk factors for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that we formerly believed that only soldiers who experienced combat suffered from. Numerous studies now reveal that PTSD is a significant risk factor for domestic violence, child abuse, problems in interpersonal relationships, violent crimes, incarceration and problems with the judicial system, depression, substance abuse/disorders, suicide, smoking, high risk behaviour, teenage pregnancies, eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, cancer, lung disease, asthma, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, benefit dependency, and homelessness. However, we must be careful not to remain fixated upon the problems PTSD creates and simply attempt to medicate the symptoms, as we are currently doing with millions of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. It is imperative that we remain clearly focused on the risk factors that lead to the development of PTSD, and then do something to heal the cause rather than simply treat the effect.

The development of PTSD, depression and the host of mental disorders currently identified and labelled, represent the ringing of alarms we have been ignoring too long in favor of the easier solution of developing drugs to sedate the effect.

Robert Hirschfield, M.D. wrote in his research paper, The Comorbidity of Depression and Anxiety Disorders, that the “presence of an anxiety disorder is the single biggest clinical risk for the development of depression.” He further states that “patients who have depression and anxiety comorbidity have higher severity of illness, higher chronicity, and significantly greater impairment in work functioning, psychosocial functioning, and quality of life than patients not suffering from comorbidity.” He says that out of the anxiety disorders, PTSD has the highest rate of comorbid psychiatric disorders, including alcohol abuse.

John Briere wrote in his book Child Abuse Trauma:

It is likely that society’s problems with drug addition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide would be reduced substantially if child abuse were prevented and/or successfully treated.

New Zealand politician, Steve Maharey, stated in his ‘Social Development in Action Speech’ in 2005:

The growth in the number of people relying on a benefit due to disabilities or ill health has become the single biggest issue in welfare in every country in the world.

The reason why nothing changes is that too many of us have either repressed, or are hiding dark secrets of abuse that are much too painful and shame-producing to confront. I continue to discover that most people do not want to confront the pain of their past and would prefer to sedate the effect in any way they can – often with food, drugs, alcohol, and even sex. As a counsellor, and while doing the research to write a book on child abuse, I have seen adults abused as children repeatedly fail to thrive on every level – including the inability to create financial security and happy and lasting relationships. Many live in poverty on every level.

Virginia Woolf, who was diagnosed with manic depression (bipolar disorder), suffered years of anguish and turmoil as a result of sibling sexual abuse. The way in which the men received her revelation of what a half-brother did to her when she read out her autobiographical essay, 22 Hyde Park Gate, to the Bloomsbury Group still, unfortunately, applies today. From what Virginia Woolf wrote about the incident in her diary, it clearly demonstrates why many women never speak out about such abuse. The experience left her “most unpleasantly discomfited,” she wrote. “I couldn’t help figuring a kind of uncomfortable boredom on the part of the males, to whose genial cheerful sense my revelations were at once mawkish and distasteful. What possessed me to lay bare my soul!”

It is ironic that one of the Bloomsbury Group’s stated goals was “absolute frankness.” However when it reveals unpleasant family secrets that most people spend their whole lives trying to hide, many of us ‘switch off’ our ears and pretend nothing was ever said, or exile the person who said it into the backwaters of our minds.

Judith Herman wrote in her book Trauma and Recovery:

To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims… The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level… Like traumatized people we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future. Therefore, an understanding of psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history.

While arrests were made in Texas over the rape of the 11-year-old girl, the community was torn apart. Unfortunately that outer ‘tearing apart’ probably mirrors what has already happened to this young girl inside. It is very unlikely that she will ever find happiness in her life without a long, uphill battle to learn to replace the shame and self-loathing resulting from such heinous acts with self-love and self-respect.

If by chance you are wondering how these young men could have acted in this most abhorrent way, John Bradshaw wrote in Homecoming: “In my early teens I ran with other fatherless guys. We drank and whored to prove our manhood.” Pat Conroy in his book, Prince of Tides, confessed: “I equated f*cking with power and hated the part of me where that flawed and dangerous truth dwelt.”

There is, however, a more potent way of claiming or reclaiming one’s power. It requires developing the courage to journey into childhood pain to remember what caused it and connect with the feelings of anger repressed for years. Harnessed in a positive way, this anger is a powerful force which imbues us with the energy to create a different kind of life. It can become a driving force to help us achieve goals that grace our lives with purpose and meaning. And for those who can develop the capacity to forgive, they will also discover the joy of experiencing peace and compassion in their hearts. Of all the feelings to have, these are the most powerful by far. This is inner power that can work miracles.

If most of us could do this very difficult work, and it is difficult indeed, we could not only create world peace but take significant steps to heal the damage caused by the raping of our planet.


In the following video, Marlene Parnia from New Zealand talks about the hurt the sexual abuse involving her uncles caused, and how it later sent her to the gangs looking for someone to look after her and understand her pain.