Clinical Considerations in Working with Gay and Lesbian Sexual Abuse Survivors - by Jim Struve, LCSW
CLINICAL CONSIDERATIONS IN WORKING WITH GAY AND LESBIAN SEXUAL ABUSE SURVIVORS
By: Jim Struve, L.C.S.W.
Reproduced with permission from MaleSurvivor: National Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization (www.malesurvivor.org)
Gay men and lesbians have much in common with sexual abuse survivors. There are a number of factors that almost all gay men and lesbians face, whether or not they are sexual abuse survivors. There are also a number of factors that almost all sexual abuse survivors face, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation. Ironically, many of these factors are the same for survivors as they are for gay men and lesbians. Survivors who are gay or lesbian must, therefore, deal with the dynamics of the "double layered" impact of these factors.
The following is a very brief discussion of these factors that effect both sexual abuse survivors as well as gay men and lesbians. For each factor, there is a brief description of the effect on sexual abuse survivors followed by a parallel description of the effect on gay men or lesbians. It must be noted that these factors and their influence may be somewhat culture-based, so it is not my intention to suggest that these factors are inherently universal in nature. Assimilating these combined descriptions may help to elaborate the cumulative "double layering" that will be experienced by a gay or lesbian sexual abuse survivor.
Children have no visible means of support separate from their adult guardian(s). The child who has been sexually abused is commonly afraid that s/he will not be believed. It is commonplace for the parent(s) of the abused child to be unavailable or to be a victim of abuse or battering him/herself. Abusers frequently learn to keep their child victim physically isolated from his/her peers.
Gay men and lesbians are prohibited/discouraged from expressions of physical affection in public, which magnifies the degree of isolation & undermines efforts to create support. It is common for gay men and lesbians to separate themselves from the dominant heterosexual culture and to associate with other gay men and lesbians.
Many abusers use real or implied threats in order to construct a web of secrecy that protects the abuse from disclosure. The child victim comes to believe that living within this web of lies and deceptions is normal and/or the only option that is available. Over an extended period of abuse, the dynamics of secrecy become so normal that the abused child is conditioned to experience truth and honesty as harsh realities to be avoided. The abused child learns that secrecy is linked to loyalty and that violating the ground rules of secrecy may result in abandonment.
Traditionally, our culture has invested considerable energy into keeping homosexuality a secret. Gay men and lesbians learn from an early age that even they are expected to keep their sexual orientation a secret. The cultural norm of homophobia creates the context in which gay men and lesbians who are open and non-secretive are frequently judged as "flaunting" their sexual orientation. Denying gay men and lesbians equal (not special) rights -- e.g., equal protections in civil rights laws, equal rights to marriage as are available to heterosexual couples, etc. -- is one way that the dominant culture encourages people to keep homosexuality a secret.
The circumstances of disclosure have a tremendous impact on the abused child's experience of how the world deals with truth. The aftermath of disclosure -- whether it is revealed accidentally or intentionally -- is often characterized by considerable chaos, conflict, and anxiety. Too often, the victim of abuse becomes the target of blame or is ostracized in response to the disclosure. In other words, the victim is frequently held responsible for upsetting the family's alleged peace and tranquility. Unfortunately, within the context of many family systems, this is an easier response than to deal directly with the transgressions of the offender. Victims of abuse have an intuitive awareness of these kinds of family norms well before any incident of disclosure and they learn adaptive behaviors that contribute to "protecting the secret" of their abuse. Frequently, offenders help to reinforce this sense of caution by bolding making threats that reinforce these kinds of family norms.
Gay men and lesbians similarly understand that disclosures of their sexual orientation can precipitate dramatic repercussions for themselves and the world that surrounds them. As with survivors of abuse, disclosures of sexual orientation may occur accidentally or intentionally. As is the case with abuse survivors, the process of disclosure is not a singular event: because a person's sexual orientation is not necessarily visible or self-evident, many gay men and lesbians constantly monitor who already knows this information and where they are positioned on the continuum of acceptance or negative judgment. Because careers and relationships can be jeopardized by disclosures about sexual orientation, gay men and lesbians often expend considerable energy screening subtle environmental cues and trying to second-guess comments or behaviors in themselves or others around them.
The abused child learns to watch for signs of danger, to anticipate the unexpected. In this regard, s/he learns to be intensely hypervigilant toward mood changes in other people, always suspecting that anyone might be a potential abuser. Eventually, this coping strategy of hypervigilance becomes second nature and, therefore, becomes incorporated as a normal part of her/his behavioral response.
Gays and lesbians learn to incorporate a heightened awareness of physical or emotional danger into their worldview. Many gays and lesbians live in fear that their sexual orientation will be disclosed to other people or in situations that will have dangerous repercussions -- e.g., loss of job. Gays and lesbians who are not open about their sexual orientation learn to be hypervigilant during interactions with friends/colleagues. At the societal level, it is important to understand that oppression involves the use power and control to divide people. Gays and lesbians learn to live with the reality that people search for scapegoats when they get scared, and that gays and lesbians frequently become the targets of such social oppression.
Most sexual abuse survivors focus considerable energy in their recovery process on healing from the damages caused by shame. Shame is devastating to self-esteem and results in a highly negative self-image for most survivors.
Because the dominant culture defines heterosexuality as "normal" and homosexuality as "deviant," most gay men and lesbians grow up -- not yet knowing that they, themselves, are gay or lesbian -- learning to fear and despise homosexuality. Consequently, as they begin to struggle seriously with accepting their own sexual orientation, they often must overcome their own internalized feelings of shame for not conforming to the standards of "normalcy." Gay men and lesbians are actually the only minority that does not learn how to cope with being a minority while growing up. It is only later, after having incorporated the homophobia & heterosexism of the dominant culture that gay men and lesbians come to realize that they are a member of that minority. In other words, gays and lesbians are the only minority who learn to hate themselves before they learn they are a member of the minority. Such entrenched feelings of self-hatred provide a fertile breeding ground for feelings of shame.
Children are born into this world with an inherent innocence. Until they have reason to believe otherwise, it is natural for children simply to trust the other people who populate their world. Children are also inherently dependent upon the adult guardians in their life to provide for their safety and protection. The realities of this innocence and dependency leave children very vulnerable to the prey of adult sexual offenders. Unfortunately, until children are able to venture beyond the boundaries of their home and "discover" the larger world, they have no reference point to realize that abusive experiences that may be inflicted on them are inappropriate.
Negative social stigma regarding homosexuality also contributes to an increased level of vulnerability that most gay men and lesbians feel, fearing that they could become the target of prejudice or hate. Because disapproval of homosexuality is generally accepted as the normal and expected social order, most people do not even notice the ways in which gay men and lesbians learn to live with this increased experience of vulnerability as a routine part of their life experience. It should also be noted that gay and lesbian youth may be at greater risk for sexual assault as children because of their secrecy, isolation, & confusion of feelings. Furthermore, some research studies have reported that upwards of one-third to one-half of all adolescent suicide attempts may be related to issues of sexual orientation.
Sexual abuse, by definition, affects how a child feels about and expresses his/her sexuality and his/her comfort level about sex and sexual matters; dissociation becomes linked with sexuality; sexuality may become linked to nurturance, pain, or fear. For many survivors of abuse, a major part of the healing process is to relearn the norms and behaviors of sexuality, whereby sex is not automatically associated with abuse. It can also be very confusing for a survivor to disentangle which sexual feelings and behaviors are natural to their core personality and which feelings and behaviors are learned or conditioned responses resulting from the abuse.
Gay men and lesbians are often defined by the larger culture in terms of their sexuality. Because homosexuality seems so threatening within the context of a culture that adheres to the norms of exclusive heterosexuality, many people focus rigidly on the sexual dimension of homosexuality, excluding all the other human aspects that constitute the lives of gay men and lesbians. Because homosexuality is considered as being deviant from heterosexuality (rather than being an equally viable option for sexual expression), many people expend considerable energy trying to explain or justify the reasons why someone is gay or lesbian. Gay men and lesbians frequently struggle to unlearn the norms of heterosexuality and to gain an acceptance of their own feelings of sexuality.
Abused children grow up feeling different than their peers. Most survivors feel low self-esteem and have difficulty trusting other people. They often feel inadequate as they seek to form and maintain relationships. Many abuse survivors become very skilled at controlling the dynamics in their relationships, believing that control provides insurance against further abusive experiences. For other survivors, achieving a certain threshold of intimacy may trigger responses that become defensive in nature or that seek to undermine the relationship, with the survivor still believing that closeness is a precursor for abuse.
The lack of validation of gay and lesbian relationships -- by family, friends, and social institutions -- is demeaning to the quality of those relationships. In addition, feelings of low self-esteem may create obstacles to sharing oneself freely. Gay men and lesbians often cannot rely on familial or community supports to assist them in maintaining their relationships. This often creates additional stressors for gay men and lesbians that push and pull on their relationships, sometimes making intimacy more difficult. Learning to hide one's sexual orientation makes it difficult to then share oneself with the full depth of intimacy that is healthy for a solid interpersonal relationship. It is frequently observed that the more open and free a gay man or lesbian can be about his/her sexual orientation, the greater the possibility for him/her to achieve intimacy in personal relationships.
Dissociation is one of the coping strategies that is most commonly used by victims of sexual abuse. By "tuning out," "numbing out," or "diverting one's attention away from reality," the victim of abuse is able to tolerate what might otherwise be intolerable circumstances. Sometimes dissociation is necessary to endure the excruciating physical pain that may accompany incidents of abuse; sometimes dissociation helps the victim manage the intense emotional turmoil that is stirred up by experiences of abuse. Frequently, dissociation becomes a useful tool by which a survivor can help to protect the secret of the abuse, a particularly useful strategy if the survivor has been threatened by his/her offender or if the survivor fears that others may not believe him/her if disclosure should occur. Many times people in the victim's surrounding world may not want to hear the reality about abuse and they may, unfortunately, dissociative information that is disclosed by a victim/survivor.
Gay men and lesbians learn the skills of dissociation from an early age. Dissociation is a predictable survival strategy for gay men and lesbians who must live within the context of a dominant culture that is unapologetically heterosexist. Most children in our society are taught that homosexuality is "disgusting" and "deviant" so it is not surprising that children learn to dissociative feelings of same-sex attraction when they first begin to emerge. The larger culture also encourages gay men and lesbians to learn to live "split lives," in which they should maintain an external appearance of heterosexuality and pursue any homosexual feelings only within the confines of a gay subculture. Historically, gay men and lesbians have been very adaptive in participating in this kind of cultural dissociation. However, in recent years increasing numbers of gay men and lesbians have chosen to move beyond such dissociative strategies and are beginning to pursue their lives as "integrated" people living fully and openly.
This has been a brief discussion to address some of the clinical dynamics of gay men and lesbians as compared with sexual abuse survivors. As has been noted, many of the dynamics have similar features and the overlap of these features result in a "double-layered" impact for gay men and lesbians who are also survivors of sexual abuse. It is hoped that this brief and general presentation will catalyze others to write about and discuss this topic so that we can increase our understanding of the experiences of gay and lesbian survivors.