Innocence Lost: Women and Childhood Sexual Abuse

Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.  When you imagine little girls, maybe you think of soft pink bows and pretty summer dresses, hearts and flowers, dollies and kittens, giggles and laughter.  Tiny little treasures brimming with life and hope–a future of possibility and promise.

But, in a single solitary moment, a little girls innocence can be violated, stolen. Through a single touch, her precious sanctity shattered.

“The long-term emotional and psychological damage of sexual abuse can be devastating to the child”

  American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Whether a family member, trusted friend or a stranger in the community, the perpetrator always comes to ravage. “Sexual abuse kills your innocence, your sexuality, your life, but most of all your soul,” says Gwen, whose sexual victimization began when she was only 5. Sexual abusers take what is not theirs for their own twisted perversion and pleasure.  They use, destroy and throw away the innocence of a child’s life.

DADDY’S LITTLE GIRL

In some cases, the words: “Daddy’s little girl” take on a dark and sorrowful meaning.  At the age of 18, Stacey Lannert shot and killed her father while he slept. He had sexually abused her from the age of 8, but the final straw came when she learned that he’d also started raping her younger sister.  

When Helen was a tiny girl, her father repeatedly raped her. “In the years of our marriage, sex was a terrible nightmare.  I was unable to forget my past as I constantly relived the rapes I experienced as a child,” she said.  Helen is now 60 years old.

“You have no idea how much of an impact your actions have on a child, how it can absolutely devastate a person’s life, and how much work it takes to reverse the damage done.” –Survivor of childhood sexual abuse

LITTLE GIRLS BECOME WOMEN

As seasons lapse one into another, the day comes when a girl looks in the mirror and a another person’s face is reflected back–she has become a woman. She has left behind her shiny little shoes, roller skates, coloring books and dolls. Her body and her life have changed on the outside, but on the inside, she cannot leave her childhood behind. The memories and that part of her seem frozen in time. 

As she carries the secret of childhood sexual abuse into her future as a woman, the effects of such a personal and invasive abuse can leave radical imprints. “We now clearly know that sexual abuse is a major risk factor for a lot of later mental-health problems” –David Finkelhor

SHATTERED MEMORIES

The beautiful and sometimes tragic truth about time and memory is that humans have the innate ability to capture details, things like atmosphere and feelings–like a snapshot from a camera. That includes for many women, the single solitary moment when their carefree innocent life as they knew it, changed forever. That moment when her life morphed from carefree and innocent to being held captive. Captive by her abuser and enslaved to her own thoughts, questions and feelings. 

GUILT AND SHAME

Many women who are victims of childhood sexual abuse live with a crippling sense of shame. Oftentimes victims don’t believe something bad happened to them– they think they are bad personally and that’s what caused the abuse. Tragically, the debilitating shame perpetuates the secret and keeps victims silent.

CONFLICTING EMOTIONS

A girl might learn that the only way to get attention or love is to give something sexual or give up their self-respect.   In Cheryl Burke’s case (Dancing with the Stars), she recalls, “I felt guilty for wanting his love and affection.”  In some cases–although perverted from what a pure and innocent adult-child relationship is suppose to be--a bonding takes place and because of it, a girl may find herself trapped between affection and loyalty for her abuser. Sex can become confusing and many victims of abuse mistake sexual activity for love, and vice versa. This can be carried into their adult relationships.

TRAUMA AND COPING

Trauma so often associated with sexual abuse can leave survivors to wrestle with some form of addiction as a numbing or coping mechanism aka strategic survival.  Seventy to 80 percent of victims live with a shattered sense of self by medicating their pain with alcohol or drugs. Through various forms of coping mechanisms, women attempt to mask their shame, numb the pain and erase the memories of the trauma. Even in adulthood, they may try to prove to others (or themselves) that they are “clean”, “to be believed”, or are “good girls”.

RESTORING TRUST

It is no surprise that sexually abused women have problems with trust, because the vast majority of perpetrators are people that she trusted as a child. Her experience has taught her that people in general, are not trustworthy. Victims oftentimes expect to be hurt.  No one understands better than she does what it feels like when those she trusted most didn’t save her, help her, believe in her, or even see her.

HOPE AND HEALING

Though childhood sexual abuse is a debilitating experience with potentially lifelong effects, it is not a life sentence. Hope is that little flame that refuses to give up, it is the little bit of light that penetrates even the darkest of times.

In order to recover, adult survivors must adopt positive coping behaviors, forgive themselves, and relinquish their identities as survivors (Sgroi, 1989). The healing process can begin when the survivor acknowledges the abuse.  

They can learn to heal through counseling, making positive empowering choices, washing themselves in the light of truth, and surrounding themselves with a strong support network. Over time they will learn that they no longer need to wear that coat of guilt and shame that was wrongly placed on them by someone else.

Stacey Lannert:

“Coming forward helped me find forgiveness. I learned that no matter how badly I wanted to I could not change the past, I had to accept it for what it was. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but it set me free – on all levels. Speak up, shatter the silence that binds us. Our chains of silence can be broken with just a whisper.” 

Our innocence may be forever lost, but as long as we are alive, we still have a future of possibility and promise, and no one can take that from us. Break the chains, silence the silence, and yes, speak up—because the only voice that matters is the voice of Truth.

Additional Reading:

Redemption: A Story of Sisterhood, Survival, and Finding Freedom Behind Bars by Stacey Lannert, and, The Case of Stacey Lannert by Charles Montaldo

Please Tell!: A Child’s Story About Sexual Abuse by Jessie Ottenweller (1991)

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (4th edition) by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (2008)

© by April McCallum, Destiny’s Women

(Photos by bithead, Caroline, AJ Baxter, Mary, Melanie Cook)

Sources: National Center for Victims of Crime,, The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, National Center for PTSD, Childhelp

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