Loving a survivor of childhood sexual abuse

When Shonna Milliken Humphrey hears of sex abuse cases in the news, she aches for the victims and also thinks of their partners — as her husband experienced abuse as a child.

Do their husbands keep a machete in the bedroom in order to sleep at night, too? Do they also wince when touched? What do they keep in their medicine cabinet?

The author, who lives in Gorham, wrote about being the wife of a childhood survivor of sexual abuse for The Atlantic on Tuesday. Her account is clear, striking. Her husband feels guilty for not telling anyone for years about the abuse he suffered at the American Boychoir School. He doesn’t want what happened to him to cause others pain. He says his story isn’t unique. He doesn’t want his experience to define him. And he doesn’t want to be judged.

“My husband does not want to be a spokesperson for child sex abuse survivors. His experiences are his own, and he finds no comfort in commiserating with others. He only agreed to this essay as a way of taking the conversation into the light, removing the shame, and saying to some other little boy, ‘With help, you, too, can heal;’ to parents, ‘Be careful;’ and, to partners like me, ‘Please do not give up,’” Humphrey writes.

That directive — “Do not give up” — is a good summation of the work of those who witness the emotional journey of the survivor. Believe your loved one, listen. Don’t shy away from him or her. And don’t give up on yourself and your ability to support. You might not know what to do or say, and you might feel useless. You might feel completely alone.

Humphrey describes partners like her, “shifting feet back and forth in their own kitchens, arms useless and keys jangling, with no social script and no map — the desire for vengeance and policy change and a way out overridden by a bigger, immediate desire for their husband, son, brother, or friend to just stop hurting.”

She tells of a loneliness in her own life as a partner, a loneliness that also pervades the lives of survivors. Not surprisingly, survivors of domestic and sexual violence are more likely to be depressed, abuse alcohol and drugs, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, underachieve at work or school, have problems in intimate relationships, or try to kill themselves.

They also face a pervasive lack of public knowledge about abuse. For instance, people may believe most sexual abuse of boys is perpetrated by homosexual men — when in fact the abusers are no more exhibiting homosexual behavior than a man abusing a girl is exhibiting heterosexual behavior. It’s about control, not sex.

It’s also a myth, for example, that unemployment leads to domestic violence. In fact, the reverse is true. Researchers at the University of London found that male unemployment corresponds with decreases in domestic violence, as perpetrators who fear losing their jobs or who have lost their jobs have an economic incentive to refrain from abusing.

But one thing is true, even when it may not feel like it: Survivors and their partners are not alone. The accepted research shows about one in six men experience sexual abuse before age 18. Women are at extraordinary risk of abuse in their lives. One in five women are raped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in four are the victim of severe physical violence.

Think of your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. Not one, but many, know what it’s like to have their dignity and control wrested away.

Humphrey writes of a progression in her and her husband’s understanding of the larger shared experience. Over time her husband has told those he trusts about the abuse — and has been met with compassion. She is grateful, she says, “that ‘I’ is now a solid community of ‘we.’” Instead of waking in the night to a man thrashing himself awake, she sometimes wakes to find his hand resting on her waist.

It’s a strong reminder that calm is possible, especially when a loved one is present to give and, also, receive.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.