Let me make it clear right from the get-go that abuse is not a direct cause of female same-sex attraction as many have suggested. There are many women who have been abused who do not have SSA, as well as many women with SSA who have never experienced abuse. However, for those women who DO struggle with SSA and who HAVE experienced sexual, physical, emotional or verbal abuse, there is a good chance that the way their abuse was uniquely processed and internalized, is one factor that has affected the development of their SSA, the way they view and interact with other members of their own and opposite genders, the way they view themselves, and the way they view God (not an exhaustive list).
This post gives a very general over-view of what abuse can look like in the life of a girl and some ideas of how abuse can affect a girl towards SSA.
Symptoms of Abuse
One interesting point that Hallman brings out is that many of her clients who have not experienced abuse, nevertheless show many or all of the symptoms of abuse: struggle with trust, self dis-like, shame, mood disorders, identity and intimacy issues, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, somatic symptoms, and relationship difficulties and disturbances of self. Hallman suggests two explanations for the presence of these symptoms in women with no history of abuse. (p. 82)
First, she explains that emotional enmeshment, which is common among women with SSA and will be discussed further in future posts, can produce abuse-like symptoms in women. Second she suggests that more subtle forms of trauma such as the “absence of normal love, affection, attention, care, and protection,” (errors of omission rather than errors of commission), disrupts a child’s attachment system, creating many of the same symptoms of classical abuse (p. 82-82). Dr. Colin Ross explains that, “Trauma can be subtle, or it can stretch the boundaries of the term. Harsh criticism, emotional absence, punitive perfectionism, borderline double binds, and other parental pressures are not usually thought of as “trauma,” but they can certainly have a traumatic impact on development” (Ross, 2000, pp. 212-213).
Hallman says, “In light of my clients’ subjective experience of insecure attachments and assumed dysfunctional familial roles, it is understandable why so many of them may suffer the effects of severe trauma”(p. 83).
Childhood Sexual Abuse
In regards to classical childhood sexual abuse (CSA) Hallman says, “several studies have shown that the prevalence rates of CSA are higher among lesbian populations (30-56%) when compared to women in the general population (15-32%)…Women with SSA who are victims of sexual abuse report a variety of experiences, ranging from rape, paternal or maternal incest, and abuse by another family member (male or female) to one or two abusive memories involving boys close to their same age…The girls who regularly played with boys often became targets for their male friends’ childish curiosities and not-so-innocent overt sexual experimentation. Some girls were not allowed to lock bedroom or bathroom doors, were regularly confronted with male nudity within the home, or were required to hug and give backrubs to parents even if they expressed resistance” (p. 83-84).
As with all the factors that may contribute to a women’s SSA, sexual abuse and its affects are best understood by examining the “context of the abuse, how the trauma was processed,” (which will be affected by factors such as their deep sensitivity or an insecure gender identity) as well as “the presence (or lack) of any mediating factors (such as a supportive parent)” (p. 84).
Sexual abuse can lead to an even stronger “self-hatred as a girl” and can firmly establish in a girls mind that all boys and men are “pigs.” “Many women will admit to “knowing they prefer women to men because they have had their fill of ‘male slobbering’ sexuality” (p. 84).
Other Childhood Verbal and Emotional Abuse
There are also other forms of emotional and verbal abuse that many women with SSA have experienced such as witnessing violence done to others and being shamed and embarrassed by parents, caretakers or friends. These kinds of abuses leave girls with an abiding and deep sense of “badness and shame” (p. 84).
“When my mother died, I was 5, and I was immediately separated from my only sister. She was quite a bit older than me and had to go live somewhere else. Whenever I saw her and showed her affection, my stepmother would yell, “Quit acting stupid!” My sister got married at 17 and my stepmother would angrily whine, “Why doesn’t she just take you? I wonder why she doesn’t take you in?”
Alaina (p. 84)
“…regardless of the nature of the abuse, a girl’s life and reality, as she knows it, will never be the same once she is sexually abused or traumatized. Her “home” now looks to her as if it has been hit by a hurricane. The walls are still standing (sometimes barely), but the roof is gone, as are the windows and doors—leaving her desolate and exposed. Typical of many children facing abuse or trauma, these girls dealt with the physical, emotional, psychological wreckage of their lives all alone, fueling their independent persona. And finally, many of them eventually questioned God, growing in mistrust and misperceptions of his character and care” (Hallman, p. 85).
I will come back to this topic in the future but for now I will simply say that as you help a woman work through her abuse the key will not be in the details of what happened to her (although I am not suggesting that the facts of the abuse are unimportant or that they should not be spoken about), but in how she as a little girl processed and interpreted what happened to her and how those interpretations led to lies believed about herself, others, and God, as well as other issues such as anxiety, relational problems, gender identity issues etc.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all of the page references are from Hallman, 2008)
Hallman, Janelle. (2008). The heart of female same-sex attraction: A comprehensive counseling resource. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Ross, C. (2000). The trauma model. Richardson, TX: Manitou Communications.