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SEXUAL ACTING-OUT AS RESPONSE TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
By William Lent, LCSW

With the women and men who come to us for treatment of sexual acting-out, we discover again and again that the roots of their problematic behavior are found in the traumatic wounds that they suffered as children.

Webster's Dictionary defines trauma as: "1a. an injury (as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent, 1b. a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury."

Trauma entails a violation of the integrity of the self.  All physical, sexual, and emotional abuse constitute such violations.  A traumatic state is a condition that results when a person does not have the necessary resources, support, and safety to deal with the traumatizing event. In overt and covert child sexual abuse, the physical and/or the psychic boundaries of the child are violated. The child is incapable of defending herself against these violations.   She is truly powerless over most aspects of her life. She is  dependent on the support of others on parents or parent-substitutes and is completely vulnerable.  She is at the mercy of her environment and of the caretakers in that environment.

That powerlessness would be thought of as undeniable except that we encounter repeated examples of adults who were once powerless, victimized children, who see themselves as somehow having been responsible for that victimization.  As children, their ability to deny their own dependence and powerlessness allowed them to survive, to cope with abuse, to reconcile confusing contradictions ("Daddy says he loves me, I love Daddy, Daddy is striking me, I must deserve this"), and to live in a fantasy where the world, i.e. one's caregivers, was not so precarious and violent.  For the child, the truth of what was going on when he was being abused was too much to handle.  A child needs safety and support to even entertain the awareness of being abused. In that situation, denial served a necessary protective function.

When the word "trauma" is used, one tends to think of catastrophic and out- of -the -ordinary events resulting in injury.   We certainly look at trauma as catastrophic and damaging, but also as all too ordinary, all too normal.  We suggest that the norm is that most children suffer some significant traumatization in their childhoods. We inflict and allow to be inflicted upon our children offenses for which we would be arrested if those actions were committed against adults.  The psychological impact of violence against adults is well known.  Is violence less damaging to the psyche of a developing child than to the psyche of an adult victim?   Consider how traumatizing it would be for you as an adult to be hit, or for your hair to be pulled, or your sexual organs to be rubbed against, or for you to be screamed at by a giant six times your size. That is what happens to millions of children in this world every day.  Children do not have the ability to get away from the situation, to comprehend what is going on, nor to defend themselves from the intrusion of the powerful adults around them.

The wounding of children may not rise to the level of overt sexual abuse or legally indictable incidents of physical abuse. More difficult to see and perhaps more common are the psychic wounds that occur as a result of the boundary violations against a child's developing sense of self. A parent's uncontrolled anxiety, rage, lust, insecurity, and neediness, are absorbed directly into the self by the child who developmentally is incapable of protecting himself and who does not have yet a clear distinction between self and other. Young children cannot protect themselves from the demands and manipulations of the adults in their environment.  They need the adults around them to protect them from intrusiveness and manipulation and to support their growth as unique persons who are not born to serve the parents' needs and wants.

Among the effects of childhood traumatization are:

  • Shame the conviction that something is wrong with oneself at one's core
  • Guilt the belief that one has done something to deserve or cause this trauma
  • Confusion when the abuse is denied or minimized or committed by someone whom the victim loves and who declares love for the victim
  • Overly rigid or porous boundaries
  • Severely restricted ability to separate from the parent
  • Difficulty in knowing the self what one feels, wants, needs, thinks
  • Overwhelming anxiety
  • Rage
  • Depression where one lacks access to one's anger or sadness about the abuse
  • Affective restriction where the person is only able to experience very limited emotions, or
  • Affective lability where one is flooded by fluctuation of extreme and conflicting emotional states
  • Poor impulse control
  • A psychosexual "freezing" in time, in instances of sexual abuse, where the person's development is arrested at the point where he/she was abused
  • Acting-out behaviors of all types including sexual acting out
  • Acting-in behaviors including sexual anorexia where a person avoids all sexual behavior
     

Sexual acting-out can be defined as any form of sexual behavior whose primary function is to avoid uncomfortable feelings and other facts.  The acting-out behavior is driven by the attempt to keep difficult feelings and memories from awareness.  Paradoxically, acting-out is the symbolic, veiled, indirect way by which those feelings and memories are given expression.  The sixty year old man re-enacts the torment and humiliation he endured as an abused child by hiring a prostitute to beat him.  Less dramatically, the forty year old man who was not adequately affirmed and adored as a young child seeks to make up for that through multiple affairs as an adult. A thirty year old client finds herself unable to say no to the men who hit on her even though she is not physically attracted to them and finds herself repulsed by them. In her inner work, she discovers that she had no possibility of saying no to her coercive and abusive father.

The hallmark of sex addiction is continued performance of the sexual acting-out behavior in spite of continued and often progressive negative consequences.  Intellectual insight alone is insufficient for one to be freed from addiction, from the repeated compulsion to act-out sexually.  The acting-out defense has become so habitual and the pleasurable release so intense that the sex addict goes there with near-automatic consistency through most hours of the day.

We work with our clients to go beyond intellectual insight to a gradually increasing emotional awareness of their own history which includes most valuably their own woundedness. We support them in discovering and claiming the long split-off or repressed parts of themselves. The feelings and the truths which underlie the impulse to act-out have the power and the intensity when acknowledged and released to challenge the power of addiction.  We invite our clients to know and then tell their own stories directly so that they no longer need to tell their stories indirectly through the symbolic re-enactment of sexual acting-out. We support them in the integration of their new awareness into a self which is grounded in truth and free from the power of compulsion.

Healing from the wounds that underlie the addiction is a process that takes time and that requires tremendous commitment on the part of the recovering addict.  Connecting with one's feelings can be arduous and extremely uncomfortable for those who have been studiously trained to avoid emotion. We live in an addictive, truth-denying society where the capacity for vulnerability and connection with feeling is limited at best. The recovering addict strives to identify the poisonous messages to which he is daily subjected by this culture, and to be aware of and released from the impact of his own particular childhood abuse. Our society enables and actively induces the numbing of our emotions.  The traumatized child within that society has even more difficulty accessing his feelings because of the stunting of emotional vitality that happens in defensive response to trauma.

We work with our clients to view their urge to act-out not as a temptation but as a pathway to the truth of feeling and memory. One way we do this is by encouraging our clients to ask themselves, as soon as they are aware of the impulse to act-out, questions such as:

  • What thought immediately preceded the thought to act-out?
  • What was I feeling just before the thought to act-out?
  • What am I trying to avoid feeling?

We will ask a client to complete this sentence as often as possible throughout the day:

 "When I was a little boy/little girl,  I _______________________."

We may ask a client to affirm during the day:

"I am willing to know what happened to me."

We may invite a client to imagine the child she once was, to enter into dialogue with that child and to listen to that child. We encourage our clients to have compassion for that little boy or little girl, to treat that child with loving kindness rather than with contemptuous disdain for the child's weakness and vulnerability, and to know the cause of that contempt.

These are techniques to support clients in developing awareness of their histories and their full selves. We encourage clients to go to these vulnerable places and truths within themselves.  We do not know in advance what will emerge. Nor do we deign to tell clients what did happen to them or how they should feel.  The process of discovery moves sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  Each recovering person has her own process which unfolds over time as she is ready to deal with the repressed material behind the acting-out. That material should not be forced to the fore. We see ourselves as respectful facilitators and witnesses on this journey of recovery.

Every time the truth is experienced and acknowledged, that truth can be consciously integrated into the self.  It no longer needs to be expressed symbolically through acting out. With each discovery of formerly repressed material, the compulsion to act-out is diminished. The traumatic wounds of childhood no longer need to be denied and kept at bay they can come to awareness where they can be treated with kindness and wisdom. The causes of that wounding can be known, and the person can experience all of his feelings about those injuries.  He can grieve about what he once endured, and he can be freed from the compulsion to re-enact what happened to him, a re-enactment which inflicts serious damage on him and sometimes others.

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