Understanding Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is an act of violence by a perpetrator on an innocent persons body. It includes sexual harassment, looking, touching and penetration, oral sex, exposure to inappropriate sexual body parts and resources. Sexual abuse also includes the forced stimulation of sexual responses. Sexual violence is a human rights abuse regardless of situation, relationship or age. The responsibility for the offence always lies with the perpetrator and is of no fault of the victim.
There are different terms used, such as; Molestation, Child Sexual Abuse, and Sexual Assault. These terms differentiate the type of sexual abuse that has occurred. However regardless of the acts, length of time or the identity of the perpetrator, all sexual abuse is torturous, violent and based in trauma.
Sexual abuse can be a one off violation or an ongoing abuse of relationship to please one person at the expense of someone's body and emotional state.
Living with Sexual Abuse
Unfortunately whether it is a recent assault, currently ongoing or happened a significant time ago, the effect on one's life is catastrophic. It impacts on relationships, trust of others, sexuality, confidence, self-esteem to name a few.
Survivors live with the behaviours and strategies that victims develop in order to resist and survive the abuse; these can continue to affect them in their adult lives. There are common emotions and issues of concern that survivors live with:
• Emotional isolation is common following the force of the victim to keep a secret. The consequences of if the "secret of abuse" became known are threatening for the survivor and very isolating. These feelings of secrecy, feeling ashamed and scared of ramifications is daunting. In opposition to this, many feel their abuse is written all over their face, afraid that everybody knows and is identified by their abuse.
• Self-blame and guilt is common, especially if the perpetrator reinforced verbally that you were to blame, or you are a bad person. This is conflicting when a chid is abused as is brought up to believe adults know best.
• Betrayed trust is inevitable regardless if the perpetrator is a stranger or known. The relationship is altered to meet the perpetrator's needs at the expense of the victim. Trust is abused and therefore it can be difficult as an adult to trust in yourself, as well as to trust others.
• Experiencing Triggers occur when there may be things that bring back or 'trigger' memories. These include not only obvious things like childbirth, Pap smears or the way your partner touches you sexually, but also everyday things such as colours, kinds of furniture or vehicles, sounds, or smells, which bring back memories or feelings associated with the abuse.
• Relationships are affected by abuse, even if the abuse happened recently or many years ago. Adult survivors may feel they have to put the needs of others above their own, especially when they recognise that at the time of abuse the adult's wants came before the child's needs. In relationships, there may be problems asserting your needs and wants. This may be with friends, partners, relatives and /or the people you work with. Some survivors have problems in sexual relationships: sex and physical contact may recall the circumstances of the abuse. The message here is that once the abuse is over, long term ramifications takes its place.
• Some survivors report problems with anger. You may feel angry with yourself for not being able to stop the abuse, angry with the abuser, or angry with parents or care givers for not protecting you.
• Some survivors report depression as a symptom of abuse. Research shows, in fact, that depression is the most frequently reported symptom (Berliner & Elliot, "Sexual abuse of children", in Briere et al.
• Fear, anxiety, and being 'always on guard' are normal responses to trauma against possible danger. Researchers have found that survivors of sexual abuse are up to five times more likely to be diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder than other people (Saunders et al, "Child sexual assault as a risk factor for mental disorder among women: a community survey", in Journal of Interpersonal Violence 7, 1992).
• Many survivors develop strategies to avoid overwhelming feelings and memories and the pain associated with them including: eating problems, Sexual difficulties, including avoidance of sex, promiscuity, or experiencing fear and 'flashbacks'; Engage in compulsive behaviours to obtain some control, Engage in self-harm, or repeatedly think about wanting to die. Emotional pain is often harder to deal with than physical pain. It is helpful to remember that if the abuse has ceased, you have survived the worst.
• Some people believe that someone who was sexually abused as a child will grow up to become a child abuser themselves. This can lead to constant self-questioning and anxiety about being near children. There is no basis for this belief; no link has ever been established between abuse in childhood and later becoming an offender.
• Some survivors have experienced traumatic amnesia or delayed recall of memories of child sexual abuse. Traumatic amnesia is a particular response of the brain that prevents a child from having any conscious recall of the abuse. Whilst many believe this loss of memory is a helpful body response, it can also be disturbing having gaps in your memories.
Dealing with Sexual Abuse
The priority for working with survivors of sexual abuse is to be safe and free from abuse. If you are still being abused, please tell someone who will listen and treat you with sensitivity; understanding and most of all believe you. It is every person's human right to live their life free of violence and when violence occurs it is their right to receive compassionate, professional assistance in their recovery and full redress for the crime through the criminal justice system. The Justice System is sometimes obligatory and sometimes your choice to proceed. Your options need to be explored to determine which is the right decision for you.
Seeking counselling may be one way to find alternative strategies for working through the pain, memories and other impacts of abuse. There are healthy strategies like talking to someone, counselling, support groups and exercise that would be more helpful than self harm or substance abuse.
Other practical suggestions for improving a survivor's quality of life would include:
• Start to make choices in other aspects of your life. Some examples would be what you would like to eat for dinner, who you would like to be friends with or what activities you would like to participate in? These choices will encourage you to start taking control in your life.
• Learn grounding and safety techniques so when your memories are triggered, the feelings of danger do not stay with you. Grounding techniques involves using the sense of touch and self-talk, reminding yourself you are currently not in danger, are safe and free from abuse.
• Your strong emotions and reactions, nightmares, thoughts and distressed feelings are normal given the circumstances. Acknowledge that rape or sexual assault can be a life threatening experience; you survived this, you are a survivor!
• Acknowledge that it is okay to seek help and support. You do not have to suffer anymore alone, nor keep any secrets.
• Recognise your inner and external support network. Become clearer about your survival techniques, self care strategies and even your newly developed self-defence skills. Your external support network includes professional staff, friends and / or family, and determines how to use them to your best advantage.