Coming Home

Law and Order, Special Victims, if you haven't seen it, is a weekly television drama about people who commit murders and sex crimes. When it's about incest, there's usually a big twist at the end.

Rape is featured in many of the episodes, sometimes stranger rape, sometimes acquaintance rape. Incest happens to be a type of acquaintance rape.

A blogger (Isle Dance) wrote and asked me to write about a situation that involves children and young adults who have sex with the friends of their parents, swingers. Some might call this a gray area for sex crimes since the "adult" in "young adult" technically implies informed consent.

Swinging, when it is with children, or perhaps even with young adults, can pose the threat of psychological problems we associate with sexual boundary violations.

When I read the email I wrote back:
"Sure, sure, remind me to write about this. Shoot me another email in March. Remind me if you don't see something on Everyone Needs Therapy by March."
But I was thinking,
Not now. Too depressing. Must we go here? It's so gray outside, the days are so gloomy and cold. Who needs more depressing posts?
I'm telling myself,
Go with something happy, TherapyDoc, something funny. Tell them you cried watching Mama Mia, because it made you miss your daughter, that the tissues are still on the sofa, whereas most people couldn't get past the first scene and nobody, nobody you know admits to having cried along with Merrill Streep.

And besides, if you take this one on, TherapyDoc, this topic, it's likely you'll end up ranting and moralizing, and there is enough of this on the web. The voice is boring. It is your job to educate, not to lecture, and you'll get
so much spam, especially if you use the word, swingers.
But anyway.

I won't wimp out entirely, although this isn't exactly what my blogging pal requested. We'll poke about a bit in this not-so-murky territory.

When incest (the ultimate sexual boundary violation) came to our attention in the mid-twentieth century,* authors of textbooks dubbed it pathognomic, something associated with very serious mental and behavioral psychopathology, the winner, hands down, of the gold, the silver, and brass Olympic medals for both the victim and the perpetrator.

The experts said: Keep them in therapy forever.

That we kept them in therapy for years speaks to the sensitivity we had about sex back then. Sex without boundaries or permission was considered a really bad thing, morally wrong, bad for people, pathogenic. It caused disorder. And that thinking generalized to other sex crimes, as well.

Then and now, mental health professionals think that boundary violations can hurt kids and adults, too, sometimes irreparably, to the degree that the human psyche does not always forget.

We may always grieve an unprotected invasion of personal space. It may affect the way we see ourselves, the world, and everyone in it. Every sexual crime is an invasion of personal head space, too, not just a body memory.

But we're a lot better at treating it now, thanks to war.

It so happens that even acquaintance rape, certainly stranger rape, can mess with your brain in the same way that combat messes with a soldier's brain. The diagnoses and treatment protocols can be the same, too.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the primary disorder associated with sexual crimes like rape and molestation, even secondary trauma, the witnessing of events that are ego-dystonic, that make us extremely uncomfortable.

But if it weren't for war, the psychological treatment of sex crimes against women and men, might still be enigmatic.

We know what we're doing now when we treat rape because governmental agencies (hospitals) have had to find ways to treat the flashbacks and nightmares suffered by war veterans. Thus the funding for research, and an explosion of knowledge about PTSD as it manifests in the twentieth century.

The better treatment interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy, relationship therapies, are working. We don't need to keep people in therapy forever anymore, although surely, for many, long-term therapy is a great idea. It is a lifeline purchased on the cheap at your local community mental health center.

It is fascinating that rape victims and combat veterans share the same syndrome, but makes sense. Life is a battle field. Nobody's in Kansas anymore.

The real difference between then and now is that now we hear so much more about sex in general from the media. We hear about normal sex and about criminal sex, and your bread and butter sexual boundary violations, some perpetrated by teachers and clergy. We hear about it in newspapers and magazines, and we catch it on cable, let's talk, although it's obvious you can absorb quite a bit of chatter, see every sort of video on the Web.
Your average media gulping adult or child, sees a pervasive treatment of sex, one that acknowledges sex as a normal, healthy part of loving relationships, and as a dangerous, sometimes perverted element to crime. Sex is in our face any way we shake it.

As they say in the marketing business,
It sells.
Always did. But because it is so pervasive, because we're inundated with it, it is only an issue, a problem, if: (a) you can't find it; (b) you need to learn how to do it; (c) your partner is too tired or not interested; (d) you or your parents feel it might be sinful,

(e) Or you, as a mature adult, think your sexuality needs enhancement, which can be purchased in pill form, a pill that will sustain an erection long past any need or desire, as advertized on television. Thank heavens we don't have to see that on those commercials.

And sex is a problem if (f) someone takes you by force, obviously, or

(g) someone takes advantage of someone else's age or gullibility.

Only this one can be an iffy call, a question of informed consent. It's iffy because kids have consumed the notion that sexual behavior is so much a normal part of life that they never need to ask or question whether it is appropriate. It's always okay, sex.** Didn't you know?

Uh, oh. This is a rant.

It is so normal that nobody pays much attention to what we might call iffy relations.

An under-aged person, a child of fifteen, perhaps, has sex with an older person, technically statutory rape, but our fifteen-year old wanted it. Shouldn't that be okay?

Or maybe it is a young adult, a person almost of age, who gets very stoned and doesn't object, seemingly wants it, then wakes up and thinks, "Uh, oh. What the hell did I do?"

Or does object, but the objection is over-ruled.

No means No in any State of the United. When a person of any age, in any relationship, says no and is overcome by someone who thinks that no is really yes, it's rape. Believe it or not.

But what about when you're of age and you say yes and you're high? Is it rape then?

Well, yes, if you weren't in a state of mind to give informed consent and wouldn't have said yes, were it not for the Ecstacy or whatever designer drug it was that you or someone else added to your evening.

Do you see how iffy things can get?

Which leads us to Winter Break, which is almost over. Winter break, summer break, spring break, these are peak therapy times. Kids come home and they don't look so good.

And it is often about trauma. We can thank federal initiatives. College coeds now know the definition of all kinds of rape because of federal funding. Educators, some of whom are peer counselors, some teachers, some social workers or rape victim advocates, are running workshops on campus.

And sometimes this education triggers memories of experiences past.

Research (I've read, mountains of it) suggests that if you were violated as a younger person, that you will be violated again as an older person. Something about self-esteem and unresolved issues.

So people like me see young people, mostly college students, during winter break, kids who are remembering the iffy times, those one-night stands, the stoned sex they thought they wanted at the time. Some have new content to add to old.

It's a therapy for post-traumatic stress.

You know, I could easily have waited to post this one, but winter break is almost over. If you think you need it, get some therapy on campus if you're heading back to school.

And if you want a few more stories on the subject, read my post on innocence lost at TheSecondRoad.

Or check out Mama Mia. There is a subplot about the unintended, if not traumatic, consequences of unbounded sexuality, normal sex as we're defining it in the twenty-first century.

I'm telling you. The movie's not that bad!


*When I say "our" attention, I mean that generation of mental health professionals.

**Yes, I am being sarcastic, or would you prefer, facetious.


Syd said…
I knew a girl in college who was subjected to inappropriate sexual behavior. She stayed a weekend with some friends of her parents and found that the husband left his bathrobe open to expose himself and showed her pornographic photos of him and his wife. She was shaken up by this. Even though she was, as I recall, a junior in college, it was definitely something that caused confusion and embarrassment with her. I never forgot the sick feeling I got when she told me about it.
Anonymous said…
eloquently said on such a stirring topic. I think this speaks to the wide spectrum of "abuse". When most people think about it they only think of rape or the most severe of cases. And while those are horrific, we also need to give credence to the sexual boundary crossings that happen so much more and can have some pretty catastrophic consequences as well. You can't just "brush it off".
Thanks for posting about this.
Rachelz said…
eloquently said on such a stirring topic. I think this speaks to the wide spectrum of "abuse". When most people think about it they only think of rape or the most severe of cases. And while those are horrific, we also need to give credence to the sexual boundary crossings that happen so much more and can have some pretty catastrophic consequences as well. You can't just "brush it off".
Thanks for posting about this.
Still Dreaming said…
i found that quite enlightening and thought provoking. Such an easy subject to rant about, but you do a good job getting thoughts down.
blognut said…
"We may always grieve an unprotected invasion of personal space. It may affect the way we see ourselves, the world, and everyone in it. Every sexual crime is an invasion of personal head space, too, not just a body memory."

porcini66 said…
Pervasive it is. And, in a way, I am glad. My kids are more aware than I was and we've talked about what to do if...And, they know that they have somewhere to go if something not right happens to them. I thank the openness of society for that. I also hope and pray every day that same "pervasiveness" doesn't prompt something awful to happen to them!

For me, it was the secretiveness that kept me imprisoned with my childhood abuses for almost 30 years.

I have always been a survivor. Have joined the ranks of thriver in recent months. Feels good to incorporate the damage done in my past as a part of me. It used to be something separate and apart that I kept well hidden and buried. These days, it is just a part of who I am.

Did I suffer PTSD? I don't know. The term was certainly bandied about for a bit - hypervigilant, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, anger issues, depression, memory gaps, physical reactions to reminders, substance abuse, avoidance, etc. Regardless of any "diagnosis", I know that I am grateful for the progress that has been made. Because of that progress, I am not in therapy forever, despite the trauma of my past. Nope, I am a relatively happy, well adjusted, middle aged woman doing the best that I can and keeping at it every day.

Thanks for writing - this topic needs to be discussed, written about, talked about and acknowledged. I appreciate you taking it on, even in the depths of the winter gloom.
therapydoc said…
Sure, it's PTSD. But a person can have more than one axis 1, so you could have PTSD for a year or so, depression and substance abuse for the rest of your life without help or Dr. Phil.

The course is always different for everyone for any disorder.
therapydoc said…
And SYD, ugh. I hate those guys. If I hate anyone, it's those guys.
...if you were violated as a younger person, that you will be violated again as an older person. Something about self-esteem and unresolved issues.

Yeaaaaah, that repetition compulsion business has long fascinated...

All other possible mechanisms aside, I've wondered about the neuro "tattoo" effect of trauma. A few years back there was all that hoopla about the permanent and irreversible gating that supposedly resulted from having had such an experience. The thought of anyone being totally unable to transcend anything didn't sit "right" with me. It still doesn't. And maybe that's just me. I am a vessel of hope, if nothing else.

And yet.

I cannot dismiss, and am not certain of the genesis, of the phenomenon of those experiencing "abuse" who have at least one or two more episodes post-inital if they wear an invisible (or visible, depending on your paradigm) welcome sign. The frequency of this occurrence just astounds, so far is it from the median in the bell curve. *sigh*

Kansas, not. Indeed.

Good mindfood, yes. As usual.
therapydoc said…
Thanks. What I probably should have added was the shame variable. I allude to it with self-esteem, but shame really buries us, makes it hard to recapture that self-esteem.

On the other hand, as long as we're staying hopeful, there are thousands of survivors, women (mostly) who recover their sense of identity, who put the blame squarely where it belongs, and who are not victims times two, three, etc.
Lisa Marie said…
This post hits close to home for me.. in fact I just wrote a post on how Law and Order: SVU helped me receive "healing" when I wasn't getting it from anyone else...

Denial created a bubble for me that burst last year and now I am dealing with delayed PTSD. Do I put myself in the same group as war veterans? No way, but we definitely have similarities. Does that mean we'll all have to be in therapy forever? Probably not. Does it mean we could benefit from long-term support? Yes... in fact the idea of not going to therapy scares me... but I am only at the tip of the iceberg in dealing with the complexity of being an abused child. The shame, the guilt, the anger, the self-esteem issues, the weight-issues, the relationship issues, the trust issues... the list goes on and on.

Thank you for this post.
therapydoc said…
If you live long enough, I think, in a lifetime it all falls into place, all the little issues get very sleepy and get tucked into bed.
blognut said…
I'm waiting for the little issues to get tucked into bed. Does it have to be so darn hard? I may have to live to 103.
Isle Dance said…
Thank you (((so))) much, TherapyDoc. :o)
therapydoc said…
Let's not give up so fast!
linrob63 said…
The tattoo idea frustrates and saddens me...because if the residuals are truly permanent, why bother working at healing once the symptoms are not acute?

I read a news article not long ago about the sentencing of a local man who had abused a pre-teen several times during the course of a year.

The statement attributed to the District Attorney was that the perp had irrovocably damaged the girl.

I had a near crazy moment and when settled, fired off an e-mail to the press officer giving her a what for. How dare she...or the DA pronounce a twelve year old girl permanently damaged.

I think we all, press officers and public officials especially, must be mindful that words are tools and that reading the pronouncement could be truly devastating to a twelve year old.

Thanks for raising it...thanks also for the hat tip to combat vets. I am truly grateful to them because when I was the twelve year old girl who had been hurt, there was not much talk about the kinds of sypmtoms I had. I do not think PTSD was coined yet...guess they were still calling it shell shock. I am gratified that kids who are hurt have some professionals available to whom it all does not seem so foreign and crazy.
Mark said…
You handled a tough subject with grace. I have learned from you again today. Thank-you for this information.
Carla said…
Thank you. I don't think this is written about nearly enough.
A couple years ago, a few of us (female) neighbors were hanging around, watching our kids, and after awhile the conversation rolled into That Topic -- who among us had been the victim of an unwanted sexual advance. Every single one of us (we were four) came up with 3-4 stories, just like that. Not necessarily rape itself, but the things that lead up to it. It was at once sad, scary and reaffirming, that we weren't alone. But when I think of my daughters (and son, for that matter), I start to worry...
jeanie said…
There I was going to go all moral in how L&O:SVU sort of "normalises" some really horrible stuff by being on, and then I read how it helped one of your commenters so I stand corrected.

I constantly learn about so much. I didn't suffer abuse in my childhood but still made some inappropriate decisions in my uni (or college in your speak) days.

Very thought provoking.