Is it innocent exploring and ‘child’s play’, or a set up for devastating behaviour patterns and a life of guilt and shame for one or both parties?
Depending on your life experience, your answer may be different than mine. Each story is unique, each journey personal. But, in any case, silence does not bring hope to others, so, for this reason, we’ll dive right in to yet another taboo ‘talk’.
As the injustice of abuse impacted our Mennonite community in negative ways, back in the early 1980’s, a keen sense of right and wrong developed in me. Not right and wrong in the ‘religious’ sense, based on cultural beliefs and norms, but based on hearing God speak in personal ways, on topics that parents, and the Christian culture in general, failed to speak. God began to teach me through that deep inner sense that warns me the enemy is trying to bring destruction, and the gentle nudging that God has a better plan…
One of the curses of being sexually abused as children is that it frequently results in exploring and experimenting sexually. At a very young age it can trigger behaviours that go way beyond natural curiosity, to re-enacting abuse experiences. This is particularly likely when healthy sexuality is not taught, and the only frame of reference, for what is normal or appropriate, is their own abuse.
I’ve heard every excuse in the book for this ‘exploring’ and curiosity…. “It’s just our fallen, sinful nature… It’s natural curiosity… It’s generational”… and so on. While some of these reasons are true, some of the time, all of them are not true all the time. If we take the easy way out and chalk everything up to this, without looking deeper, we could leave our children vulnerable and struggling through life, hiding memories they don’t know what to do with.
On the other extreme, some adults react in anger, rather than casually writing it off as innocent child’s play. I’ve had many broken adults describe the beatings and anger they experienced when their parents or some adult caught them. This is the most damaging response I have seen to date, causing life-long devastation to the child. It destroys parent-child relationships, as trust in adults and authority figures is broken, and creates a warped sense of sexuality. These kids grow up to believe sex is dreadfully evil. And, for some, suffering violence for something done in innocence with no appropriate teaching or awareness, causes extreme sexual confusion.
We need the balance of recognizing the children are innocent, but acknowledging that they need to be taught and guided, rather than punished, shamed or ignored.
When certain sexual behaviours seem normal, because of life experience, it’s easy for kids to spontaneously get into mischief and instigate exploring, to no fault of their own. Shame and punishment further silence them.
Twice, when I was the instigator as a young child, the Holy Spirit gently let me know, through a quiet ‘sense’ that it made God sad, that it wasn’t good. The first time I was six. I didn’t fully understand it until many years later, in my twenties, when the memory returned.
Shortly after I turned twelve, I recalled an incident where I was the instigator. I wrote a note to the other child saying I didn’t understand why it was wrong, or what it meant, and how sorry I was. I asked for forgiveness, knowing it was my fault, and then it was history.
Before sharing this story I asked permission from my friend, now an adult, to make sure it would not create unnecessary trauma. We remain friends, knowing that God’s grace is bigger than any sin, let alone things that happen in the innocence of childhood. I received more than permission yesterday. When we spoke I was strongly encouraged to share, if it would give hope to other adults who carry similar childhood stories of guilt that haunts, if hidden. I hear confessions frequently from adults struggling now with guilt over what happened in early childhood. It is time to set the children free.
I cannot help but wonder what would have happened, had I ignored that still small voice in those preteen years. Would I have become a perpetrator? Would I be ‘Dan’ in yesterday’s story? I don’t know the answers, but I thank God for His grace.
When I sit across the table from an adult who tells me that they victimized children or instigated inappropriate experimenting as children, I remember that grace. It could have been any one of us.
Children experimenting with children may be innocent, but it still creates struggles for both parties. I hear the stories often, and I know from personal experience the damage it does. The ‘victim’ is prematurely introduced to sexual awareness and some instigators carry intense guilt and shame, knowing it was wrong, but not fully grasping why. Years later, with awareness and understanding, this guilt and shame threatens to destroy lives, ministry and purpose.
However, I don’t feel the other children ‘victimized’ me. How could they? They didn’t know what they were doing any more than I knew what I was doing. Their intent was innocent, having no understanding of sexuality. My intent, as a child, was not to wound my friend, because I was completely innocent of any sexual understanding, but it scarred us both. Because of our innocence, and me taking ownership, our friendship was not destroyed.
When an adult wounds a child, the dynamics change. Adult perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse must face the consequences of knowingly harming the innocent. It has to be that way. But when I sit across from the perpetrator, my first thought is not judgement, it is, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
When I remember the exploring of early childhood, I feel sad that, when it was prevalent, no one guided us and taught healthy sexuality. I wonder, would my life story be different if someone had empowered us, taught us the right to say ‘no’? Would it have been different if we had known the truth about our bodies, about sexuality (at age appropriate levels) and if we had been told that it is important to respect other people’s bodies? I think it so.
I ask those questions not to live in regret, but to encourage you to positively impact the children in your lives. Parents, teach your children well. Adults, protect all children in your care. They need to be safe with you.
God is a Redeemer. I don’t regret my story. All of those things shaped me and taught me. Much of life’s wisdom comes from inviting God into our experience and finding His truth in the tragedies of life. It is a never-ending learning experience. It is to this that I attribute my healing. When He spoke, even in childhood, I took ownership for my sins.
And, somewhere in that trauma of childhood, the ‘truth warrior’ developed in me, and that has served me well.
Having taken ownership for my wrongs, I was able to take a strong stand, several years later at age fourteen, in the face of violence in the school room…. But, that will be tomorrow’s post…
© Trudy Metzger
Return to 1st post in Sexual Abuse Series