The EVE for Life organisation serves adolescent mothers living with HIV, 45% of whom were sexually abused as children. We have no state funding and less than 1% of our funding comes from local donors in Jamaica.
As I reflect on my sexuality journey, directly and indirectly through the experiences of friends, schoolmates, family members and now my clients, I want to claim and name the ‘Covert’ sexual abuse in the Jamaican Culture.
About eleven years ago, I was discussing my early sexual initiation with my husband and a female friend quite casually and with some feelings of ‘I was never held down or forced’, ‘I wasn’t traumatized or raped’, when he said to me “J any man who had sex with you at over those years is a peadophile and a rapist”. Wow that hit like a brick, a big rock stone. My feelings of accomplishment around sex or sexual activity with older males, including the sixth former as in those days you had it going on if ‘upper six a get a lick’ or the elevated position you held in the teenage girls club if the boy wasn’t a ‘school boy’. Okay now if he drove and you were in fourth or fifth form then, no matter how fat, that is my physical form then and now, I had it going on. Queen Bee.
Now, covert sexual abuse that’s not obvious because it doesn’t involve the genitals all the time or is usually non-violent. I decided to write about this because it leaves us wondering if something’s really wrong or if we’re imagining it, which is a typical reaction to any emotional abuse.
Today we say the girl who is obvious (overt) is bad, loose, a slut, promiscuous, not from a good home, a sinner and other such labels, however there are a hold heap (coverts) who are A students, Sunday school regulars, decent family and the like. By now you should get the picture of where I am going or even see yourself in the frame.
It’s also the ones (coverts) who didn’t get pregnant or carried the pregnancy, the ones who never got an STI or declared taking the ‘red and black pill. It is the ones who believe the abuser loves or is in love with them or worse blinded by their own affection.
Denying Covert Sexual Abuse is like a diabetic who stands in fire and feels nothing because the loss of neurological function.
When a girl is made to believe, that sex and sexual activity is okay during childhood, and the adolescent years, when the girl feels it is okay to call a woman to tell her I have your man, when a girl feels powerful because ‘mi have a big man’, when a girl BELIEVES it is okay to ‘choose’ pregnancy because her ‘man’ wants a baby, when a girl finds self- worth and popularity in the number of boys she sleeps with, when a girl believe ‘a little sex’ is good for relaxation so she can study more, when a girl believes ‘puss inna bag’ is old fashion, when a girl believes the way to get and keep a male is by ‘putting out, when the phrase ‘ if you love me you would give me’ become a pledge of commitment. Therein lays the dilemma, the mental and emotional abuse that says if there was no violence or no apparent manipulation it is okay.
Some will argue that in order to call something sexual abuse, there needs to be sexual intent. I don’t agree. A person who sexually abuses covertly can simply consider their behavior as their way of expressing love, ‘cho man is like me like you’ this is when the girl giggles if you were the giggling type according to my mother. The important thing is that it leaves us girls feeling no less dirty, used, and dehumanized than if they had performed overt sexual abuse.
I believe covert sexual abuse maybe more prevalent than overt sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is so ugly that Jamaicans prefers to spread the myth that it’s rare.
My position is unapologetically uncompromising because sexual abuse of any kind is damaging. Even if the abuser never forced you, it interferes with all your relationships especially self. Lack of awareness or admission that it’s happening, even for years, doesn’t keep the internal scars from forming.
I AM A SURVIVOR OF Covert Sexual Abuse
Effects of Covert Sexual Abuse
One way to tell that you’re being or have been covertly sexually abused is by the effects sexual abuse typically leaves. The effects of sexual abuse are many, so I’m just going to highlight some common ones.
Feelings of Worthlessness
Sexual abuse of any kind is dehumanizing. It makes us feel like we’re just a body that our abuser can use at will. Any time they want pleasure; they can just reach out and do what they want with our bodies. Dehumanization leads to all kinds of emotional problems that come from feeling worthless. We may feel like we don’t deserve to succeed, be happy, be loved, or enjoy life.
All abuse is dehumanizing, but sexual abuse is especially so because it adds so much more confusion to what’s going on. If we can justify emotionally and physically abusive behaviors like criticism, humiliation, and beatings over misbehavior, there’s really no way to justify sexual abuse. It’s the purest kind of exploitation. I think that’s why the worthlessness that comes from sexual abuse, and that means even just one episode, is so acute. It knocks out any kind of logical rationale for what happens to us.
The depth of shame at covert sexual abuse can be no less damaging than that from overt sexual abuse. This is especially true when we only realize that we were sexually abused after years of accepting it or when we feel like we can’t protest because that would make things too messy. It never occurred to me, for instance, to push my mother away when she kissed me aggressively on the neck or to tell her not to walk in on me when I’m bathing. Covert sexual abuse is much easier to explain away than overt sexual abuse, so when we try to make it stop and are accused of being over-sensitive or imagining things, it makes us feel even more ashamed.
Because of the covert nature of this type of sexual abuse, it leaves us confused as to what’s really going on. We might first wonder how we really feel about the way we’re being spoken to or touched or kissed. It feels wrong, yet we can’t definitively say it is. We may also feel confused about our reaction to it. Unlike overt sexual abuse, there may not be a blatant feeling of sexual pleasure, which is a source of great confusion for so many sexual abuse survivors. However, we may believe that the touching and kissing is a sign of deep affection and be drawn to that affection, and that leads to even more confusion about what we’re experiencing.
Anger Management Problems
Covert sexual abuse is no less a betrayal of our trust than overt sexual abuse. It’s just less obvious. We trust our parents to respect the boundaries of our bodies. We understand that no one has the right to make us feel uncomfortable. We’re frustrated because it feels like there’s this great wrong that was done to us but that’s difficult to impossible to make anyone else understand. We might carry that anger into other areas of our lives.
Fear of Physical Intimacy
Because covert sexual abuse can be pervasive, it can lead to a fear of physical intimacy with anyone and even to something called haphephobia, which is a fear of being touched. Covert sexual abuse doesn’t have to be hidden, like overt sexual abuse, which may make it more frequent. Things that are appropriate for a lover may make us feel uncomfortable because they were done by our parents. I can’t, for instance, tolerate being touched or kissed on the neck because this was a prime target for my mother’s inappropriate affection. Even the thought of being touched there makes me sick. I think this fear of physical intimacy is perhaps the most obvious legacy of sexual abuse, so if you don’t have memories of overt sexual abuse, covert sexual abuse might be a factor.
Promiscuity Accompanied by Shame
The opposite reaction to fear of physical intimacy is promiscuity. I include here touching and kissing of non-genital areas of the body that are sexually stimulating. This can feel like a hunger for the same kinds of uncomfortable feelings we experienced from our sexual abusers. There might be some underlying rage involved, as if we can conquer the discomfort by having it done over and over again. It’s like seeking to kill the shame by flooding ourselves with it. If we can have a sexual experience where we don’t feel ashamed, we hope it can “cure” us of the shame from all sexual experiences. Of course that doesn’t happen because the shame goes way deeper than just a specific kind of behavior.
As I’ve said multiple times on this piece, covert sexual abuse is no less damaging than overt sexual abuse. My opinion is that any type of abuse requires therapy, at least initially, to get the healing process going or to get it moving on a firmer foundation. This is especially true of sexual abuse. I’d even go so far as to say that any sexual abuse survivor who thinks they can heal from sexual abuse without any therapy is deluding themselves.
I again want to emphasize that if you’ve never gotten therapy for sexual abuse then that’s really important to do. Even covert sexual abuse isn’t something to be taken lightly. The resources can help, but the pain of sexual abuse of any kind goes very deep and we need the support of a professional, at least initially, to get the wheel of healing going