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Glenn Yank, MD is a Psychiatrist located in Tennessee.


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Question:
A new, and very good, male friend of mine, was sexually abused by his brother when he was 10. It went on, repeatedly, over two years. In an intimate conversation with him, he told me that he enjoyed it. Is it possible for a child to enjoy being molested? He has told me he liked “giving himself up” to his brother because he loved him. He said when the abuse stopped, he felt unloved and abandoned. What does that mean? Anonymous

Answer:

Dear Anonymous,

To reply to your question, I would first like to define what is meant by sexual abuse of one child by another. I will use the definition in Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (Sadock and Sadock; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2000). This text defines sexual abuse of one child by another child as sexual behavior between two children when one of them is significantly older than the other and/or uses coercion. Since you use the words “abuse” and “molested,” I will assume your friend was describing a situation in which his brother was significantly older and/or there was, at least initially, some element of force or coercion involved, and that he was not describing typical, pre-adolescent sex-play.

A significant age difference is important because younger children are really not able to consent meaningfully to sexual activity. They are unable to adequately anticipate the physical and emotional consequences of this activity. Thus, even if there is no force or coercion, for an older sibling to engage in sexual activity with a much younger sibling is exploitation of the younger person, at a minimum. It may well be that this is the type of situation you are describing, in which a younger sibling would participate in sexual activity out of a wish to feel loved by the older one, or to show love to the older one. This is still exploitation of the younger sibling’s immature emotional state and causes harm to the younger sibling by confusing loving and sexuality at an age where the person cannot really appreciate this distinction. It results in exactly what you describe: “when the abuse stopped, he felt unloved and abandoned,” because the child had lost the ability to distinguish love from exploitation. Children can be so starved for affection that they will mistake any attention for love, even attention that is exploitive and/or painful.

If force and/or other forms of coercion are involved, this also renders “consent” to the behavior meaningless. If a child begins to think that a certain form of sexual activity is going to happen to them regardless of whether they want it or not, they can adapt to this in a variety of ways, including seeming to go along with or even invite the behavior if this increases their illusion of having a “say” about whether the behavior will occur. People often have a habit I call “evoking the inevitable,” which serves to help people think they have some control in situations where they really don’t. People in coercive situations also may use the psychological mechanism of “identifying with aggressor” to decrease their sense of helplessness, which leads to justifying the perpetrators behavior. This is seen among people who are kidnapped or held prisoner – Patty Hearst’s defense of her Symbionese Liberation Army kidnappers was a example of this phenomenon. Can a person “enjoy” sexual behavior under these circumstances? They might pretend to enjoy it so well they ultimately convince themselves that they do, if the alternative is that they will feel only helplessness and pain.

I think one of the meanings of your friend’s story is that abuse has enduring psychological consequences of which the victim might not even be aware. People have remarkable abilities to adapt and survive experiences of abuse and torture, but sometimes the psychological mechanisms that enable them to survive persist for a very long time even after the abuse has stopped, and leave them with beliefs about themselves and relationships that hamper future healthier relationships. In your friend’s case, this included making him more psychologically vulnerable to feeling unloved and abandoned in situations that ordinarily would not cause these feelings.

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