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Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Abuse

We’ve been MIA for a while. Due to the weighty nature of our blog’s content, we’re learning just how sharing our experiences impacts us individually. Our posts can serve as a trigger for us as well as others, even though this isn’t our intention; our goal is to help raise awareness. As with our experience in therapy, we can only handle so much at a time. We have to take breaks and will continue to do so. Therefore, we hope to include more informative posts by some other survivors and from experts who specialize in treating survivors of sexual abuse in order to be more consistent.

Since opening up about our experiences, parents have reached out to us and expressed how much they fear someone sexual abusing one of their own children. We frequently hear, “this is our biggest fear as parents,” or, “we couldn’t imagine anything worse happening to one of our kids.” Understandably parents want to know how to protect their children.

As a parent, aunt or uncle we can relate. We want our children or nieces and nephews as well as any other child to be protected from this traumatizing crime. We don’t want what happened to us to happen to anyone else. And if someone is abused, we want to them to get the right kind of treatment as soon as possible. More than anything, we don’t want anyone to suffer alone through any of the long-term consequences that can accompany sexual abuse. After all, these appear to cause more destruction throughout the survivor’s life than the act itself.

Unfortunately as long as people can make their own choices, incidences of sexual abuse will continue to occur, making awareness of this issue all the more important.

We have to admit that, although we wish we did, we don’t possess the answers to the question, “How can we prevent sexual abuse from happening?” We can’t see how our parents could have done anything differently but are grateful they were there to support us when we did come forward. Hopefully we can help increase awareness and improve how parents respond to an abused child through sharing our perspective as victims and survivors. In the event that sexual abuse does occur, early detection, intervention and proper treatment could help save a child from a lifetime of suffering. Although parents will probably feel guilty when learning one of their children was abused, the focus should be on getting help for the child. It’s tricky to balance the parents’ and child’s needs in this type of situation.

While most people’s knowledge of sexual abuse probably stems from personal experience or those of a close friend or family member, the consequences of this crime are far reaching. Adequately addressing this issue will require an increase in public awareness and some societal changes in how we approach and deal with sexual abuse.

The first step to change is understanding the problem by answering some frequently asked questions about sexual abuse: What is sexual abuse? Who does it impact and how does it impact them?

We’d like to share some of the available information found in today’s studies conducted on the occurrence and consequences of sexual abuse to help paint a clearer picture of the issue.

Understanding the Problem

Q: What is sexual abuse?

A: Child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Touching behaviors may involve touching of the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks, oral-genital contact, or sexual intercourse. Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography. Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats, or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. Abusers frequently employ persuasive and manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. These tactics—referred to as “grooming”—may include buying gifts or arranging special activities, which can further confuse the victim.[1]

Q: Who is sexually abused?

A: Child sexual abuse isn’t uncommon. Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse affects both girls and boys in all kinds of neighborhoods and communities.[4]

Q: How many children are sexually abused?

A: Approximately one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of eighteen, an overall estimate of one in five children. Many experts believe these figures are underestimated because many cases go unreported and will never be disclosed by the victim.[1]

Q: Why is sexual abuse so hard to prevent?

A: The answers for prevention are not straightforward or well-defined. Prevention techniques are difficult to prove. According to the CDC, child abuse is a complex problem rooted in unhealthy relationships and environments. Safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families can prevent child abuse. However, the solutions are as complex as the problem.[3]

Q: Why don’t children tell about sexual abuse?

A: There are many reasons children do not disclose being sexually abused, including:

  • Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family)
  • Fear of being removed from the home
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Shame or guilt

If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.[1]

Q: What potential adverse consequences does a survivor face?

A: While the event is traumatic enough for the child, we’ve observed, through our own experience and those of others, that many issues a survivor faces surface long after the abuse occurs. It’s kind of like a dormant disease that awakens more and more over time through exacerbated external and internal stressors. Since sexual abuse is a crime founded on secrecy, these symptoms can go unnoticed and are never tied back to the abuse because no one knows that it ever happened. And, in some cases, the victim may not have a recollection of the abuse as explained in our last post (20 Signs of Unresolved Trauma). This can even result in a misdiagnosis of the survivor’s symptoms.

Each victim’s experience and reaction to the trauma can be unique and need to be evaluated accordingly. Each survivor may manifest symptoms differently than others do. Despite the possible differences among survivors, some common documented trends exist among its wide-range of long-term effects found either in children or adults or both.

Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher-levels of:

Depression: Depression has been found to be the most common long-term symptom among survivors. Survivors may have difficulty in externalizing the abuse, thus thinking negatively about themselves.[5]

Guilt, shame and self-blame: It has been shown that survivors frequently take personal responsibility for the abuse. When the sexual abuse is done by an esteemed trusted adult it may be hard for the children to view the perpetrator in a negative light, thus leaving them incapable of seeing what happened as not their fault.[5]

Self-destructive behaviors and suicidal ideation: Survivors tend to display more self-destructive behaviors and experience more suicidal ideation than those who have not been abused.[5]

Eating disorders: Body issues and eating disorders have also been cited as a long-term effect of childhood sexual abuse. The symptoms survivors’ body image problems has been described to be related to feeling dirty or ugly, dissatisfaction with body or appearance, eating disorders, and obesity.[5]

Medical concerns: A study found that women survivors reported significantly more medical concerns than did people who have not experienced sexual abuse. The most frequent medial complaint was pelvic pain. Somatization symptoms among survivors are often related to pelvic pain, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and difficulty swallowing.[5]

Sleeping disturbances/disorders: Survivors may have trouble sleeping because of the trauma, anxiety or may directly be related to the experience they had as a child; children may be sexually abused in their own beds.[7]

Stress and Anxiety: Stress and anxiety are often long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse can be frightening and cause stress long after the experience or experiences have ceased. Many times survivors experience chronic anxiety, tension, anxiety attacks, and phobias. A study compared the -post-traumatic stress symptoms in Vietnam veterans and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The study revealed that childhood sexual abuse is traumatizing and can result in symptoms comparable to symptoms from war-related trauma.[5]

Psychiatric disorders: Depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and PTSD appear to be associated with sexual abuse. However, other psychiatric disorders also have been linked to sexual abuse such as borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and bulimia nervosa.

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can develop as a result of sexual abuse, and the child may be misdiagnosed as having ADHD. The symptoms are actually the result of the trauma of sexual abuse and are more accurately diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety.[6]

Dissociative patterns: Some survivors may have dissociated to protect themselves from experiencing the sexual abuse. As adults they may still use this coping mechanism when they feel unsafe or threatened. Dissociation for survivors of childhood sexual abuse may include feelings of confusion, feelings of disorientation, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty experiencing feelings.[5]

Denial and Repression: Denial and repression of sexual abuse is believed by some to be a long-term effect of childhood sexual abuse. Symptoms may include experiencing amnesia concerning parts of their childhood, negating the effects and impact of sexual abuse, and feeling that they should forget about the abuse.[5]

Sexual problems: The long-term effects of the abuse that the survivor experiences, such as, depression and dissociative patterns, affect the survivors sexual functioning. A list of the top ten sexual symptoms that often result from experiences of sexual abuse: “avoiding, fearing, or lacking interest in sex; approaching sex as an obligation; experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch; having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation; feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex; experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images; engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors; experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship; experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties (women); and experiencing erectile, ejaculatory, or orgasmic difficulties (men).[5]

Difficulty in interpersonal relationships: Survivors of sexual abuse may experience difficulty in establishing interpersonal relationships. Symptoms correlated with childhood sexual abuse may hinder the development and growth of relationships. Common relationship difficulties that survivors may experience are difficulties with trust, fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive behaviors, and getting involved in abusive relationships.[5]

Adult revictimization: A history of sexual abuse places an individual at increased risk for sexual re-victimization in adolescence and adulthood, especially for women.[6]

Flashbacks: Many survivors re-experience the sexual abuse as if it were occurring at that moment, usually accompanied by visual images of the abuse. These flashes of images are often triggered by an event, action, or even a smell that is reminiscent of the sexual abuse of the abuser.[7]

Alcohol or drug abuse: Cigarette smoking usually is initiated in adolescence. Smoking may be initiated during adolescence to help the individual cope with the trauma of the abuse and that continued adult smoking is complicated by nicotine addiction and adult stressors.

Numerous studies have linked child sexual abuse and illicit drug use. Child sexual abuse can produce feelings of helplessness, chaos, and impermanence in children and adolescents, and illicit drug use may serve as a way to escape or dissociate from these feelings. Sexual abuse, along with other forms of abuse and neglect, has been linked with drug initiation from early adolescence into adulthood and the problems with drug use, drug addiction, and parenteral drug use. Both men and women with a history of child sexual abuse demonstrate an increased risk of alcohol problems and marrying an alcoholic.

Alcohol use in adolescence is higher among teens who have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse, as well as other forms of child abuse or neglect, should be considered when an individual presents with a substance abuse problem.[6]

This is an extensive and overwhelming list but rings true based on our combined experiences.

If you’re child is experiencing some of these symptoms, we recommend you seek a professional for guidance. These symptoms MAY or MAY NOT indicate a child was sexually abused.

If you’re an adult experiencing some of these symptoms, we recommend you seek a professional for guidance. Again these symptoms MAY or MAY NOT indicate you were sexually abused, but the prevalence of any of these symptoms would merit professional help in our opinion.

Conclusion

Though we don’t have the answers for prevention, we hope the information we summarized will help everyone understand why sexual abuse is so destructive and why we need more resources dedicated to helping victims.

We’re not certified experts but believe contributing our experiences will help further the conversation and understanding of the effects of sexual abuse on its survivors. Hopefully we can help some get help earlier on, and in some cases, help prevent victimization from happening.

Our philosophy is that if we can’t find ways to have more individual, family and public conversations about sexual abuse, we won’t discover additional ways to lessen its occurrence.

We hope you continue to join us on the pathway toward prevention.

Help us increase awareness and reach other survivors by sharing this post with your family and friends!

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References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Prevalence of Individual Adverse Childhood Experiences. Retrieved January 20, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/prevalence.html
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Child Maltreatment: Consequences. Retrieved January 20, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/consequences.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Child Maltreatment: Prevention Strategies. Retrieved January 27, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/prevention.html
  4. The Child Sexual Abuse Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2009). Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet For Parents, Teachers, and Other Caregivers (2007). Retrieved January 20, 2015, from http://www.nctsnet.org/products/child-sexual-abuse-fact-sheet-parents-teachers-and-other-caregivers
  5. Hall, M., & Hall, J. (2011). The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications. Retrieved January 23, 2015, from http://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/long-term-effects-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.pdf?sfvrsn=2
  6. Hornor, G. (2010). Child Sexual Abuse: Consequences And Implications. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 24(6), 358-364. Retrieved January 23, 2015, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/731970_1
  7. RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. (n.d.). Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Retrieved January 20, 2015, from https://www.rainn.org/get-info/effects-of-sexual-assault/adult-survivors-of-childhood-sexual-abuse

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