In the previous entry, I discussed the distinction, or lack thereof, between emotional and psychological abuse. Now, I address what seems to be a far more obvious division: physical versus sexual abuse.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the distinction between sexual abuse and physical (non-sexual) abuse appears to be clear in both the popular mind and in the academic literature.
The American Psychological Association’s website provides a definition of sexual abuse similar to that in an everyday dictionary. The former reads “Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” The latter reads “Criminal sexual activity, especially that involving a victim below the age of sexual consent or incapable of sexual consent”.
Physical abuse is, of course, self-explanatory for the everyday person. It is physical harm, intuitively understood as distinct from physical assault, which is a single incident rather than a pattern of such incidents. The harm can be inflicted by striking with or without an object, shoving, using toxic substances, and the general causing of physical damage.
The line appears clear. Here lies safety; there lies abuse. Questions remain.
Where lies safety and here lies abuse
The difficulty in a family situation is that there are no actual visible boundaries.
For example, I suffered physical abuse (sometimes if not always combined with emotional abuse as defined in the previous blog entry) on a fairly regular basis. The perpetrators were my father and older sister. My father’s abuse was episodic, rage-filled, and involved whipping with a leather belt, objects hurled at my head, withholding of food, shaking, and choking. My sister’s expressions of abuse toward me were on a smaller scale, but occurred four to six times a week, if not daily. She favored using her shoulder to shove me into a wall, quick jabs of the fist to body parts hidden by clothing, slapping, and pinning me to the ground or against a wall. My father excused himself by saying it was discipline. My sister, following his lead, echoed that I had “earned” what she did.
Speaking as a survivor, I offer my own definition. All abuse is a restriction or action that causes damage to a person’s psychological, emotional or physical health. Most telling of all, the abuse can be perpetrated by anyone. Parent, lover, teacher, employer, medical professional, child, sibling, classmate, all can be abusers. Once we are aware of these two facts—what abuse is, and who an abuser can be—we can truly strive for long-term solutions to abuse.