The Gradations of Abuse

There seems to be a heirarchy based on the damage caused to the  abuse victim  by the particular types of abuse.

Is sexual abuse worse than emotional abuse? Is verbal abuse less deleterious than physical abuse (beatings)? Somehow, the professional literature implies that there is a hierarchy with sexual mistreatment at its nadir. It is rare to hear about a dissociative identity disorder ("multiple personality") that is the outcome of constant oral humiliation in early childhood. But it is thought to be a common response to egregious sexual molestation of infants and to other forms of deviance and perversions with minors.

Yet, these distinctions are spurious. One's mental space is as important to one's healthy development and proper adult functioning as one's body. Indeed. the damage in sexual abuse is hardly corporeal. It is the psychological intrusion, coercion, and the demolition of nascent boundaries of the self that inflict the most damage.

Abuse is a form of long-term torture usually inflicted by one's nearest and dearest. It is a grievous violation of trust and it leads to disorientation, fear, depression, and suicidal ideation. It generates aggression in the abused and this overwhelming and all-pervasive emotion metastasizes and transforms into pathological envy, violence, rage, and hatred.

The abused are deformed by the abuser both overtly - many develop mental health disorders and dysfunctional behaviours - and, more perniciously, covertly. The abuser, like some kind of alien life form, invades and colonizes the victim's mind and becomes a permanent presence. Abused and abuser never cease the dialog of hurt, recrimination, and glib denial or rationalization that is an integral part of the act.

In a way, psychological abuse - emotional and verbal - is harder to "erase" and "deprogram". Words resonate and reverberate, pain resurfaces, narcissistic wounds keep opening. The victims proceeds to pay with stunted growth and recurrent failure for his own earlier degradation and objectification.

Social attitudes don't help. While sexual and physical abuse are slowly coming to the open and being recognized as the scourges that they are - psychological abuse is still largely ignored. It is difficult to draw a line between strict discipline and verbal harassment. Abusers find refuge in the general disdain for the weak and the vulnerable which is the result of suppressed collective guilt. The "good intentions" defence is still going strong.

The professional community is no less to blame. Emotional and verbal abuse are perceived and analyzed in "relative" terms - not as the absolute evils that they are. Cultural and moral relativism mean tat many aberrant and deplorable behaviour patterns are justified based on bogus cultural "sensitivities" and malignant political correctness.

Some scholars even go as far as blaming the victim for his or her maltreatment (the discipline is known as victimology). Is the abused guilty - even partially - for the abuse? Does the victim emit a "come-on" signal, picked up by would-be abusers? Are certain types of people more prone to abuse than others?

This is the subject of the next article.


next: The Guilt of the Abused - Pathologizing the Victim

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). The Gradations of Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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