Sharing key to healing sexual harassment trauma

March 7, 2022 | 05:10 pm PT
Tran Kim Thanh Psychiatrist
I was harassed in elementary school by a boy a few years older. Looking back, it was a childish prank. But it haunted me for decades.

The invisible fear I was left with was significant. Growing up, I was not as interested in being in a relationship as my friends. At 26, I had my first boyfriend, but every time he mentioned making out, I would freak out.

I didn’t feel comfortable and always found a way to avoid physical contact, despite the great need to be loved.

Even a few years after getting married, having sex remained a topic that made me uncomfortable.

It took many years after for me to understand how to feel love and accept others.

That fear and years of being depressed have led me to the journey of becoming a therapist, which I have been for over a decade now. Many of my clients are people who had been sexually harassed when they were young.

When treating them, I see that all of us have something in common: suffering from trauma deep inside for years after the incident. We, who have been abused, feel unloved and have this inferiority complex that we don't deserve another chance. Among those who were severely hurt, most went on to be abused physically and mentally in their relationships with people of the opposite sex.

In all cases, it is very hard for the victims to overcome the trauma because they have the tendency to bury that pain as deeply as they can.

One of my patients was a woman who was sexually abused by an acquaintance of her family when she was a teenager in secondary school. It happened several times but she did not tell anyone in her family.

The damage was so severe that when she becomes a woman, she could not be physically or mentally closed to anyone. Somehow, her whole body and mind automatically set up a strong defense mechanism that denied all opportunities for love.

These days, it is too easy for young people to see pornographic videos online where many private parts of a person are shown in different ways. This is one of the reasons for the increase in sexual harassment in schools.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, 2,008 minors were abused in 1,945 cases in 2020, with 1,506 being sexually abused, up almost 400 cases over 2018.

Sexual abuse is not only the act of enticing, manipulating and forcing others to have sex.

It is also staring at someone’s private areas, talking about sexual activity and private parts, touching someone without consent.

In some cases, even the harassers cannot totally understand that their behavior is wrong. They think that it’s just curiosity and that they were following their instincts. They do not realize that they have been infected with the vulgar images that are now so easy to find on the internet.

Both the harassers and the ones being harassed could be victims, especially among children still in school. The harassers somehow cannot control their behavior or recognize the impulses within. Some predators are themselves victims of sexual harassment in the past, especially when they were still in school. In most cases, these people are male.

From my personal experience and professional knowledge, I can see clearly that victims of sexual harassment should never carry that pain by themselves forever. The more you try to hide it, the bigger trauma you have to deal with later. Children and adolescents should tell their parents so that they can be freed from fear and negative feelings.

Psychologists do the work of therapy to help people heal. They speak honestly, create connection and trust, and help the abused person feel safe to express their feelings.

It is when the fear disappears, that one can confront the old story in peace. With different procedures tailored for each patient, a psychotherapist will guide them in healing their inner body and mind.

I had made public a free hotline number to receive calls from people having trouble with their mental health. But there were so many calls coming that I could not take them all.

The demand to be listened to is huge among the vulnerable. A state-owned, public and free hotline for people to share their stories of being abused must be taken into serious consideration.

Telling their stories can help those who have been harassed and abused eliminate negative emotions and invisible fears. Only then can they open up to a new chapter in their lives and be willing to accept love, even if it is a difficult process.

For deep healing, they require love from others, especially their loved ones. Spouses, for instance, play a great role in healing, by understanding and cherishing former victims and having a sexual relationship that is really rooted in love.

*Tran Kim Thanh is a psychiatrist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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