The Three Types of Abuse

Abuse survivors and the professionals that work with them split up abusive behavior into emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is generally regarded, though not necessarily consciously, as the least harmful, and physical abuse is usually seen as the worst. Many survivors, when seeking to downplay their trauma to cope, will say to themselves and others, “At least he didn’t hit me.” But does it matter? These three types of abuse overlap much more than people tend to understand or appreciate, and that has important ramifications for recovery and self-awareness.

Here’s an example. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read a detailed description of abusive behavior.) My abusive ex used to hold me down despite my many, very specific verbal protests, and pluck out any body hairs I had that he didn’t like. (He was grossed out by the hair growing out of a small mole on my arm or the occasional dark chin hair.) It happened in public at least once, in the midst of friends, and made me cry in shame. What type of abuse was this? It was emotional abuse because it undermined my self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It was sexual abuse because it focused on his control of my sexual appeal and the expression of my gender identity. It was physical abuse because he was holding me down and rendering me powerless. Through this example, we can see that the lines are not so clear as we may have thought.

What about all the times I was coerced into sex? (I don’t have a specific example here, because it happened so often and in so many subtly different ways.) What kind of abuse was that? It was sexual in nature, of course, and emotionally damaging, but I would argue that since it involved bodily violation, it was physical abuse too.

Sexual abuse is not given its due as a type of physical abuse. Sexual assault is experienced as physical violence, even if it’s a result of emotional coercion. It’s a danger experienced viscerally by the body and the nervous system. It is a literal, physical violation. Physical abuse is not just raising fists with the intent to harm– it’s also about damaging someone’s sense of autonomy and agency. Sexual assault, whether the survivor is overpowered or coerced, teaches someone through intimidation that their body is not under their own control, and that’s one of the scariest experiences a human can have.

It seems to me that bruises and broken bones are easier for the public to digest as traumatizing experiences. When people hear about sexual assault, they often think, “What’s the big deal?” Sex is generally fun and harmless, right? They don’t necessarily realize that sex, which is inescapably intimate and vulnerable, can leave our bodies feeling the exact same way as other types of physical abuse.

For more information on the neurochemical responses to trauma, click this link.

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