When we think about sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people, we think about pain and fear and shame and confusion.

We don’t think it’s personal and intense and the child has no control over it. Or very little.

We forget the problem is the overwhelming sense of powerlessness at having someone trip a sensory and emotional response in you the way they would trip a switch.

The coercion may be more or less obvious. It may be based only on the child’s natural inclination to comply with adults. There may be overt threats. There may have been overt threats in the past that created compliance. I don’t know that the source of coercion or persuasion makes that much of a difference. The end result is a sense of powerlessness.

And it is a sense of powerlessness over something most of us, as adults, take for granted.

There are so many choices we normally make when we choose to have sex. We choose who. We choose when. We choose where. We choose under what conditions. We choose how. We choose for how long.

A child or a young person being exploited or abused sexually has none of these choices. Or one choice among them. Or at most two.

Young children have no ability to even make those choices.

I’ve been sifting through my head, sorting through the difference between what I had to do and what I chose to do: what is sex and what is exploitation.

The exploitation was not about any one of those choices I didn’t get to make. It was about all of them together. I didn’t get to choose who. I had to do it with whoever was there. Certainly not when. I could be fresh as a daisy or dead with exhaustion. Didn’t matter. I was a machine: I had to perform. I didn’t get to choose where or under what conditions. There were people watching, there were cameras. I didn’t get to choose those. I didn’t get to choose how—things hurt.

And the last one maybe doesn’t seem important, but when you can’t make it stop, it is torture.

Sexual abuse is torture. It is torture because it creates an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

It is not torture because it hurts, although it often does. Or because it is frightening, although it often is. Or because you feel ashamed, although you generally do.

It is the powerlessness itself that is so extremely harmful, that is the pain, that hurts later, that leaves you with pieces you need to pick up because it shattered you.