Sexually transgressive behavior and abuse

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What is sexually transgressive behavior?

Sexual abuse is any form of sexually transgressive behavior, verbal, physical, whether deliberate or not. For example, someone is forced to undergo or perform sexual acts. This varies from being spied on or having to watch sexual acts to groping and rape. In the case of abuse, the victim does not feel able to refuse or withdraw from the situation. For example, because psychological pressure is exerted, because there is a power relationship or because someone is being blackmailed or threatened with physical violence. Sexual violence in partner relationships also falls under sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is a serious violation of psychological and physical integrity. In other words, it not only affects psychological functioning, but also disrupts the relationship with one’s own body and contact with other people. The physical will therefore have to be included in the treatment of the consequences of sexual abuse.

Undergoing sexually transgressive behavior as a child is more than a serious traumatic experience: after all, the child is ignored in its most basic needs with far-reaching consequences for the self-image and the image it creates of the world. It is often difficult to imagine relationships based on respect and mutual trust.

This may be somewhat different for people who have been sexually abused for the first time at a later age, because they can fall back on previous positive experiences in relationships with others.

Adults who were sexually assaulted as children cannot place what happened and often struggle with physical and psychological symptoms without knowing exactly where they come from. After all, the body stores information and has its own language, memory and interpretation framework. They also sometimes have only vague memories of a disempowering, confusing situation. Sexual abuse is a shocking and confusing experience due to the combination of violence and intimacy.

Consequences of sexual abuse

The consequences of sexual abuse can be very different and depend on the nature and duration of the transgressive behavior. People who have been sexually abused often carry an injury deeply hidden. The belief that you are welcome to others – just because of who you are – has been violated. The belief that they have a right to the care of others, especially the care of parents when it concerns a child, has been shaken or definitively violated.

For the person concerned, there can therefore be serious consequences for the development of the personality, confidence in contact with other people and happiness in life. Showing oneself, expressing oneself, coming out, making contact is fraught with shame and guilt. The feeling of having brought about the abuse on oneself also occurs. In many cases, people who have been abused display self-destructive behavior, such as addiction to (hard) drugs or self-harm. There is also a tendency to seek and defy dangers, such as in risky sexual behavior. Victims of long-term sexual abuse have sometimes lost awareness of what is appropriate in a situation or feel that they can gain appreciation and favors from others only through sex. As a result, they can sometimes exhibit sexually transgressive behavior themselves.

As vulnerability is increased, the part of the psyche that represents strength, power, the capacity for resistance and aggression is undermined. You often have an increased awareness of the feelings of others after abuse. There may be re-experiences or someone may have the feeling that they no longer have contact with their own body. All kinds of feelings play together: anger, fear, distrust of others, the feeling of being worthless. Having to surrender yourself to the power of the other, being forced to open up physically, undermines the protective power of the ego. An overemphasis of the receptive, vulnerable side can result from this.

Some learn to hide their vulnerability behind a façade of toughness. Others survive through a high degree of service to the other or a suspicious attitude to life. It may also be that someone withdraws and avoids contact with others.

Complaints and symptoms

The undermining of the “I” functions described above makes it understandable that a large number of complaints and disorders of different nature can be related to sexual abuse. The frightening and confusing emotions also continue to manifest themselves for a long time later as physical sensations and sensory memories.

Without being exhaustive, a number of common complaints and symptoms are described here.

  • The victim may suffer from feelings of being defiled and violated,
  • the feeling of loss of control,
  • a reduced sense of self and doubt about one’s own identity.
  • The ability to think, perceive and speak clearly may be impaired.
  • Periodic dips in consciousness and diminished reality testing, necessary to distinguish between the outside world and fantasy, can lead to psychotic periods.
  • Often there is an extreme alienation from the physical experience.
    • That can lead to eating disorders; in overeating as an attempt to comfort themselves with food or to get rid of the empty feeling in the stomach, while the bulimia patient’s vomiting is also a cleansing ritual and can express guilt.
    • The pursuit of underweight in the anorexia nervosa can be an attempt to at least control nutrition or ‘get rid of’ being a woman, while the hypoglycemic intoxication also leads to oblivion and finally the attention of doctors and hospital admissions .
  • The abuse can also manifest itself through physical complaints or stress complaints such as headache, stomach pain or a disturbed appetite.
  • The learned survival strategy of not feeling physically anything may have become a daily automatism. This can be accompanied by chronic pain complaints, strong muscle tension in the neck, back or pelvic floor muscles and sexual function disorders.
  • Chronic anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia may also be related to past sexual abuse. Sometimes there is a tendency to release feelings of anger unexpectedly and violently, usually triggered by seemingly insignificant situations or conflicts.
  • More often, in an effort to keep control, anger is turned on oneself; impulsive in a suicide attempt, seemingly deliberate in endless cleaning rituals and self-harm; hidden deep in depression.
  • Often self-harm is accompanied by unlimited feelings of omnipotence or feelings of release and relief that the own body is finally being felt again.

Therapy for sexual abuse problems

When the integrity of the body has been violated, respectful, physical contact is indispensable in therapy. An experiential (experiential) focused approach in which the client is central and methodical attention to the body form the basis in which cognition, emotion and physical experience and expression come together in a systematic method (see eg Postural Integration or Core Strokes). In addition to the client’s story, the following serve as clues: posture and motor skills, physical symptoms and complaints, so that underlying psychological conflicts, unmet needs and traumatic experiences can become more aware.

Because of the systematic way in which the body is involved in the therapy, the client can experience that his or her physical integrity is respected and that his or her own body can be trusted. “Talking about it” will not be enough.

In other words, the body as an angle in therapy offers you the opportunity to work through unresolved emotional conflicts from the past, by not only discussing them, but also experiencing them again and expressing them in a physical way. The method is based on the assumption that the present is always seen through the glasses of the past (Pesso, 1994)

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Individual therapy sessions

Dirk Marivoet psychotherapist in Belgium

Dirk Marivoet, MSc. is a European certified psychotherapist (ECP). He studied physiotherapy as well as psychomotor therapy at the University of Leuven. For over 30 years he has worked in a holistic way and is especially interested in the integration of body and mind.

Dirk Marivoet and his colleagues at the IBI (International Institute of Bodymind Integration) offer individual therapy sessions for those interested in this mind-body approach.

In Ghent (Belgium), Europe, the rest of the world and online.

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