On The ‘Sex’ In ‘Sexual Abuse’ (Spiritual Warfare)

Spiritual Warfare 

Sexual abuse is somewhat of a misnomer. For the abuser, the act is not about sex, but about power, control, and stimulation. For the abused, the act is ultimately experienced as draining rather than elevating. The difference between sex and sexual abuse is largely in the seeds and fruits of the act. In the case of sexual abuse, its seeds are power and control, and its fruits are trauma and spiritual decay. 

In the case of sexual abuse, its seeds are power and control, and its fruits are trauma and spiritual decay.

The sexual predator lives in a virtual reality of sexual, spiritual, and interpersonal materialism. The predator tries to convince us that this is healthy and normal. But we are not objects, we are people. Sexual abuse is spiritual warfare waged upon an unsuspecting, vulnerable individual. Our trust was betrayed. We were not loved, we were exploited — and the concept of love was distorted and perverted. Sexual abusers go after people who are vulnerable, just like Amalek. G-d told us to blot out Amalek, not to feel sorry for him. 

Sexual abuse is spiritual warfare waged upon an unsuspecting, vulnerable individual.

To become closer to G-d, it is said that we must continually purify ourselves and cultivate the simcha that arises naturally from self-discipline and mercy, justice, and righteousness. No matter how much spiritual packaging the abuse and its perpetrator come wrapped in, sexual abuse takes us further away from ourselves and G-d — not closer. Sexual abuse is not merciful, just, or righteous. It is not purifying (even if the perpetrator told you it was), nor does it cultivate simcha for anyone. It is a dry desert, spiritually desiccated.

A perpetrator’s “sexual needs” have nothing to do with sexual abuse.

A perpetrator’s “sexual needs” have nothing to do with sexual abuse. Allow me to describe for you what the “sex” is actually like in the sections below. I cannot speak for all, but I can certainly speak for myself. 

“Special” — A Terrifying And Contagious Duplicity

The experience for me was one of darkness. At first, it felt weird and unwelcome — kind of strange, cold, and wet. Numb? The first encounter was unexpected, uninvited, and coercive.* I had faith that what I was told was true — that there was a special bond and that the sex acts were sacred, “pure,” and holy because of it. I was assured of these things. I held on tightly to these notions because if these things were true then there was no way that what was being done to me was that bad. 

My perpetrator insisted that I was his “soulmate” and “chavruta.” The latter was brought up repeatedly and elaborated upon when I began to show signs that I was no longer so trusting. To my knowledge, Talmud study partnership does not involve unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal penetration, or invitations for group sexual encounters with male strangers from the bowels of the internet. I had wanted to study, not become a sex slave.

If this is at all shocking to read, try living it. Try watching as your rabbi, a big popular rabbi in your community, steps onto the bimah to read from the Torah scroll and deliver a sermon clad in white tallit that glimmers under the stage lights, when he has done these things to your body with no hesitation, only glibness, and you know of his other instances of misconduct.** He tells you that you are “special,” and invites you to be a special guest in his world and in his life. It does indeed feel special to be sitting with the rabbi’s family at High Holidays and to leave with him in his car, which has its own special parking space. Everything about him and his treatment towards you is special. He dangles you in front of other powerful men and even people in his own family with an air of excitement — perhaps some of them know or suspect, perhaps he wants to make them wonder. He brazenly invites you to the installation of another clergy member. You are his special friend. It seems that all things yield to him, always.

At first you do feel special. But it quickly becomes a nightmare as you realize that you have little-to-no say over anything that happens when you are with him (which is often, because he sulks and whimpers at the idea of being without you). You wake up one day and realize that you have become a second class citizen to your own life.

You wake up one day and realize that you have become a second class citizen to your own life.

Staring up at the bimah, with those bright lights shining down upon him, his tallit glistening, his powerful voice speaking, it is terrifying to witness this level of power and duplicity, and even more so to be deeply involved with it. You walk around the synagogue talking to people, sometimes by his side. You are his supposed soulmate and lover and keeper of his secrets, but to others, you are just his family friend, just another congregant. 

His double life became my double life. The madhouse of his duplicity became my madhouse.

By keeping his secrets, his double life became my double life. The madhouse of his duplicity became my madhouse. Watching him up there, in his aggrandized pulpit, his public persona in such stark contrast to the reality that I knew, it became clear to me that he and I were not of the same religion, and that this was no rabbi. 

The Mind-Body Disconnect

It is in this context that the “sex” occurs. The “sex” in sexual abuse is not sex at all. It is slavery and servitude. It is bewildering, overwhelming, and sometimes even scary. Most of all, it is confusing. It is confusing because even though it was imposed, the body responds as a body would, leading to physical sensations and thoughts such as, “Perhaps I like this and so I should not be so angry that he imposed it upon me. Nothing that bad happened to me. I can focus on the positive, and only the positive. He is just trying to make me feel good, make himself feel good, and went about it the wrong way. The poor guy. He is so trapped in his public persona. He just wants an escape. I am helping him by letting him. He insists that he loves me. He is crazy for me. He seems cured of all ailments when he has had relations with me. He needs me. How could someone who says that they care about me and love me so much be using and thus hurting me — especially if the thing that they do feels kind of good? No, he’s using me. But maybe this form of using me is not hurting me? Maybe morality is useless along with all of my boundaries? Maybe I exist for others’ physical pleasure? I am a woman after all. Maybe that is my worth. A shell of a human. Just a body. Maybe I am only an animal? Spiritually lower? Perhaps I am intrinsically flawed and corrupt, just like him — he says we are so much alike, after all? What is the point of rules anyway? I guess this isn’t hurting me? He says he doesn’t want to hurt me, after all. He just wants to make me ‘feel good.’ Other people won’t understand. All we have is each other.” It feels disempowering and objectifying and belittling. It is a nightmare. It makes darkness and suffering.

Many people do not understand the mind-body disconnect of sexual abuse.

Many people do not understand the mind-body disconnect of sexual abuse and sexual violence in general. Imagine being a boy who is sexually abused by a rabbi. The boy may feel guilty or responsible for the abuse because he experienced erection or orgasm. His agency was taken from him.*** His sexual identity formation was co-opted to satisfy some predator’s selfish desires. Someone needs to tell that boy (who may now be a man) that this is only his body responding the way that it was designed to. It does not mean that he is sick or twisted or evil like his abuser. His journey of knowing himself and discovering his sexuality safely and organically was interrupted. 

It helped me to realize that my body’s responses were actually a sign of good health.

Women too experience these things when they are sexually abused. It helped me to realize that my body’s responses were actually a sign of good health. Perhaps it will help someone else to realize this too. Unfortunately the confusion that this caused was used against me in my case, in large part because the people performing the investigation were not properly trained. Worse — perpetrators understand this and rely on it for their own defense. 

Emotional And Spiritual Decay

While the body does what it does and has a sort of mechanical pleasure, the emotional and spiritual decay is simultaneously experienced but usually overridden with doubt and denial, or even fear. If my experience were a work of art, it would be The Garden of Earthly Delights (Bosch). At first I thought that perhaps I had been taken into the middle panel, but it quickly became the rightmost panel. They became, or always have been, one and the same.

Despite the suffering induced by the abuse, victims are frequently seen “going back for more.” During the abuse, they might even seem happy, denying any feeling of exploitation at all. They might even fight for the relationship, and even defend their abusers. For years or decades after, they might still believe that the relationship was a genuine love affair, that they really were in a special bond, and that the secrecy is a good thing because it protects their abuser. This can make it difficult for onlookers to understand when the victim later issues a complaint.

They are often told to take all or some of the moral responsibility for their own exploitation.

The dynamic of the trauma bond and intensity of the abuse can be addictive. Small mercies and acts of kindness by the abuser and heavy psychological manipulation combined with intermittent reinforcement can keep sex abuse victims enslaved and complicit with their own exploitation. Severing that bond, willingly, is a withdrawal that takes great spiritual and psychological strength. But to onlookers, victims might simply appear irrational and “crazy.” They are often told to take all or some of the moral responsibility for their own exploitation. They are called vindictive. They are denied the healthy and reasonable anger that they ought to be encouraged to feel and to process. They are swept aside, kept hidden in the vault of the world’s therapy offices, their pain kept hidden from view, for few people know how to handle it.

Perpetrators can be so talented at rationalizing their actions, that even synagogue boards and ethics committees can be swayed into permitting previously unthinkable levels of amorality.

Worse — perpetrators can be so talented at rationalizing their actions, that even synagogue boards and ethics committees can be swayed into permitting previously unthinkable levels of amorality. The perpetrator’s successful manipulation of the institution(s) may reflect the rationalizations that were used to coerce the victim(s). 

The abuser will use his victims again, even after the sexual relationship has ended, to come to his defense and to shame the victim who is brave enough to speak out. This is neither love nor friendship, even if he says or believes it is so. (See again how this is about power and control? It is not about sex. Not at all.)

Still, I trusted him. His title and role in my community had everything to do with that fact.

The longer I stayed, the more of myself I lost. I began to feel empty inside. Before he began abusing me, I felt empowered, happy, and healthy. Looking back, I see clearly that the emptiness started immediately after the first encounter (which was coercive and meets some definitions of rape). The more I was strung along and used, the larger that emptiness became. Soon it was like staring into a black void every day. Still, I trusted him. His title and role in my community had everything to do with that fact. Eventually, it felt like I had no more reason to live. Joy no longer permeated my existence, but was mechanical. I broke down crying in public places. Everything felt so dark. I could not find my own spirit anywhere. When I realized that I was being used and exploited and severely psychologically abused, I realized that I could not let his darkness become my darkness, his emptiness become my emptiness. This was one layer of my emancipation.

I could not let his darkness become my darkness, his emptiness become my emptiness.

Did I share these feelings with anybody around me other than him? Very little. Instead, I raved about him, how much I cared for him, and how good he was to me. It took months and years for all of the poison to come out, and for me to be able to tell the people who care about me what had actually been happening during those 11 months.

The Echo Chamber Of Secrecy

Sex is private. Sexual abuse is secret. Even if the perpetrator insists that his/her requests were for “discretion” and not complete secrecy, the victim is constantly reminded of the extreme costs of violating that “discretion,” and the result is an isolating secrecy nonetheless. This only intensifies the dynamic and resulting encounters, and makes the victim feel even more powerless. The shared secrets**** intensify the victim’s sense of being trapped in an inescapable, “special” bond, and can cause them to feel more desperate to appeal to the one with the power in the dynamic so that s/he does not wind up living alone with these secrets.

It was hard to let go of that fantasy and to step into reality, and to walk through the pain of understanding what had happened to me, of what he had really done.

A further layer of my emancipation was the realization that as the keeper of the secrets, I was actually more powerful than I had realized; I could actually use that power to report his actions and to potentially protect others from going through what I went through. It was incredibly difficult, and I was extremely conflicted, as I had believed that he had really loved me. It was hard to let go of that fantasy and to step into reality, and to walk through the pain of understanding what had happened to me, of what he had really done.

Sex Is Nourishing, Sexual Abuse Is Not

In contrast to sexual abuse, sex feels freeing, elevating, safe, and fulfilling. Sexual abuse may create a momentary facade of those sensations, but as these top notes fade away, sexual abuse feels narrowing, sinking, toxic, dangerous and degrading, and never fulfilling. Yes, it might feel somewhat physically good in the moment and even sometimes lead to orgasm, but it is empty calories, devoid of spiritual nourishment, tamasic, and poisonous. 

The more sex that is had, the more extreme and strange the abuser’s requests become, and the less respect he has for his victim.

Because it is so unfulfilling, the perpetrator and victim can become like hungry ghosts, never able to break free from the abusive cycle. The more sex that is had, the more extreme and strange the abuser’s requests become, and the less respect he has for his victim. The victim, in response to the emptiness created by the abuse, may comply with these escalating requests out of a belief that it will cure the emptiness, often because the perpetrator leads them to think this way and has established power, and the victim feels emotionally dependent and extremely invested in the relationship (often above all else) due to covert manipulation and/or overt violence.

The victim, in response to the emptiness created by the abuse, may comply with these escalating requests out of a belief that it will cure the emptiness.

How To Become Alive And Whole Again?

Sexual abuse: it doesn’t always look like violence, but it is still violence nonetheless. How to convey the implicit violence in sexual abuse? The injuries are long-lasting, and generally invisible to the outside world. No, we are not “overreacting” or “over-identifying with our trauma” or simply “upset” because of social paradigms that were broken. No, we are not “responding to rejection” or “experiencing regret.”  We were groomed and objectified, taken advantage of, and treated like replaceable objects in the most vulnerable and intimate of ways. Our developmental trajectories and sexual selves were interrupted. Sex, an intimate and beautiful experience, was corrupted, weaponized, and used to wield power over us. We are quite reasonably distressed. 

The only thing to do is to walk away; blot the abuser out completely (e.g., go “no contact,” report the abuser to the  authorities, and get professional help to deal with the trauma), but never forget what they did to you. But to do this requires both understanding and action. Sometimes action precedes conscious understanding. I broke away before I fully understood.

To even understand oneself as having been raped or abused is a massive undertaking.

To even understand oneself as having been raped or abused is a massive undertaking.***** Complete clarity requires getting out of the psychological influence of the abuser. Even after the abuser is removed from your life, they may still be in your head. This makes clarity an uphill battle. The journey requires many resources (e.g., books, counselors, supporters, healthy distractions, self care, etc.).

Even after the abuser is removed from your life, they may still be in your head.

To step forward and out of that situation, look back and see it for what it was, and to take action is the steepest hill one may ever climb. At the top of that hill is safety, sanity, and solitude. Self-respect and support come along the way; so too does joy. 

Notes:

*An understatement.

**Which is more terrifying? That nobody in the large congregation knew, or that many of them might have known, did not see any inherent problem with his behavior, and chose to do nothing?

***I acknowledge that not all victims will identify with this statement, for a variety of reasons. Note that some predators argue that the victim’s agency was not taken away, and that the child (or adult) “consented” despite a contradicting reality. They argue that to describe the abuse this way is an insult to the victim, who is quite mature for their age, or powerful for their laity. Onlookers and victims alike are prone to fall for these rationalizations.

****Shared secrets begin small as the perpetrator tests the target’s ability to be compliant and to keep quiet. Small secrets also serve to create the illusion of a “special bond.” This bond is then exploited and strengthened as the perpetrator sexualizes the relationship.

*****I can already see the comments that respond, “If it was such a ‘massive undertaking’ to figure out that you were raped or abused, then you probably were not raped or abused.” I can see how this might be difficult to understand. Other survivors will know what I mean by this. If you genuinely wish to understand, there are many books and websites and articles that can explain it better than I can. You can start by searching the internet for answers to questions such as, “Why don’t battered women just leave?” or “I didn’t think it was rape.”

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments