Sexual Abuse and Redefining Love

This post contains discussions about mental health that may be upsetting or triggering for trauma survivors. If you are at risk for serious depression, anxiety, emotional instability, or self-harm, consider reading this post in the company of a trusted, trauma-informed supporter.

This is our third session in our four-part series It’s Not Personal. Our first session was an overview of the topic, and last week we discussed physical abuse.

Here’s a recap of what we’ve learned so far:

  • Even if our conscious mind knows that we don’t deserve to be hurt, our subconscious mind defaults to blaming itself (even though that makes no logical sense!). Learn more about how the subconscious mind blames itself HERE.
  • Someone who abuses another person’s physical or spiritual being is so deeply insecure, so deeply inside their own head, they don’t even see you. They are so full of rage, feel so out of control, so full of fear and personal insecurity, that the only way they can find even a moment’s relief is to lash out.
  • When someone abuses another physically, sexually, emotionally, or spiritually, they are reflecting their own fear of physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual annihilation.

This session, we will be discussing sexual abuse.

Before beginning any discussion about abuse, it is crucial to clarify the accountability element of Redefining Love. It cannot be overstated that survivors in no way brought the abuse on themselves, and therefore – unlike other relationship struggles – there is no way to examine your own part in the conflict.

Abusers are 100 percent responsible for their own actions!

Thus, when discussing abuse and Redefining Love, the accountability element relates to a survivor’s responsibility for their own healing. We cannot control the actions of others, only how we react or respond to it. And of course, this must involve an enormous amount of grace for ourselves. Abuse is a powerful trauma. It’s entirely expected that survivors react with rage and shame.

A difficult balance

The tendency of our culture to blame the victims of sexual crimes makes the subject of It’s Not Personal a tricky conversation. When we discuss this reality within the Redefining Love Framework, we must approach it from the understanding that perpetrators are always accountable for their own behavior.

Sexual crimes are personal insofar as they are a violation of our own personal body autonomy. But they are not personal in that the abuse or attack has nothing to do with who the victim is or isn’t, and everything to do with the internal struggles of the perpetrator.

And certainly, sexual abuse and assault feels personal when it’s happening, especially for those who have been led to believe by a skilled manipulator that it’s all their fault. However, the abuse is never the fault of the abused. Responsibility lies firmly at the feet of the abuser, regardless of their trauma experiences.

What motivates someone to sexually assault or abuse?

As we discussed in the first post in this series, sexual abuse, assault, and harassment comes from the same place of feeling out of control that leads to physical abuse. Someone who perpetrates sexual crimes feels completely powerless, specifically related to sex.

NOTE: It’s important to realize that sex involves much more than the act of sexual intercourse. It has to do with how the person defines themselves as a sexual being. Therefore, an individual does not necessarily have to be sexually assaulted in order to become a sexually aggressive person themselves.

Past trauma is no excuse!

In many cases, a sexual perpetrator has experienced a sexual violation themselves. It is always tragic when someone feels helpless, terrified, and violated. However, just because someone has a tragic story does not make it okay to harm other people.

This all may seem entirely logical to outsiders, but to the victims of abuse, their sense of empathy has been so warped by their circumstances that they cannot see what seems so obvious to others on the outside looking in.

This is why it is absolutely crucial that society does not blame victims for being sexually assaulted or abused. 

Abuse victims have literally been brainwashed to believe they deserve the way they are treated. And, if the person was abused as a child, they may not even realize that what’s happening to them isn’t just an inevitable part of life.

A note on “grooming.”

Grooming is an ongoing, intentional 1-1 manipulation of a vulnerable person with the intent to normalize sexual contact between the vulnerable person and a figure of authority.

Typically it applies to an adult/child relationship, but grooming can occur between adults when there is a clear power differential, such as employer/employee, professor/student, or politician/intern.

In recent years, the term “grooming” has become politicized and used against the LGTBQ community. The misuse of the term is incredibly dangerous. Here’s why:

  • It contributes to the misconception that LGTBQ individuals are – by virtue of simply existing – a potential abuse threat to children. This encourages violence against members of the LGTBQ community, and contributes to the extremely high rate of suicidal ideation in LGTBQ individuals. (The vast majority of sexual abuse is in fact perpetrated by heterosexual men.)
  • An accusation of a sex crime is extremely severe and life altering. That accusation, and all words associated with it – such as grooming – should only be used to refer specifically to sexual contact between an adult perpetrator with a minor child, or unwanted sexual contact between adults.
  • Words associated with sex crimes are very deeply held and serious to abuse survivors. Politicizing trigger words related to sexual abuse such as grooming is incredibly painful for those who have experienced actual sexual abuse. When these words are used to push a specific worldview, it trivializes their very real and very traumatic lived experience.

It is certainly an individual’s right to have an opinion on this matter, but it is not right to falsely accuse people of a felony or retraumatize sexual abuse survivors in the process of expressing your opinion.

Furthermore, for those in law enforcement and others on the front lines of the fight against sex crimes, the false accusations and politicization of sexual abuse are a dangerous distraction from the very real crimes against vulnerable populations.

Sexual assault and abuse is about power, not sex.

For thousands of years we’ve tried to control sexuality and identity, placing rules about who, when, and how we can express our sexuality. Then, when the rules have negative outcomes we blame the act rather than the rule.

I hypothesize that every single act of sexual violence is a direct result of someone feeling powerless in the face of controlling rules around sex. I posit that if we were to emphasize respect – both towards ourselves and others – rather than trying to control people, there would be no need for such social rules.

The rules themselves are based on the assumption that our natural and normal sexual inclinations require external regulation, which inevitably leads to feelings of shame, which is at the root of all abuse.

Further, I theorize that if, when a sexual crime is committed (or any crime, for that matter), we focused on identifying and healing the root of the perpetrator’s sense of powerlessness, we could eradicate all abuse within one or two generations.

Sadly, the perpetrator may in some cases be beyond repair. But the family and societal shame cycles that brought them to that bad place would be broken. When we break the shame cycle, future generations no longer know what it feels like to lash out against systems of control.

The good news is that we are finally asking the hard questions – i.e. getting curious. Like all existential debates, it’s deeply uncomfortable. But, I am an eternal optimist. I do believe we are headed in the right direction, despite how it may feel as we have these very hard conversations.

How sexual abuse shows up in the culture:

A boy who is raised to believe that he has no control over his own sexual urges never learns how to acknowledge and act on his own feelings. He never learns how to approach his sexuality with intention and curiosity. He never learns how to name his sexual urges, nor does he learn how to act on them in a healthy way.

How does this show up in our culture? It is literally everywhere. It’s in school dress codes. Advertising. Laws about gender, sexuality, and body autonomy. Pornography. Prostitution. Sex trafficking.

And yes. You read that correctly. I put school dress codes and laws about gender in the same category as sex trafficking. Here’s why:

When children are taught that the length of a girl’s skirt or the exposure of her shoulders are a distraction from boys’ ability to learn, we are robbing both boys and girls of their personal autonomy. We are telling them that neither the boy nor the girl have any control over their own bodies – boys have no internal control, and girls have no external control.

Rather than teaching boys how to identify and name their feelings, and then teaching them how to appropriately process those feelings, we are placing the burden entirely on girls to control someone else’s natural sexual urges. This creates a power imbalance.

Internalizing cultural messaging.

How each individual boy and each individual girl absorbs and internalizes these messages depends on the complex interplay between temperament and environment.

A boy who is naturally assertive, combined with a home environment that tells him he is the master of the household, may turn to rape when a girl he’s dating refuses his sexual advances.

A boy who is naturally more passive, combined with a home environment that tells him he should be the master, may become a sexual abuser in order to release his feelings of inadequacy. Or he may become addicted to pornography after seeking out images that show men in positions of power over women (or children), or women in positions of power over men (which may be where he feels most comfortable).

A girl who is naturally assertive, combined with a home environment that tells her she is to be submissive to men, learns to get her way through manipulation, using her physical appearance and sexual prowess to manipulate and control men. Or, she may dismiss men as intellectually inferior, since they seem to have no control over their basic instincts.

A girl who is naturally more passive, combined with a home environment that tells her she is to be submissive to men is primed and ready for all types of abuse, including sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, incest, domestic violence, and sex trafficking.

Power differentials harm all of us.

Power differentials don’t have to manifest so dramatically to be deeply damaging to our intimate relationships.

How many marriages ended in divorce due to confusion over power differentials?

How many people simply do not know how to relate in a healthy way within their intimate relationships because they were raised with these twisted power differentials?

How can any of us possibly understand another individual when we are prevented from approaching our own basic urges and needs with intention and curiosity?

Quite simply, we can’t.

A generational cycle of shame.

Power differentials around sex create confusion for everyone, regardless of gender. Instead of approaching sexuality as a natural and normal part of the human experience, it places sexuality into a category of deviance that must be controlled. In short, it creates shame around something that should be beautiful.

And with each passing generation, that shame builds and corrupts and confuses, resulting in sexual abuse and exploitation in all facets of society, from marriage and parenting, to religion and government. It isn’t sex that broke us, but the shame we’ve created around sex.

By creating power differentials based on external validation, we are creating an environment that makes it impossible to approach sex in a healthy way.

Culture reinforces disrespect.

What is preventing anyone from treating ourselves and others with disrespect when we are taught to believe that it’s all a game of cat and mouse, and nobody’s entirely sure who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Why should young people (male, female, or otherwise) avoid looking at pornography when they are taught that their sexual urges are completely out of their control?


 NEED TO KNOW: The vast majority of pornography exists due to sex trafficking, meaning that a majority of the individuals who appear in pornography are not there of their own free will. Or, they didn’t start out that way. A woman who believes the only way she can feel “empowered” is to pose nude for other people’s sexual pleasure is a product of a system that has taught her that her power lies in her sexuality rather than her beautiful, brilliant mind.


We are asking the wrong questions!

Within this twisted approach to sex and power, the question IS NOT: Why do some young men rape and others don’t?

The question IS ACTUALLY: Why do some young men not rape, when raised in a system where they are taught they have no control over their own bodily urges?

The question IS NOT: Why do some people (mostly straight men) groom and sexually abuse children?

The question IS ACTUALLY: What societal structures are supporting a sense of powerlessness so profound that people feel driven to perpetrate sexual violence against others?

How can survivors of sexual abuse and assault move on?

This is an incredibly huge question that doesn’t have a simple answer. Every circumstance is unique, and therefore require a unique approach to healing. It’s difficult for me to apply the Redefining Love Framework in a general sense to a trauma wound as deep as sexual abuse and assault.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of high quality mental healthcare for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Nowhere in our DNA are we equipped to process such a violation. Fortunately, there is an ever-growing list of resources available to survivors, many of them free or low cost.

If you aren’t sure where to turn, in the U.S., call 800-656-4673.

Sexual Abuse and Redefining Love

Once you’ve enlisted the support of mental healthcare to accompany you on your journey, you can begin applying the principles of Redefining Love.

Due to the incredible loss of body autonomy, survivors of sexual assault and abuse often have lost all sense of self. Before you can effectively set boundaries with others, survivors must develop a sense that they are worthy of respect. Without a sense of self-worth, survivors will continue to be revictimized over and over again, either by the same person, or others.

In Redefining Love, this is called determining the space you take up in the world. Once you’ve set those internal boundaries for yourself, it becomes much easier to identify predators and set healthy boundaries to keep your body safe. You are now ready to assign accountability.

As we’ve already discussed, in the case of sexual assault and abuse, responsibility lies exclusively with the perpetrator. The accountability journey for survivors includes releasing any shame or sense of self-blame for what happened to them.

Sometimes, the rage that survivors experience once they are able to accept the depth of the violation can feel overwhelming. For this reason, it is crucial that they implement self-soothing practices to stay in a regulated emotional space. A therapist or mental health counselor can help guide survivors towards self-regulating practices.

Practicing healing modalities within the safety of therapy helps to come to a place of grace for ourselves.

When it comes to sexual assault and abuse, the grace for others comes in the form of forgiveness. This is a bitter step to take when the crime seems unforgivable. It’s important for survivors to remember that forgiveness is not done for the other person. Forgiveness is done internally so that we can move on with our lives.

Another important thing to remember is that there is a difference between forgiveness and trust. You can forgive someone without ever trusting them again. And without trust, you cannot be in relationship with someone.

Ultimately, the goal of Redefining Love is to learn how to love people who are toxic to us from a safe distance. This is a process that takes a great deal of practice. In the case of sexual assault and abuse, it’s likely this may not come for many years, if ever. And that’s okay. Part of grace towards ourselves involves honoring where we are at in our healing journey, wherever that may be.

Forgiveness the Redefining Love way – where there is a distinction from trust – leads us back to boundaries. We have now shifted out of the shame spiral, and into a Redefining Love spiral. With practice and hard internal work with a trained mental healthcare professional, this new direction can open doors to peace and healing from sexual assault and abuse.

Get safe!

If you have experienced sexual assault or abuse, there is help available! Many communities have support services available. To find resources in your area, in the U.S. call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673

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