Sexual abuse can result in both physical and emotional/psychological consequences for the victim. Physical consequences can include actual physical injuries caused by violent abuse or abuse on young children, or the passing on of sexual diseases. Emotional/psychological effects can include post traumatic stress, depression, fear and anxiety. Victims can become withdrawn and lose self respect. Sexual abuse can also lead to the victim becoming an abuser themselves in later life.
Treatment for victims of sexual abuse can be effective. Counselling and group therapy both show promising results.
However, treatment for sex offenders is rarely as effective.
Strategies for helping victims of sexual abuse to recover
Research shows that one successful strategy for helping victims to recover from the trauma of sexual abuse is encouraging them to wite about the experiences they have had. Psychologist James W Pennebaker produced a study in 1988 that showed that deep personal disclosure has very beneficial effects on physical health and emotional recovery from traumatic events. Pennebaker’s study included victims of emotional/psychological trauma such as Holocaust survivors. A later study, carried out in 1994 by Drake Bream Morin found similar beneficial effects of deep disclosure through following a two groups of professionals who had been laid off from their jobs.
One group was asked to write about their experiences and feelings while the other was not given any such instructions. The group who used writing therapy actually found new work more easily and faster than the control group. Even the physical effects of such therapy are marked. A study of asthma and arthritis sufferers (Smith and Stone, 199) were encouraged to write about their problems showed actual physical improvement over a control group. Writing therapy, or deep disclosure through writing, need not be done under professional guidance. Simply starting a private journal and writing down all your experiences and feelings, day to day, can be very beneficial. It is not necessary to show the journal to anyone if you don’t wish to.
Writing it all down, honestly and completely, can provide an outlet for internalized emotions and also allow you to work through your feelings and chart your progress.
How to manage traumatic stress for sexual abuse
If you have suffered from sexual abuse, you will almost certainly also suffer residual traumatic stress. This can last for years after the actual incident took place and long after any physical injuries have healed. Simply understanding that your feelings and reactions are normal is a beginning to recovery.
1) Shock and Denial
The initial reaction to a traumatic event such as sexual abuse is often one of shock. Shock can result in feelings of being dazed and sunned, or even feeling numb and unable to identify your emotions. Denial often follows the initial feelings of shock, and may involve experiencing an emotional void and being unable to accept the reality and extent of the traumatic event.
After the shock and denial phases, several other reactions may set in:
- Intense and unpredictable emotions: A victim of sexual abuse may become irritable and anxious. They may experience extreme mood swings for no apparent reason.
- Flashbacks and sleep disturbances: A person who has been sexually assaulted might experience flashbacks of the event, be unable to sleep as normal and may suffer physical symptoms like racing heartbeat and sweating.
- Recurring memories and triggers: certain triggers, like anniversaries can bring back deeply emotional responses that can feel like setbacks in the recovery process. This can be distressing, but it is normal and common.
- Difficulty with close relationships: Many who have experienced sexual abuse or attacks find it difficult to maintain steady relationships. It is very common to have problems with a sexual relationship with a lover or spouse following sexual abuse, but other relationships may also be affected. Victims often find thy are moody and irritable with those close to them, or may become withdrawn and isolate themselves from friends and family.
- Physical symptoms: Stress and post traumatic stress can cause physical symptoms too. You may suffer nausea, stomach upsets, headaches, chest pains and racing heartbeat. A doctor can often help with these reactions.
2) Everyone recovers differently
It’s important to understand that everyone recovers differently from post traumatic stress caused by sexual abuse. There is no set time frame in which any individual will recover. Nor does it necessarily depend on the severity of the abuse. You cannot judge your own recovery by someone else’s. It is also common for a person to think that they have coped with the problem only to find depression and other related post traumatic symptoms setting in later. This is because at the time of an attack, adrenaline can kick in which gives the person the illusion of coping with the challenges. When this wears off, a delayed reaction can take place.
Other factors that commonly affect recovery include:
- The severity of the attack or abuse. If the abuse has been very violent, serious or prolonged, it can take a victim longer to recover.
- Individual character traits and previous experiences. Some personalities cope better with traumatic events than others. That is not to say that a person who struggles to cope is weak or in any way inferior, it’s simply a fact. People who have experienced and successfully overcome previous traumatic experiences may find it easier to recover and cope too.
- Situation at the time of the sexual abuse. This may also affect the severity of a victim’s reaction and recovery time. If the victim of a sexual attack is already undergoing stress, their reaction may be more severe and recovery take longer.
- Age at which the abuse takes place. It is a known fact that if someone is abused in early childhood, their recovery can take longer.
Although many people who have suffered sexual abuse do need professional help, there are things that you can do alongside this to help yourself.
- Allow yourself time. A sexual attack or period of sustained abuse is not something from which you should expect to recover immediately. It will take time, so accepting this will aid your recovery. Let yourself grieve, it’s normal.
- Ask for support from friends and family. Do let those close to you know that you need and value their support. Don’t push them away. However, it’s best to seek help from those who were not witness to or also affected personally by the abuse or attack.
- Talk through your feelings with someone you trust…or write it all down. Letting it out helps.
- Join support groups. Going along to meetings with people who have had similar experiences is very therapeutic. It’s best to join a group that’s led by a qualified professional in trauma management or recovery from sexual abuse. But, internet forums can help too if you can’t find a local group.
- Look after your health. Eating right, sleeping well, exercising and generally taking care of yourself is vital …if you have a healthy body you will find it easier to find a healthy emotional life.
- Establish and stick to a daily routine. It comforts the mind to have a plan and to know what’s to be done at regular times.
- Try to avoid other stressful situations and delay important or difficult decisions until things have eased a little if possible.
It could be that all the self help techniques in the world are not quit enough. If you are still struggling, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Any sexual attack is seriously traumatic, and there’s no shame in needing help to recover. The signs that you need professional help include prolonged depression or anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and continued inability to get on with everyday life. If the abuse has involved a child it is wise to seek help immediately you become aware of the trauma. You can begin by asking your own doctor, or contact appropriate services in your country such as Rape Crisis Centers, National Hotlines for Domestic Abuse, women’s aid and such organisations. There are specific organisations for children who have been victims of abuse.
Child sexual abuse is always serious. It can be anything from viewing pornographic images of children to actual rape of a child, but it is always dangerous. It can involve fondling of a child’s genitals, by a family member, friend or stranger. Sometimes abuse can even be perpetrated by professionals such as care workers. Sexual abuse of a child can also be carried out by a peer.
The impact on a child’s life can be massive. Children who have been abused can become withdrawn, depressed and fearful. Or they can develop behavioural problems and even develop substance abuse problems. Long term difficulties often follow, even if the trauma is not apparent at the time. Also, child victims of sexual abuse, especially if it has been serious and prolonged, have a greater tendency to become abusers themselves in later life.
What constitutes child abuse?
Child abuse can be defined by a number of activities. No child under the age of consent should be treated as a sexual object, so any sex or sexual interaction with a minor is sexual abuse. The tyes of behavior that can be considered abuse include:
- Kissing in a sexual manner
- Fondling of the child’s intimate areas
- Any inappropriate touching
- Oral to genital contact
- Penetration (including digital or with an instrument )
- Forcing the child to view or pose for pornographic pictures or films
- Child prostitution
- ‘Flashing’ (indecent exposure) of sex organs to a child
- Voyeurism (inappropriate watching of a child in states of undress)
- Pressurizing a child to engage in sexual activity of any sort
Which children are vulnerable to abuse?
Any child can become a victim of abuse regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or family background. It can occur in any setting, and at any time. However, there are certain risk factors that have been identified that show children from some settings and in certain circumstances are more likely to suffer abuse then others. These include:
- Older children. 35.9 % of victims are 12 and over. 25% are aged 8 to 11. 28.4% are aged between 4 and 7, while only 10% are aged from 0 to 3 years.
- Girls have a higher risk than boys. That said, boys are more likely to be abused outside the family setting.
- Disabled children. Disabled children have a greater chance of being abused than fully able children. Particularly at risk are those suffering from mental disabilities, blindness, deafness, as this makes it more difficult for them to be believed should they report the abuse.
- Previous experience of abuse. A child who has suffered sexual abuse in the past is more likely to be re victimized.
- Single parent families or families/settings where neither parent is present produce a higher likelihood of child sex abuse.
- Older children from families where only the birth father is present are also higher risk.
- Girls who live in a home with a stepfather are also at higher risk of abuse.
- Children living in a family where one parent or adult has been a victim of child abuse themselves are at a considerably greater risk of abuse.
- A child who is looked after on a regular basis by multiple carers is at a higher risk than a child whose main carer is one person.
- A child whose main carer is a person who has multiple sexual partners is at higher risk of abuse than a child whose main carer is in a stable relationship.
- A child whose carer has drug or alcohol problems is at higher risk of abuse.
- A child whose parents are living with extreme financial stress or in poverty is at greater risk than those with a normal, solvent and stable background.
- Children whose families or carers are isolated from society are more likely to be abused.
- Any child who is especially vulnerable, physically or emotionally, or who suffers low self esteem has a higher risk of being abused.
- There is a higher risk of abuse for a child from a family where other family members (siblings usually) have been abused in the past.
- The child of a mother whose partner is violent towards her is also at greater risk of being abused.
- A child who is left unsupervised at home regularly or without proper supervision is also at a higher risk than most of sexual abuse.
Who is a child abuser?
There is no easy answer to this question. You can’t spot a child abuser on sight, they can come from any walk of life, any ethnicity and level of education. The facts about child sex abuse are as follows:
- The majority of child abuse is perpetrated by someone known and trusted by the child.
- Around 60% of child sex abusers are known to the child or the family but are not members of the family.
- Around 30% of child sex abusers are family members, related to the child by blood or marriage.
- Only around 10% of child sex abusers are not known to the child or family.
- Men are far more likely to sexually abuse children than women.
- There is no evidence to suggest that homosexual men are any more likely to become abusers than heterosexual men.
- Women abusers do exist, although in far smaller numbers. (around 14% in cases of abuse against boys and just 6% in cases of abuse against girls.)
- Those who are heavily into pornography may become drawn into child sex abuse through the internet. This is one of the most common ways that strangers find their victims.
- Some 23% of abusers of children are under the age of 18.
- There are other common factors in child abusers. Those who have a history of being abused themselves are more likely to become abusers. Those who have alcohol or drug problems are more likely to abuse children. Adults whose own sex lives are unsatisfactory in normal circumstances may become abusers of children. Also, sufferers of some mental illnesses or emotional problems may tend towards child abuse.
If you become aware or even strongly suspect that a child has been a victim of sexual abuse, you should seek professional help. The contacts for children given above will advise.
How common is child sex abuse?
Research has shown that as many as 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. In the US alone, it is thought that around 300,000 children are sexually abused every year. However, accurate figures are hard to find as many victims may not report their abuse. Some are simply too young, others too afraid or embarrassed. Some children simply do not understand what has happened to them, only to revisit the events in later life memories and suffer trauma at that point.
In spite of the lack of actual figures, it is generally believed that child sex abuse is fairly common.
What are the identified effects of sexual abuse on a child?
It should be understood first that not all children who have been sexually abused display obvious or identifiable symptoms. Up to 40% may not show symptoms, although in others the effects can be long term and very serious.
The effects can be psychological, emotional, physical or social. An increased risk of the following poblems has been clearly identified:
- Panic attacks
- Post traumatic stress disorders
- Dissosiative disorders
- Eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia etc)
- Low self esteem
- Somatisation…which is the physicalisation of emotional pain
- Chronic pain
- Overly sexualized behavior
- Problems at school
- Drug, substance or alcohol abuse
- Behavioral problems, particularly becoming destructive
- Sexual problems in adulthood
- Criminal behavior in adulthood
The positive news is that children and adults who have been sexually abused have a good recovery rate of the correct help is sought and given. Professional and self help both have a part to play in the recovery process, and should be matched, for best effect, to the individual circumstances, type of abuse and symptoms of suffering. Treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been shown to be very effective in helping survivors of traumatic events such as sexual abuse.
To obtain help, you can go to see your own doctor, or follow the links and use the contact numbers given earlier in this article.
Domestic Sexual abuse:
In the US:
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
In the UK:
- Call Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-363-9010
- Call 1800RESPECT on 1800-737-732
- Go to the webpage of the International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies @
http://www.hotpeachpages.net/ to find your nearest source of help.
General help for sexual abuse and trauma
- Rape & Sexual Abuse Support Centre: Helpline 0808 802 9999, Counselling 020 8683 3311
email [email protected]www.rasasc.org.uk
Helpline support and information for all survivors of rape or childhood sexual abuse.
- http://www.samaritans.org/talk_to_someone.aspx The Samaritans helpline will answer calls and provide support to anyone in crisis or who is considering committing suicide.
- Voice UK: Helpline 0808 802 8686www.voiceuk.org.uk
Telephone support and information for adults and children with learning disabilities who have been abused, and for their families and carers.
- Mind (National Association for Mental Health): 0845 766 0163www.mind.org.uk
- http://www.befrienders.org/ Befrienders network operates worlwide to help those in crisis. The link allows you to find your nearest service.
- http://www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-hotline National charity providing emergency and follow up help for victims of sexual assault.
Help for child victims of abuse
- SupportLine: 01708 765200, email [email protected]– Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults on any issue. Aimed at those who are isolated, vulnerable, at risk groups and victims of any form of abuse
- Childline: 0800 1111, www.childline.org.uk – Free national helpline for children and young people in danger and distress. Also booklets on bullying
- Kidscape Campaign for Children’s Safety: Admin 020 7730 3300, Helpline 08451 205 204, www.kidscape.org.uk – Telephone helpline providing support for parents and produce free parents guides on issues relating to bullying. Also run one day courses for children who have been severely bullied.