All forms of trauma share at least one thing in common. At the most basic level, they are experiences of powerlessness. For many survivors of sexual abuse and assault, this powerlessness was not necessarily experienced through overt physical force. Gunpoint is not the only way to have your safety stolen. Emotional coercion is a very effective way to steal safety from other people.
For survivors of childhood sexual trauma and abuse, this form of stealing safety often takes place through a subtle process called “grooming.” Grooming is basically when a predator or perpetrator “buddies up” to the intended target of sexual violation. Some form of emotional lack or neglect is detected in the child. Perhaps the child comes from a divorced home or a home with a parent who has literally or emotionally abandoned the family. In any case, the integrity of the home is compromised. There is a hole in the child’s heart. It causes the child to walk around with a cloud over their head, a lack of confidence, and this leaves the child vulnerable.
The predator picks up on this vulnerability. The target has been selected. I believe that for many predators, this is not a conscious process. It definitely was not for my perpetrators. Sure, there are the worst stories that have been valorized in popular consciousness of the malicious individual who lurks in waiting to commit premeditated harm. Images of old men with candy and unmarked vans come to mind. Without denying such predators exist, I think the hard truth for many people is much more subtle and much more difficult to swallow. It has been really hard for me to come to terms with this fact in my own story.
The truth is that over 90% of survivors of childhood sexual abuse knew their perpetrator and that over 1/3 of the perpetrators were family members. This means that leading up to having their safety stolen, most survivors of childhood sexual abuse had some form of regular interaction and contact with their abusers. This was my story.
My safety was stolen in my childhood through a complex process of subtle social interactions that conditioned me to expect that my agency and autonomy were not valuable. I came to expect my own silence. In the midst of such neglect having anyone take interest in me felt like a fresh spring of water in a long desert. When my perpetrator offered me rewards, promises, attention, care, and manipulative forms of kindness, I was hooked. We played games together, and I came to trust my perpetrator.
Then the horror came. The kindness became bondage. The promises and rewards became threats to keep silent. Instead of innocent video games, I was invited to play games that humiliated me and violated my sexual autonomy. I felt utterly duped for trusting the kindness of another. It had been used against me. I had been manipulated for the pleasure of another.
I was reeling. How can this be happening? Why is this person I trusted, who treated me with such kindness, now coercing me to do things that feel “gross”? I clearly didn’t have the words for what was happening.
I realize now what was happening. I had been groomed. I had been prepared like a lamb to the slaughter. I often think gunpoint would have been easier. At least then, the threat would have been more obvious, and I could confront it more directly.
The horror of sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is that it steals safety in such a subtle way. Afterward, life no longer looks the same; the world feels like a completely unsafe place.
Unless you can steal back safety.
That has been the one of the greatest acts of kindness to myself in my journey of recovery. Stealing back safety means learning to find joy, relaxation, comfort, and delight in the world again. It means learning to let down your defenses and realize that not all kindness is a setup for abuse. Not all experiences of delight are a form of grooming. There are actually really kind people out there with good intentions who are not out to get me. I can learn to trust the kindness of others again. I need to in order to flourish as God intended.
Stealing back safety for me has meant learning to trust in my own senses of delight. This involves risk. I often tense up when my wife or others I love touch me, and I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t have to think about it…it is a gut reaction, a PTSD response. My body is reacting against what I fear may be grooming again.
Stealing back safety has meant learning to notice this tensing up. I name it in the moment. I close my eyes and say to myself, “I am safe. This person is safe.” I take a deep breath. And I relax and risk trusting that I am not being groomed. I am experiencing real kindness. I am not a fool for enjoying this person who loves me.
And I wasn’t a fool when I was a child. Trusting in the love of others is good. It was good for me then, and it is still good now. I refuse to condemn my desire for connection with others. Risking the joy of connection is my way to steal back safety from the effects of my childhood trauma and abuse.
Preston Hill, Survivor, Theologian, Ph.D. Student at University of St. Andrews
Preston and his wife Chesney live in St Andrews, Scotland where he is earning his doctoral degree in theology. Preston and Chesney both love studying and discussing reformed theology and liturgical practice. They also love to weep with those who weep. They feel a call together to minister and teach both in the academy and the church. Preston is researching John Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. As a male survivor and advocate, Preston is passionate about relating the significance of Christ’s own suffering and terrors in His descent into hell to the hells that we experience here and now, especially for survivors of severe trauma.