“Real Rape”

January 19, 2016

This past weekend I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “To Catch A Rapist”. It highlighted the work of a dedicated inspector and some of her colleagues in the Special Victims Unit of Law Enforcement in New Haven, Conn. and the repeated roadblocks they come up against trying to prosecute sexual assault cases. It was powerful and informative and I would encourage anyone reading this to take a look at that article as well. First some statistics:

“End Violence Against Women International, a renowned research and training organization for law-enforcement officers and other professionals involved in sexual assault investigations, estimates that only 5 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported, depending on the population studied. And according to a 2011 report by the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women, only 14 to 18 percent of all sexual assaults reported to police are prosecuted.”

These statistics are even more dramatic when you compare them to reporting and prosecution of all other crimes. I am not shocked by these statistics – and probably neither are you. Because we already know that most rape victims are too ashamed, scared or unsure about what happened to report. And if they do report, they have little faith that anything will be done about it. Furthermore, the majority of rape victims are minors – some so young that they have no idea or words for what happened – and others threatened by their adult abusers or rebuffed by other family members when the abuser is known. Consider that a majority of the rest of the rape victims either knew their abuser – perhaps drugs or alcohol was involved – (think Bill Cosby or date rape), or else they are the mentally ill or prostitutes, who, second to minors, are the most likely targets, but are the least likely to be believed. Now you can see why the statistics are so dismal. But that doesn’t make it justifiable. It simply means that further work needs to be done educating both the public and law enforcement agencies.

“Real rape”, as described in the New York Times article, are those cases in which the victim is visibly physically injured with the suspect having used a gun or knife, and the rape is reported immediately. “In the minds of many police officers, prosecutors, juries, even victims themselves, a “real rape” is committed by a male stranger who uses a weapon to threaten the victim and inflicts serious injury.” And “real rape” in the mind of many law enforcement officers, prosecutors and juries, is also an assault where the victim’s “moral character or behavior” is above reproach. So that probably leaves us with over 90 percent of rape cases not considered “real rape”.

Because so many women, men and minors do not immediately report, the fault does not lie entirely with the law enforcement community or simply because of insensitivity to the crime. Part of the work lies in getting adults to be more vigilant and to come forward quickly – whether they themselves have been raped or they suspect a minor has been raped. Minors need to be educated as early as possible to what rape is and what to do if anyone tries to touch them – that includes parents, siblings, other family members, neighbors or religious leaders. And if non-abusing family members won’t believe them, then they should seek help from their friends’ families, other trusted adults, or more importantly, from their schools, where teachers as well as counselors have to be trained in handling these cases and reporting them expeditiously. Too many times, counselors do report, but then social services do not handle these cases effectively, either immediately pulling the child out of the home and into foster care or more likely not doing enough to protect the child because of lack of clarity or evidence.

For the victims, shame is a major part of the reason they don’t come forward. Victims, who are not ready to talk about it, should be encouraged to tell a trusted figure (i.e. a doctor or respected community person) who will keep their secret until they are ready to go to the authorities. At least then they will have someone that they told immediately afterwards, to corroborate their story. And don’t assume that it will be your word against his or hers. What we learn from the New York Times article is that “the most current thinking on sexual assault investigations is that there is always corroborating evidence. Detectives just have to be willing to search for it.” Regardless, the longer a rape victim waits, the harder it will be to bring the suspect to justice.

While it has been said many times that “no means no”, what victims of acquaintance rape have to understand is that even if you finally succumb in order to get it over with and get away from him/her, that doesn’t mean it isn’t rape. Don’t confuse resignation with agreement. No still meant no; and it wasn’t respected. If the abuser behaves that way with you, you can be sure that they will behave that way with others. By not talking, you are passively allowing that person to abuse others. Rape is always real.

When Store owners selling products are robbed, they have had a crime committed against them and they report it. When prostitutes who sell sex are raped, they have also had a crime committed against them, but usually they don’t report it. When it comes to sex, just because you sell it, doesn’t mean anyone gets to hold you up without your consent and take it for free. The rape of a prostitute should be treated seriously by law enforcement.

As for our most defenseless group, minors make up 70 – 80 percent of all rape victims. And a large percentage of minors who are sexually abused go on to be abused as adults. The psychological damage to children who have been sexually abused is life-long. There is a limit to how effectively we can educate minors – especially very young children – to protect themselves and/or to report afterwards.

It is up to all of us to become much more vigilant in protecting children – everyone’s’ children. We should be aware of the signs – children who suddenly act out in a sexually inappropriate manner; children who withdraw, act depressed or exhibit extreme anger much of the time and perhaps start doing poorly in school. When children say that something is happening, we must listen. It may not sound believable. It may not sound possible based on your knowledge of who is being accused or what they are being accused of, but you must err on the side of protecting the child – not the adult.

And if family members won’t help, you must still pursue your suspicions until you find a reasonable answer as to why the child is crying out for help. Often, families turn inward and protect the abuser – either consciously or unconsciously. Young children don’t lie about these things (the exception being those prodded by adults who convince them that something happened which didn’t happen). And older adolescents – if they are lying – are still crying out for help – because something is wrong. The truth will come out if you look for it. It is better to discover that a child is psychologically disturbed and falsely accusing an adult, than to realize that you did nothing to help a child who has been sexually abused. While the subject of rape is being discussed seriously and getting more attention now, we still have a long way to go to make our children, women, and men safe from sexual assault.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT



Selfishness is OK

November 18, 2015

Selfishness has a negative connotation in our culture; but it’s not selfishness, it’s a lack of empathy that hurts others. While I am no Ayn Rand acolyte, I do agree with her argument in “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Taking care of oneself is not only reasonable; it is necessary – necessary for survival. But our culture has placed a judgment on taking care of oneself – as if taking care of yourself, precludes caring or doing anything for others. Why would that be the case? That type of assumption usually falls into the category of faulty, black and white thinking.

The rejoinder to this is that the actual dictionary definition of selfishness is “taking care of oneself to the exclusion of others”. But that again, is disingenuous and leads to dualistic reasoning. Why are these two actions – Rand refers to them as a “package deal” – joined together as if one leads to the other or one is the consequence of the other?   It is probably more accurate to say that one cannot take care of others unless they take care of themselves first. Furthermore, the definition arises from historical religious beliefs that a moral life is a life led in sacrifice to others and to God – Altruism vs. Egoism. I see these two “isms” as separate, subjective concepts that we do not have to choose between.

Why do I feel that this distinction is so important? Because I am constantly reminded how “selfishness” is used by abusers to further victimize their victims – especially Narcissistic abusers. If the traditional definition of selfishness were to be relevant for anyone, it would be Narcissists. Narcissists not only focus on themselves to the exclusion of all others, but more importantly, they can’t feel for others. They lack empathy. And it’s a lack of empathy that allows people to hurt others – not selfishness.

Yet the Narcissist complains that others are selfish because they don’t focus on and treat him/her properly. The Narcissist needs to constantly be fed emotionally. His/her sense of self is so bloviated and at the same time so fragile, that unending tending to their egos is almost the equivalent of oxygen. For Narcissists, their children, wives, husbands, even friends are simply an extension of themselves. And children in particular, because they have no power of their own, pay a terrible price if they fail to reflect what the Narcissist needs.

Working as extensively with adult survivors of childhood abuse as I do, I understand that these people have been brainwashed into believing that they are bad when they try and take care of themselves. To be the recipient of long term abuse, the abuser must convince their subjects that up is down and black is white. Standing up for ones self, recognizing that what is happening is wrong, telling others is to be prevented at all cost. So these young people are brainwashed – and in a perverse way, the brainwashing helps them keep their sanity – for the time being. Because if a child were to actually understand the danger they were in and the craziness of the world and the people around them, their little hearts would burst. Children need a safe environment to flourish. If they don’t automatically have that they have to mentally create an environment that at least doesn’t emotionally kill them. The mind protects itself, best as it can.

Do I think that all abusers are Narcissists? No. But I do think that Narcissistic traits are very often present – primarily low self-esteem and a lack of empathy towards others. If an abuser had the ability to really put themselves in another’s shoes, especially their own child’s, they couldn’t possibly continue to behave the way that they do while never holding themselves accountable for their actions. Taking responsibility is what the abuser cannot do; falsely taking responsibility is what keeps the victim down.

Psychotherapy is about taking responsibility for your own part in every situation and a readiness to change yourself. The work I do with abuse survivors is to help them understand their lack of responsibility in what happened to them. Because it is their own shame, no longer the abuser, that is holding them captive as adults. And it is selfishness that will help them navigate a more fulfilling future.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

Families With Abuse

June 3, 2015

Abusive situations in families do not happen in isolation. It is neither bad luck, nor is it the fault of the victim of abuse. Abuse happens within a culture of abuse. That is, there is something that is handed down over the generations that encourages those who abuse and allow those around the abuser to ignore what is happening. While the abuser is certainly responsible for his/her actions, there are other family members who are complicit by their passivity or inability to recognize the signs. Now that society is finally recognizing the prevalence and importance of this issue, families have to take some responsibility and not merely leave it up to the victim to get help.

What do I mean about a “culture of abuse”. Abuse flourishes in a family where the parents themselves grew up in an abusive household. For example, more times than not, when an adult survivor of sexual abuse comes to see me, it comes to light that either or even both parents may have experienced sexual abuse when they were growing up. That is even the case when the abuser is a sibling and not a parent, grandparent or uncle/aunt. If not directly, then they were probably in a household where abuse occurred. Therefore, they have been hiding their own secret and easily fall into denial about what is occurring now.

Even when parents do notice, and do take action, the family must look at not only what happened, by why it happened. If an adult is the abuser, that adult must be held accountable. While we try and understand how it could have happened, we help the victim to heal. And everyone else in the family – to a much lesser degree – is a victim as well. That is, if we all acknowledge our part, then we can also see that everyone has been adversely affected by what has happened.

This is much clearer when the abuser is a sibling. It is much clearer because it is much harder for parents to know how  to correctly deal with sibling abuse. They feel that they have to make a choice, if they reach out to the victim; they have to condemn their other child. It can feel like a “Sophie’s Choice”, save one child, lose the other. But that shouldn’t be the case. Both children need to be helped. The abuser is crying out for help even if he/she knows does not know it. Whether it is sexual, physical or emotional abuse, the abuse is a symptom of something else. What the parents might not want to look at is the fact that it may be a symptom of an overall abusive or neglectful environment. No one is trying to turn the parents into villains. But if they won’t look at themselves, they are, at the very least, not being good parents.

What about when it’s a parent or grandparent who is the abuser? Does the family have to cut off from that adult? Perhaps. But by doing nothing, you are siding with the abuser against your own child or grandchild. Unfortunately, many adults unconsciously make that decision because they either don’t want to break up a marriage or they don’t want to lose a parent or a brother/sister. There is no easy answer. And it would be cavalier to say that no matter what; you have to protect your child. But in my world, no matter what, you have to protect your child.

The Disassociation of a Rapist

January 14, 2015

While I have re-posted a couple of articles on the subject, I wasn’t going to write about Bill Cosby or the subject of serial rape; there are enough articles and editorials on this subject. What has now made me decide to join the fray is a recent statement by a friend of his that “this isn’t about the women, this is about the legacy” – of Bill Cosby.

That comment alluded to a psychological aspect of this story that is worth exploring. If Bill Cosby turns out to be guilty of these charges, then how was a man who exemplified so much that was good and progressive, able to commit such base crimes against women? Is Bill Cosby two different people, and if so, who is the real Bill Cosby?

We all have various sides to our personality. These different aspects of our being are sometimes contradictory but usually not so starkly different that it is impossible to comprehend how the same person could exhibit both behaviors or thought processes. And when that happens we usually refer to these people in derogative or diagnostic terms such as psycho, schizo or sociopath labels that can be crude or simplistic generalizations.

Mr. Cosby’s case reminds me of a story that made national headlines in the late 1980’s. A young Black man from Harlem had overcome poverty, and an environment of gangs & drugs to gain admittance to Harvard University. The 1980’s were a time when that was still considered an unusual achievement. While the young man was home on Spring break, two (White) police officers got into a scuffle with a couple of unidentified youths in Harlem and one was killed. Days later, the Harvard student was arrested for the police officer’s murder, and the Black community was up in arms. The Establishment was trying to bring down one of their best and brightest. There were protests and violent confrontations.

Many publications wrote sympathetic stories about the rampant racism that still existed in the City. But to the amazement of many, it turned out that the young man was not falsely charged. He had in fact killed the police officer. And he killed him, not because he felt his life was being threatened, but because he was sick of being hassled and he exploded. He was tired of carefully walking a fine line and being the perfect young Black man. He felt split in half. There was the overachiever – the smart, ambitious and clever young man who had risen out of the ghetto. And then there was the disassociated other, someone who had been stuffing his anger. Someone who felt as if he didn’t belong anywhere, dangling between two worlds, he would never be White but he could no longer fit comfortably into his own community. The mantle of “role model” left him alone and lost, powerful in his achievements, but powerless nonetheless. The anger that had been quietly building inside of him had to go somewhere. And unfortunately, it exploded on that particular night with that particular cop.

Around that same time, I came across other stories, psychological profiles not unlike that one. What was specific to these profiles was a feeling of being caught between two worlds, and the fact that all of these individuals were part of a minority culture (race or gender) as well as from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who went on to excel above and beyond. Bill Cosby fits that profile.

While having come from modest means, he rose during the civil rights era to become an unusually successful man, achieving great wealth, fame and even adulation. He was a trailblazer who wisely tailored his image as that of a lovable Everyman, cultivating an inclusive, non-threatening facade while projecting himself as a role model to his own community. He gained prestige and additional respect through his philanthropic endeavors. And yet, it is possible that there was something else going on, something underneath – another persona – the angry one. He could have been secretly acting out his rage with these women. It has been said that, “rape is not about sex, it is about power”. The behavior the women have described is an amplified version of that theory. It wasn’t enough to simply force himself on them, he had to literally knock them out, make them prone.

I am, of course, speculating. Bill Cosby has not been proven guilty. He may never be proven guilty. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. I believe the women.

So what about his legacy? It is about the women; it is as much about them as it is about everything else he ever did or achieved.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT




Ritualized Sexual Abuse

June 29, 2014

There is ritual sexual abuse and there is ritualized sexual abuse. The terms are sometimes interchanged, but for the purpose of this article I am delineating between the two as Ritual Sexual Abuse being cult or cult-like abuse in which “the abuse has a spiritual or social goal” (David Finkelhor, National Study of Sexual Abuse, 1988) and usually involves brain washing, torture, animal/human sacrifice and drugging while Ritualized Sexual Abuse as being long term sexual, psychological and physical abuse that occurs habitually and is the dominant factor in a secret relationship between two or more individuals.


Although the perpetrators of Ritualized Sexual Abuse may use many of the techniques used in cult-like abuse – intimidation, humiliation, mind control, drugging, even torture, there is no reference to a larger cause or belief system. And for the most part, it is abuse committed by an individual who gains control over one or more persons. Long-term sexual abuse between family members could possibly be – but may not be – ritualized sexual abuse – because there are other facets to that kind of relationship. But the kidnapping of a girl(s) and keeping them personally as “sex slaves” is always ritualized sexual abuse.


The last few years have seen headline grabbing cases such as the Elizabeth Smart abduction, the Ariel Castro kidnappings, and more recently, the Santa Ana girl rescued after 10 years of enslavement by her mother’s former boyfriend. How do we understand the “monsters” that are capable of such acts? Do we simply write them off as the sex addicts they claim to be, or as insane individuals who can neither be identified nor predicted? What drives an individual to create and then maintain this kind of sadistic and illusory world?


“The Collector”, a John Fowles novel and subsequent film of the early 1960’s, told the story of a man who took a young woman he was obsessed with, hostage. Because rape, if it occurred, was not the focus of the story, the reader was given the opportunity to probe the complex psychological machinery that drove the young man’s compulsion. While sexual desire was a factor, it was part of a much larger pastiche of forces that drove him. A sense of powerlessness and an outsider status in a society that felt hostile and unfair. A social structure that not only banished him to its lower rungs but made him feel both unseen and ridiculed at the same time. By “collecting” this young innocent creature (adding her to an already existing butterfly collection), he was embellishing himself and gaining a semblance of power over a rejecting environment. The world in this young woman’s eyes would have to take him seriously now. He would be obeyed and honored. He would be seen, as well as feared. He could control and manipulate and make someone else feel the pain and isolation that he felt. He was no longer a victim, because he made someone else the victim – someone who would pay for his sins, but more importantly, pay for society’s sins.


We live in a world that even youngsters recognize is not fair. The unfairness grows as we do. Some learn how to successfully navigate an unfair society. Others learn how to accept it and find a semblance of happiness. And the rest cope by acting out via an array of anti-social activities. The men (and women) behind these horrific ritualized sexual abuse cases are re-enacting the loss of their own innocence in a cruel world. They are not to be forgiven. But they are a manifestation of a collective disorder. We are not born evil; it is bred into us. The environment shapes, for better or worse, even those born with a disposition toward mental illness based on an inherited genetic defect.


Is this type of mental disorder on the rise? Probably not. It has always existed. But we are more aware now because we live in a very transparent world. And when “religious” (terrorist) groups like Boco Hara, receive international attention for kidnapping young women with impunity, those who might only fantasize about such horrific acts, can now imagine a call to action in their own distorted minds. What can we do? Our country has abandoned a construct for dealing with mental illness. Therefore, there is no place to go and no way to enforce mental health treatment for the vast majority who need it. So the first step is to advocate on both the State and Federal level for a reapplication of services for this population as well as for laws that will allow us to enforce care for those who are not able to make those decisions for themselves. And of course, be ever vigilant – never assume that this type of story couldn’t happen next door to you.



March 1, 2014

How would you know if you were the only sane person in an insane asylum?  Now imagine yourself as a child with no prior knowledge of what is sane or normal.  How would a child know if they were a sane person in a family with disturbed parents?

A significant part of the trauma of growing up in an abusive environment is that children do not understand what is happening to them or why.  They understand that life feels unfair, but they don’t understand why things are so terribly wrong.  And because children rely on their parents for understanding and survival, it is far more terrifying to think that the adults around them are unsafe or evil than to think that they must be bad or evil themselves. 

That said, there is a significant difference between parents who are sometimes moody, depressed, anxious or inattentive from parents who have enduring emotional problems and a history of behavioral and relationship difficulties. The former are well intentioned but challenged parents who may even have a mild mood disorder, the latter are adults with Axis II Personality Disorders.  Axis II or Cluster B Personality Disorders include Borderline P.D., Narcissistic P.D., Antisocial P.D., and Histrionic P.D.

“Personality Disorders are present in 10 to 15 percent of the adult population, with Cluster B accounting for approximately 9 percent based on research.” (Counseling Resource, Mental Health Library, pg.1).  So we are not talking about some minute substrata of the adult population; several million families could be affected.  And yet, there is no common denominator that distinguishes a family with a parent who has a Personality Disorder.  If there was, we might be able to help children who grow up in this kind of environment.  The reality is that the child doesn’t understand what is happening, and while the outside world might recognize that one or both of the parents are emotionally unstable, there is no legal way to make the leap that a child in the house is being emotionally abused and is unsafe, and then help them.

About the only thing we can do as clinicians or concerned citizens is familiarize ourselves and others with what Cluster B Personality Disorders look like and how they can negatively impact children.  Then if we suspect that abuse is happening, we can try and alert other family members, school personnel or anyone who might have some influence to go in and help – through empathy and education – so that the family become more self-aware.

The most serious of the Cluster B Personality Disorders is Borderline Personality Disorder.  In the case of a parent (more likely mom than dad) with this disorder, there is persistent instability in their relationships with just about everyone as well as persistent impulsive behavior, addictive behavior, and self-harming behavior.  Borderlines have no personal boundaries so they don’t respect other peoples’ boundaries.  Children of Borderlines are always at risk because they are both neglected and overwhelmed by their parents’ behavior.  They may be verbally, physically or sexually assaulted – either by the parent, or by the types of people that the parent exposes them to.  There is no consistency, no sound role modeling, very little if any nurturing, and they are in a constant state of high alert, because they never know what will happen next.  So these kids grow up with low self-esteem, lots of internalized trauma, and repressed anger that affects their ability to function effectively in the world. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be most common of the Cluster B group – and in some ways the hardest to identify and therefore help the child.  Narcissists are clever.  They are great manipulators.  They can turn on the charm when they need or want to.  But there is always a self-serving goal.  They are like the plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors” – their egos need to be fed constantly.  Their children are either viewed as an extension of themselves or a punching bag for their own unrecognized insecurities and self-loathing.  Narcissists are bullies.  It’s their way or the highway.  They have no empathy for anyone – including their children.  In fact, they have been called “emotional vampires”, because they use up everyone around them. Their vanity is boundless.

While narcissistic parents can maintain long-term relationships, they usually pair up with enabling partners.  So the child has no one to turn to.  And the child is made to believe that they are the problem; they are selfish, bad children because they don’t appreciate and take care of their narcissistic parent adequately. Again, these are the hardest type of family situations to recognize and intercede.  But it is very helpful to the child to know that there are people outside of the home who recognize their reality.  That alone, might present a window of clarity to a bewildered child, and therefore hope. 

Histrionic Personality Disorder is less pervasive than Narcissistic but shares many behavioral patterns.  Like the narcissist, the histrionic personality seeks constant admiration, has no empathy for others and is consumed with entitlement, envy, and jealousy.  What is specific to the Histrionic is a pervasive pattern of attention seeking, excessive emotional lability coupled with lots of drama.  Their feelings are shallow, their behavior seductive and extremely manipulative. Their children, like everyone else in their world, are there to serve, comfort and fulfill them.  And they vacillate between engulfing their children and neglecting them.  Either way, the child’s needs are not considered.  Because they feel used and unseen, the emotional toll of being raised by a Narcissist or Histrionic can leave these children with intimacy issues, anger, anxiety and lack of trust.  

While Antisocial Personality Disorder is more obvious and identifiable to the outside world, it doesn’t make it any easier to help the child of such a parent.  These parents are usually irresponsible and have a total disregard for the rights of others.  Their behavior can fall into criminal patterns because they tend to ignore the rules of society.  And they show no remorse for their behavior.  So they don’t only mistreat their children, they mistreat everyone.  Sometimes the extremity of their behavior leads to the loss of parental rights.  That can actually be the child’s salvation.  Because a child brought up in that type of environment is not only scarred by the mistreatment they receive, they are not given any proper tools to navigate society later, so the only hope for them to learn right from wrong and also healthier ways to interact, is to be taken away at a young enough age and put into a more caring environment.

We may not yet have the laws and social constructs in place to help the children of parents with Personality Disorders, but we can become more vigilant and responsible.  It is our business to help those who cannot help themselves.  It is not a private matter.  It is a social responsibility. 

Roni Weisberg-Ross  LMFT

Facets of Personality and Dissociation

December 18, 2013

When we feel different than the person we are projecting to others, it can cause stress and sometimes shame.  Most of us have felt that way at times, and the ability to integrate again is usually fluid. But when we feel fragmented and fake most of the time, it can be extremely painful and debilitating. The desire to feel centered and authentic is a healthy longing.  For those who have either come from a background of abuse or have experienced extraordinary trauma as an adult, a fragmentation of personality may have occurred that – whether conscious or not – emotionally isolates that person.  

In the past, it was believed that in the case of extreme trauma some people would split into alternate personalities – or “alters”. The term applied to it was Multiple Personality Disorder. That diagnosis was never empirically proven, and so it evolved into the less dramatic Dissociative Personality Disorder.  Dissociating from ones feelings, and therefore acting differently than you feel, is a state of being that is more identifiable and also more conscious. And while those who dissociate shut down their feelings, they can, at a later point, recognize their behavior without totally losing a core sense of identity.  

For the rest of us there is a wider – less obvious – spectrum of “dissociation” that occurs. While it may seem as if the little girl who mentally removes herself as she is being sexually assaulted by her father is worlds apart from the adult female who tempers her personality and pretends to be confident, relaxed and engaging in a tense professional situation, they are both putting up false fronts in order to survive the circumstances they are thrust into. The more conscious and subtle the transformation, the more widespread and socially acceptable it is. But feeling fake is troubling. Feeling afraid to be, or unacceptable as you are, is painful. And it is exhausting as well. Are there people who are constantly themselves – who sit in a centered core place of emotional reality no matter what the circumstances?  Perhaps, but I personally don’t believe there is such a person among us.  Not because we are not capable of such connected and empowering behavior, but because we live in a “civilized” society, governed by a particular set of rules, which force us to regularly navigate situations that don’t necessarily feel instinctive or honest.

While each society’s rules can be slightly different, the need to conform to them in order to survive is similar.  Does that make civilized society psychologically unhealthy for human beings?  No, it is, in and of itself, a necessary structure from which the species has evolved and which remains necessary for continued survival and development.  So while not instinctive, natural, or even always emotionally healthy, we must grapple with its existence and adapt to it in ways that embellish not paralyze us.

Working predominately with trauma, many of my clients exhibit the most dramatically negative results of the impact of society on their core being. What for one person can be intermittent social anxiety, for another can be painfully paralyzing anxiety or panic, which isolates them from daily life.  Or they can immerse themselves in a false front, which is so rigidly constructed that it is always on the brink of being fractured; while sudden uncontrollable outbursts, keep others at bay. Regardless of the degree of dissociation, there is always an emotional price to be paid- an intermittent depression (exhaustion) from keeping up the front.  

What are the alternatives and how do we take charge of these different degrees of dissociation? I believe that the first step is consciousness.  Becoming aware of what you do and why you do it.  Becoming aware of how it affects you. Discerning what works for you emotionally and what doesn’t. Taking your own emotional temperature, and not shying away from your findings. Suppression has been your first line of defense; awareness becomes your first line of psychological growth. Once we look at ourselves unsparingly, we begin to take care of ourselves in a new manner, a stance that neither depletes nor distances us from others. A new way of interacting in the world that feels empowering while also appearing attractive to others.

We are never going to be perfectly honest creatures; we are never going to not put up a front or a slightly different personality in more challenging situations.  But we can be aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how it is making us more socially and personally effective communicating, building relationships and achieving intimacy.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT


Childhood Abuse and Adult Survivors: Notes from a Seminar

October 23, 2013

Let’s begin with the statistics – and they are daunting:

Approx. 1 in 4 girls & 1 in 8 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.   Even the most conservative estimates put it at 1 in 6 girls & 1 in 10 boys.  


It is estimated that as many as 40 million Americans – one in six people – experienced sexual abuse as a child.


Child sexual abuse is seldom a one-time occurrence – it lasts an average of 1 – 4 years.

It occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.


Only 10% of childhood abuse victims are abused by strangers.


Most offenders are acquainted with their victims – they’re either family members, friends of the family, babysitters or neighbors.   Abuse does run in families and the psychological repercussions of being abused by someone you know and trust are potentially much more severe.



1 in 20 children are physically abused each year.  



There aren’t any statistics on emotional abuse but it is believed to be much greater than sexual and physical abuse combined.  (Florida State U study). And that’s because ultimately all abuse is emotional abuse.

We’ll talk more about emotional abuse later.



When we talk about working with abuse survivors, we are primarily talking about working with trauma and PTSD.   Abuse creates trauma and if an adult survivor is coming to see you – they are most probably still dealing with the psychological effects of childhood abuse – therefore I would say that they are still traumatized and to a lesser or greater degree they are experiencing PTSD – now the PTSD might not be in the form of what we classically think of as PTSD (flashbacks, nightmares or severe anxiety outside of their control) – But if they are experiencing continuous negative thoughts or behaviors that are getting in their way – or if they have traumatic sexual issues or deep rooted intimacy issues.  Then In the context of their lives – they are experiencing PTSD.   So we need to understand trauma as it presents here and how the mind and body deals with it.


“Every emotionally meaningful experience – whether joyous or painful – is stored in memory and has a lasting impact on a child’s developing nervous system. The way our world feels to us as children influences our unfolding personality, emotionality and relating styles profoundly, for the long term.”


This leads us to a form of neuroscience known as Neuroplasticity.  


Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe changes in the brain that occur in response to experience.  We used to think that this “plasticity” of the brain only occurred in the first few years of life – what we now know is that the ability of the brain and the nervous system to alter based on the environment – is ongoing. This discovery dramatically alters the nature/nurture power balance giving one’s environment added and continuous weight – both positively and negatively – throughout the life span.


A traumatic event such as any type of childhood abuse changes the chemistry of the brain.  What literally happens is that events reshape wiring and responses so that even a small degree of continual stress can produce an overabundance of stress hormones that in turn create anxiety and depression and PTSD – which can last indefinitely.


It is in an area of the brain called the amygdala – that the processing and storing of highly charged emotions, such as abuse, takes place.   The amygdala allows us to remember every emotion and physical sensation from our earliest days, even if we have no clarity about the events that took place.  These memories are referred to as implicit memories – they are unconscious and they are encoded in emotional, sensory and visceral recall.   These are the memories between infancy and 4 years of age – when children are either pre-verbal or beginning to think but can’t necessarily articulate thoughts – so any trauma that occurs during that period will be held in the body as a sensory or implicit memory which the abused child/adult will later react to but not understand.  Those types of memories are in direct contrast to explicit memories – explicit memories are what we usually mean when we use the word memory – they are conscious memories – ones which we can articulate, describe in story form and make sense of.


Many of the clients I see say they don’t have any memories but they know that something happened – many will never recover the exact memories because of either their age when abused or the degree of trauma surrounding the memory.   But the body knows!

And it isn’t just children who experienced abuse before the age of four who don’t remember.  As you all know, our minds have the ability to block anything from consciousness that we can’t handle, so older children can lose conscious memory as well.


The degree of PTSD that an abuse survivor experiences is often tied to their degree of implicit vs. explicit memory.  If it is mostly implicit memory that a survivor carries, then their brain will make associations and something that reminds them of the abuse will trigger an unexpected automatic reaction.  Because they have no idea what is happening to them or what set them off, the reaction is very traumatic.  If they begin to remember or if they always remembered it, the automatic reaction loses much of its power.

It’s important to note again that when the memories are primarily implicit, it is possible that the survivor will never remember, and therefore the trauma may be more difficult to treat.



It is not just fathers or men who sexually abuse, and of course it is not just girls who are abused.

One of the most prominent researchers in the field of childhood sexual abuse is David Finklehor – A study he undertook with Diana Russell concluded that female perpetrators account for 25% or more of those who sexually abuse children.

Who are these women?  80% of these female offenders have been sexually or physically abused themselves as children (Fowler et al, 1893).




July 2000 Justice Dept. report found that women abusers victimize younger children then male abusers accounting for 4% of those who sexually abuse children under 18 years of age but about 12% of those who molest children younger than 6 yrs.   And that statistic doesn’t include such sexually abusive behaviors as sleeping with children and fondling them, bathing, touching or massaging them inappropriately, undressing and/or dressing them inappropriately, making children touch them and engaging in sexualized talk  – all of which – except for engaging in sexualized talk – is much more likely to be done by women – particularly mothers.  Because it is so underreported in general – we just have no idea how many women (mothers) sexually abuse


But here’s an interesting thought – If current research is correct and more female than male children are sexually abused and most abusers have themselves been abused as children – than it’s possible to conclude that more girls may grow up to be abusers, and there’s probably a much larger number of female sexual offenders than we would imagine.


Lets make a distinction between mothers abusing sons and mothers abusing daughters – it’s not about sexual preference – In fact, most child sexual abuse is not about sex



Most times, the Son becomes a substitute for the father or another male

This boy is the only male in this woman’s or mother’s life that she can control and she directs her anger, her rage, her stress and her fears on him.  

Son/boy feels protective of mom/woman

And because it is usually not violent or even overly coercive, it is confusing for both the victim and society at large

Boys don’t tell – the degree of shame is greater than with girls.  But the degree it affects their self-esteem, sense of selves and ability to engage in intimate relationships later on is the same.

As adults these boys/men either become hyper-masculine and angry or they become passive caretakers.  Even the passive ones can be hyper vigilant.



The least understood of all types of sexual abuse

Needs to be brought out of the shadows – it is minimized and marginalized.  

Can be very subtle but most of the time it is extreme (pornography, sodomy, enemas, performing or watching others, three-ways, etc.) and it usually co-occurs with physical abuse.   

Mothers and daughters are just a few heartbeats away from being the same person.  They shared the same body.  

And perhaps that helps to justify the abuse to the abuser.  They are “loving” or “abusing” themselves.

For the daughters, it is psychologically so devastating because their mother is the person who teaches them how to be a woman in the world, how to identify and feel about themselves, and of course, gives them their primary sense of self worth.  For daughters, her core relational self, her self-structure has been denied because there is no safe, loving other to model.

There is a complete lack of boundaries in these mothers. No consideration of the daughter except as an extension of herself.

Many of these mothers are substance abusers.  But substance abuse isn’t the reason they abuse – it simply acts as a disinhibitor for them.

The sex isn’t about sex; more often, it is a generational handing down of abusive/incestuous relationships.  

And the stereotype of the mentally insane woman who does this is mostly inaccurate.  While Female abusers can run the gamut from promiscuous Borderlines to introverted, socially awkward women – just like with men, some of the most respectable appearing women are preying on their children behind closed doors.



For more information about mother/son abuse and mother/daughter abuse  – look at my articles



Father/daughter or stepfather/daughter is what comes to mind first when we think of childhood sexual abuse – but it is not the most common form of abuse – and despite the fantasy that it is about men lusting after young female flesh, it is – once again – more about power than it is about sex.  Oftentimes it is repressed rage and usually a current stressor sets it off.  However when it is the biological father it is more likely that the victim is the unintentional consequence, not the target, of these repressed forces.  


Father/son abuse carries specific psychological/emotional baggage.  Not only do the victims grow up exhibiting the same problems as female victims – low self esteem, anxiety, guilt, relationship difficulties, sexual difficulties, self destructive and addictive behavior, they can also develop sexual identity concerns.  Masculinity is an ideal for men and it is difficult to perceive yourself as both a victim and masculine.  Just as there was more shame experienced by boys abused by their mothers. There is more profound shame attached to same sex abuse with boys than with girls.    Girls who are abused by their mothers don’t necessarily grow up thinking or concerned by the possibility of being Lesbians – boys, however, are concerned they might be Gay or if they are Gay, they wonder if the abuse made them that way.


Over the past few years there has been a spotlight on priests who have abused young boys – some of these priests have been identified as homosexual so I don’t want to minimize or misrepresent what is going on in that particular community, but it doesn’t alter the research.  And that is – that even when there is abuse of boys by men other than their fathers, it’s more about power and control than it is about sex and the abusers aren’t necessarily Gay


Some of research findings:

Virtually all male abusers of boys consider themselves heterosexual  (Gartner, 1999).   

Only 65% of child abusers meet the criteria for pedophilia  (Mayo Clinic).


So the notion that this is a way for homosexual men to get sex is slanderous, it’s homophobic and it doesn’t hold up statistically. Just as most heterosexual men who like younger women don’t go around abusing underage girls, most Gay men who like younger men don’t go around abusing underage boys.





Sibling Abuse may be as common or more common than other types of incest.  Any where from 57%( Goldman & Goldman) to 90% (Finkelhor) of nuclear family incest involves siblings.  And that doesn’t even include physical and emotional abuse!  But it may be the most ignored – if not accepted – form of abuse in families.  Why is it minimized?  Many times it is swept under the rug as sibling rivalry – no parent really wants to believe that there’s a more serious problem going on.  Furthermore, parents never report because they don’t want to get their children in trouble with the law.

Additionally, sometimes it’s in the parent’s interest not to notice because they need to leave siblings alone to take care of each other.  

But brother-sister incest may be five times as common as father-daughter incest”.     (Hart & Brassard – A Major Threat to Children’s Mental Health).

 And there is evidence that parents are aware of sexual abuse 18% of the time; emotional abuse 69% of the time and physical abuse 71% of the time.


What causes one sibling to abuse another?

Acting out anger – at parents or another sibling who is hurting them

Mirroring parents behavior

Inappropriate expectations of the abuser by the parents – too much responsibility


Long-term effects of sibling abuse:

Lower self esteem and overly insecure

Trouble with relationships

Sexual functioning problems

Self blame and/or anger


Trauma Shapes Sexuality – (write on board)

Often we are dealing with not only the sexual abuse of the past but also the sexual behavior of the client as an adult.   


Finklehor & Browne – “theory of sexual traumatization” – through a variety of means, childhood abuse – primarily childhood sexual abuse shapes sexuality creating unusual emotional associations to sexual activities and a repertoire of sexualized behaviors that seem inappropriate or disturbing to many others.  These behaviors may have been learned during the period of abuse or in some manner are associated with the abuse and are now used as a strategy for manipulating others or to self stimulate.


What I have noticed is that their particular sexualized behaviors may or may not shame them, but what usually does shame the survivor is the idea that their young bodies may have responded to the sex in a way that was antithetical to how their minds were processing it.  I have had more than one client who has confessed that the only person she ever had an orgasm with was her abuser!     While I won’t get into this subject further today, you can read my article ” Sexual Abuse & Sexuality” which is here on the table along with other articles

I have written on some of the topics we have covered.


Finally, I want to return briefly to emotional abuse:

It’s impact and pervasiveness cannot be emphasized enough


Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse, and perhaps the least clearly understood.  That’s because emotional abuse is not a single or quantifiable act.  It is difficult to chronicle or identify.  

Because it is not a reportable crime and there are no hard statistics, there is very little research on the psychological repercussions and in general it is minimized.  But we do know that emotional abuse has been shown to produce 1.6 x as many symptoms of depression and anxiety among adults as those not abused.  And those adults were also twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety D/O.  (FSU).   Why? – Because survivors of emotional abuse have internalized years of negative messages without any filter and they now believe it.  Adults who have been emotionally abused as children are among the most self critical – hence the high degree of depression and anxiety found among this population.

And it is the emotional aspect of sexual abuse that can be the most devastating.  I have had clients – fondled by their fathers – who were much more severely traumatized than those who had been sexually penetrated.  How can that be when penetration is so much more physically traumatic?

Because emotional trauma lives on after physical trauma fades away.   

And because it depends on the emotional impact that that particular abuser had on this particular survivor

And it depends on whether or not the rest of the family compounded the trauma by their denial or reaction to the abuse.  

In the end – All abuse is emotional abuse.



Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT


Child Molester or Pedophile – Is There A Difference & What Drives Them

February 14, 2013

Sexual abuse of children is not a new problem, nor have the statistics changed. “1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 14; 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 16.” (Hopper, J. (1998). Child Sexual Abuse: Statistics, Research, & Resources. Boston, MA Boston University School of Medicine.) This issue is as old as time, but we are finally paying attention to it in a new way. Whether it is in the church, sports, boys clubs, schools or families, there have always been environmental pockets in society that foster these deviants. Whether it is about sex or power, children have always been the most vulnerable segment of the population, and their rights need to be more conscientiously protected.

Pedophilia is a psychological disorder that is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and may run in families. That latter fact may be the result of genetic defects or because pedophiles often were victims of sexual abuse themselves as children and then became perpetrators later on in a victim to perpetrator cycle of abuse. What is known about pedophiles is that they are driven early on by strong urges and fantasies to connect emotionally and sexually with children. Whether they are driven by social, sexual anxiety, brain trauma, poor impulse control, or even psychosis, these individuals feel an emotional congruence with children that translates into sexual desire. Sometimes pedophiles are looking to dominate, or just use children, as a substitute for an adult relationship. But usually, they are more comfortable with children and seek ways to be around them.

Child Molesters are opportunists who sporadically use children to gratify a sexual urge, but who are capable of adult relationships as well. Additionally, child molesters are driven by power rather than by sex. They don’t feel compelled to be with children, they simply use them. These individuals are criminals and should be treated as such.  While Pedophiles need psychotherapy and medication as well as punishment if there is any hope of altering their behavior.

“True pedophiles are responsible for only a small percentage of child sexual molestations. Half of child sexual abusers are the parents of the victims; other relatives commit an additional 18%of the offenses. And while active pedophiles are generally single men between the ages of 16 and 35, child molesters are generally married men, of any age, who are primarily drawn to their own children and/or step children.” (Pedophilia and Child Sexual Molestation -sponsored by PSC Crisis Connection site -Internet)

Pedophiles are drawn to pre-pubescent children and rationalize their behavior, believing that they love the child, want a relationship with them and are not harming them. Child Molesters are manipulators who strictly overpower their victim by means of sexual degradation in order to control them. And they may continue to molest the same victim for years because they are not fixated on a certain age, as are most pedophiles. Accessibility and convenience play a bigger role for the child molester.

Both pedophiles and child molesters are primarily male and primarily heterosexual. There are a small percentage of female child molesters, but female pedophiles are extremely rare. While we are finally recognizing and dealing with the pervasiveness of this problem across certain institutions, most molestation occurs in the home, behind closed doors, among family members. The U.S. Department of Justice (1997) and Finkelhor & Ormond (2001) claim, “More than 90% of all sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator. Almost 50% of the offenders are household members and 38% are already acquaintances of the victims.” Unfortunately, as a society, we are only scratching the surface of this problem. Victims are too young, too afraid and too psychologically manipulated to come forward. Other family members are in denial. And we are held back by either respect for privacy or ignorance from recognizing what might be taking place literally next door

The time has come for a National discourse on this issue. Every day I meet young women and men who have not only had to live through childhood sexual abuse but are continually re-traumatized by shame, confusion and self-hatred. Even as adults they don’t know how to stand up for themselves, because they have been led to believe that somehow they were responsible for what happened and have been ruined forever. Children need to be supported in the understanding that whether it is a friend of the family, a family member, or even their parent, they must look for help. And we adults have to be more available to listen and to help them.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT


November 13, 2012

Inspired by the life of Lana Wachowski:

Gender is defined as a set of characteristics – masculine, feminine or neuter, while Gender Identity is a person’s sense of and private experience of their own gender. Transgender suggests that the state of one’s gender identity does not match one’s assigned sexual gender, usually based on physical characteristics – anatomy.

Our society delineates gender as a sexual binary system.  You are either male or female.  And we have assigned a set of characteristics to these two genders – masculine and feminine characteristics that have altered somewhat over the past century but still look similar to those characteristics that have existed for hundreds of years. Transgender identity is considered an outlier – an extreme condition that society still does not fully understand or accept.  Actual gender transition via surgery is rare.  However transgender transition is not the end of the story.  The spectrum of gender identification – the subtleties of transgender identity – are much more complex, nuanced and widespread than we as a society have been able to acknowledge and tolerate.

Let’s start with children.  We acknowledge that not all little girls are “girly” and not all little boys are the rough and tumble types.  Names have been assigned to those who fall outside the norm – tomboy or sporty for a girl, sensitive or shy for a boy.

Little children may not discriminate, but their own parents oftentimes do.  How many of you have encountered an exasperated father whose boy didn’t participate in sports or act like “the son I always wanted” and therefore dad emotionally punishes him?  I worked with one father – a thoughtful man, who while not abusive, was distraught because his four-year-old boy preferred pushing a vacuum around the house rather than play ball outside.  None of these kinds of preferences, by the way, is indicative of impending homosexuality.  But is that the reason that these men are so threatened by their sons’ behaviors?

In adolescence, being different becomes more difficult and painful.  Even today, taunting and bullying accompanied by slurs and innuendos are still prevalent.  Girls begin to feel pressure to look a certain way that is in line with current beauty trends, and boys are pressured to behave a certain way – bigger versions of those sons that those distraught fathers wanted.  New labels emerge for the boys who don’t fit in – nerds, geeks, fags or weirdos.  Eating Disorders, depression, self-mutilation, sexual acting out, drinking and drugs are common coping methods for many of these kids who don’t fit in.  While we as a society have predominantly focused on bad parenting, physical deficiencies, I.Q., and homosexuality as some of the causes, we have not paid enough attention to the gender spectrum and how more subtle differences in gender identity can play a part as well.

We live in a society that celebrates individuality without really allowing people to be truly individual.  If we look at gender as a spectrum starting with feminine at one point and concluding with masculine at the other end, and we assigned 50 people places on that spectrum, we would see that most everyone of those people would fall on their own particular spot with hardly any of them falling on exactly the same spot.  These differences are partially chemical (estrogen, androgen, testosterone, white matter ratios, etc.), partially temperament (behavioral characteristics that are gender identified), and partly socialization (childhood experiences). Whatever the particular formula, people are not simply reflections of their anatomical parts.  And Transgenders are not just individuals who want to transition to the opposite sex or want to be in a radically different sexual role.

The time has come to be more aware and accepting of the way that people feel inside – how they identify themselves on the gender spectrum – rather than simply labeling them by how they look or who they want to have sex with.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT