Monday, April 29, 2013

Cyber sexual trauma? Does the internet molest youth?

I have recently completed the first teen focused clinical workbook on cyber porn addiction. Below you will find a chapter that discusses the way that youth who are exposed to cyber porn can have a reaction identical to youth who have been sexually molested by a offline perpetrator.

Unit 29

Cyber Sexual Trauma

If you find you are struggling on a day-to-day basis with maintaining your sobriety, and you frequently go through relapses, this does not mean that you cannot learn how to establish sobriety and healthy sexuality.

There is a sub group of cyber porn addicted teens for whom maintaining ongoing sobriety is very challenging because they have experienced a trauma similar, if not identical to, the trauma of being sexually molested by a real person. The intensity of the images and sounds delivered through cyber pornography websites can overwhelm a teen and create the experience of being sexually molested.

The fact of the matter is that no child or teen is ready socially, emotionally, and physically for what they see and hear through cyber porn websites. Research shows early exposure to sexually explicit material is traumatic and leads to significant problems with peer relationships, family relationships, school achievement and, of course, healthy sexual development.

Children and teens now have access to “hard core” pornographic material that is produced with an adult audience in mind -- such as fetish porn, bondage and domination porn, bestiality/sex with animals and sex combined with acts of violence -- and repeated exposure to these types of pornography often results in sexual trauma.

When you watch “hard core” cyber pornography, it is likely that you experience a confusing combination of feelings: pleasure, excitement, happiness, sadness, anger love/attachment, fear, embarrassment, guilt, and shame. These feelings are very difficult to organize and understand, especially the mixture of fear and pleasure and love/attachment and violence.

As you are no doubt well aware, the vast majority of the children and teens who access cyber pornography do not discuss this confusing combination of feelings with adults because they are fearful of being punished for accessing pornography.

Most children and teens that have been repeatedly exposed to cyber porn feel deep shame about their behavior. They believe that they have behaved badly by looking at porn and that must be bad and damaged at their core for looking at  porn. The combination of feeling shame (“I am a bad”) with fearing punishment (“I will be punished because I am bad”) leads children and teens to go to great lengths to keep their relationship to cyber porn a secret from the adults who could offer help.

Precisely because children and teens feel ashamed and believe that they are bad and damaged for looking at porn, they want to stop their behavior. Unfortunately, as we learned in the section on the arousal template, once you have looked at pornography over and over again, the only kind of stimulation that creates excitement and pleasure is pornography. The arousal template becomes a “porn template” -- which leads children and teens to seek out pornography despite obvious negative consequences.

According to experts in the field of child sexual abuse, children and teens who have sustained multiple sexual traumas typically reenact their traumas behaviorally – which means they either reenact the sexual behavior they have seen in cyber porn with another child/teen or they pursue porn that is increasingly violent, degrading, and abusive.

After a child or teen has been traumatized multiple times through exposure to cyber pornography, they replay or reenact the trauma until and unless an adult in their environment is able to recognize what is happening. However, because children and teens experience shame and guilt about their relationship to cyber porn, they maintain their secret and hide their trauma from parents, caregivers, and mentors.

Children and teens rarely spontaneously discuss their fears and traumas with adults who could offer help and they have little insight into the relationship between what they do, what they feel and what has happened to them.

It is important to understand that children and teens who have been the victim of person-to-person sexual abuse have problems with trust, empathy, setting healthy boundaries, and perspective taking.

Sexually traumatized children and teens also have difficulty regulating and labeling emotions and have difficulty communicating emotions. They may also suffer from sleep disturbance, eating disorders, oppositional behavior, and over compliance with rules and behavioral norms.

The child or teen who has been sexually abused may also engage in self-destructive behaviors and aggression towards others.

Have you noticed that you have any of the symptoms of sexual abuse? Yes/no/unsure

Do you have problems with trust or empathy? Yes/no/unsure

Do you have difficulty understanding other people's point of view? Yes/no/unsure

Do you have problems controlling and labeling your emotions? Yes/no/unsure

Do you have difficulty communicating your emotions? Yes/no/unsure

In an effort to cope with the sexual trauma, children and teens learn to dissociate. Disassociation is an unconscious mental process in which painful and difficult memories are split off from conscious awareness. Disassociation is a way to mentally “check out.” Abuse victims often say that they didn't feel what was happening during a molestation because they were “floating outside” of their bodies.

The problem with using disassociation as a defense against the pain created through sexual abuse is that the images, sounds, and sensations of abuse eventually intrude into consciousness as flashbacks or fragmented memories of the abuse of experience. In other words, disassociation temporarily blocks painful and confusing memories, but ultimately does not help the person understand and resolve what happened in the abuse.

Due to the intensity of cyber pornography -- particularly the strange and forbidden behaviors displayed in child, fetish, and violent porn – sexual arousal patterns develop that serve to reinforce an interlocking series of distorted beliefs about sex: women are sex objects, sex is separate from connection and intimacy, sex is for personal satisfaction, and no one is ever exploited or injured in sexual relationships, including women and children.

The person who masturbates to cyber pornography experiences powerful and ongoing reinforcement that “porn sex is the best sex” and this message comes to determine their sexual interests and fantasies -- which leads to a preoccupation with cyber pornography.

What is most important to understand here is if you find that you are repeatedly relapsing, you may be suffering from cyber sexual trauma and you may have developed what Wendy Maltz calls a “sexual abuse mindset.”

Wendy Maltz, in her book The Sexual Healing Journey, explains that victims of sexual abuse have a specific way of thinking that is made up of five false ideas about sex: 1) sex is uncontrollable 2) sex is hurtful 3) sex is a commodity/for sale
4)sex is secretive, and 5) sex has no moral boundaries.

Just as is the case with an actual sexual offender, the cyber pornography industry does not consider the moral implications of posting violent and perverse sexual images on the Internet. And, just as is the case with the actual sex offender, the pornography industry does not think about how their actions will affect adults, families, communities, and the health and safety of children and teens.

Wendy Maltz explains that connecting moral neglect with sex creates many problems for survivors of sexual abuse. Survivors may withdraw from sex, fearing it will lead them to abusive or shameful behavior.

Alternatively, survivors may act out sexually in inappropriate and hurtful ways without seeing the potential damage of their actions. And, tragically, survivors of sexual abuse may spend their lives creating abusive sexual fantasies and exposing themselves to degrading and violent pornography, thinking that these types of activities represent sex when they are actually extensions and replays of sexual abuse.

If you continue to relapse, it is likely you are the victim of cyber sexual abuse and your sexual acting out is part of a destructive abuse cycle: 1) you are preoccupied with feelings of pleasure, excitement, and fear that cyber pornography stimulates 2) you then search cyberspace for images and videos that fit within your “porn arousal template” 3) you then re-enact your trauma by masturbating  pornographic material 4) you then feel overwhelmed and confused by the images, sounds and messages of the pornographic material 5) you then feel ashamed and guilty about your behavior and promise to end your relationship with porn, and 6) you then experience preoccupation with cyber porn and initiate a search for new and more stimulating, exciting, and abusive porn.

If the above description of cyber sexual trauma feels familiar to you, you will need help from a mental health professional that understands the impact of cyber porn on child and adolescent sexual development. As was the case when we discussed how to cope effectively with triggers and relapses, the key to overcoming cyber sexual trauma is to reach out to an adult and break the silence (secret) by explaining your journey through cyber pornography.

That is to say, in order to move forward you need to make sense of what happened to you by allowing yourself to be fully and completely honest. It is only by telling your story that you will come to understand that you are a victim of cyber sexual trauma and that you are not to blame nor are you a person who is “bad” or somehow damaged.

Due to feelings of shame and guilt, you may say to yourself that you will be judged and criticized and that no one will want to help you because you are bad and damaged.

Fortunately, just the opposite is true. Once you are able to communicate what  happened with your relationship to cyber pornography, including the way in which you feel traumatized, you will be able to get the appropriate kind of assistance and support -- and you will be able to begin the process of healing from the trauma perpetrated by the cyber pornography industry.

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