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Sexually abused as a child…

Sexually abused as a child…

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The term sexual abuse most commonly refers to the involvement of a young person below the age of consent in sexual activity with a significantly older person.

It is referred to as abuse, since it is assumed in our society that the older person must by definition be taking advantage of the younger one, since a person under 15 cannot give informed consent to sexual activity.

Usually the victim of the abuse cannot understand fully the implications of what is happening at the time; therefore, although he or she may appear to consent to the activity, the consent is not truly informed. Although the abuser may also be young, there is usually a significant age difference and difference of status between the parties, which puts the abuser in a position of power. This power difference means that even where there is apparent acquiescence, this is usually based on fear of the consequences of refusal and so is not true consent.

The term sexual abuse may also be applied when one person uses the power they have over another adult – usually because they are in a position of trust or influence – to take advantage sexually.

Sexual abuse can be an isolated or a recurrent event. The activities involved can range from inappropriate touching to sexual penetration. The abuse can be disguised as play, or it may be a more overt assault. The abuser may be a relative, an acquaintance or a stranger. While the abuse is often frightening and traumatic at the time it occurs, some feelings may not fully impact until a later date, when the occurrence is better understood. In this article, we concern ourselves mainly with the effect such acts of sexual abuse may have on a child as the victim.

Examples of sexual abuse

» A girl who was sexually abused by her father until her teens, when she eventually reported what was happening, with the result that her father was tried and imprisoned. 

» A boy who was abused by his teacher/coach and thought he was alone with the experience until a number of boys reported being similarly abused as well.

» A young girl whose teenage step/half brother used to play games with her at an early age, which she realized when she reached puberty had been sexually intrusive. 

» A boy who was regularly abused by a trusted uncle and aunt with whom he was often sent to stay. This abuse took place over a number of years, during which he was unable to say why he did not wish to visit these relatives. 

» Two sisters who both suffered abuse at the hands of a grandfather, but who never spoke about it until many years later.

Please note that the experience of abuse is not restricted to one sex and indeed abusers are not always male. 

The survivor’s experience at the time of abuse:

Victims report feeling very alone with the experience of abuse. Often they are afraid to tell, because of fear of retribution or the consequences for the family.

Victims frequently feel they will not be believed or taken seriously if they tell of what has happened, and this fear can be confirmed when they do try to raise the matter.

Victims frequently feel guilty. The abuser may suggest they are to blame for the abuse or they may take responsibility upon themselves. Children naturally tend to assume responsibility for events that are not of their making, and this is particularly true in the case of abuse. The guilt is increased if the child has found any aspect of the abuse gratifying.

Victims commonly report feeling extremely scared and confused by the abusive experience.

The survivors’ experiences in later life:

Sometimes the experience of abuse appears to be wholly or partially forgotten for some years, while the survivor continues with his/her life. It may resurface, however, when the person is settled in a safe environment, or may be triggered by specific events, such as beginning a sexual relationship or becoming a parent.

The memories can bring intense feelings and experiences:

Flashbacks and nightmares: Recollections of the abusive experience may intrude into the waking thoughts or may recur in dreams.

Shame and guilt: The survivors may blame themselves; may suffer from low self-esteem or may feel deeply embarrassed about seeking help. They may become depressed, harm themselves and have thoughts of suicide.

Intense anger: This may be directed at the abuser, and may be linked with a wish to confront or to completely avoid them. It may also be directed at others who seem to have colluded with the abuse or may be more general.

Disrupted relational patterns: Some survivors may find that they tend to avoid intimate relationships and are distrustful of the motives of other people. Others may find they tend to form very intense intimate relationships which can be emotionally draining.

Fear of the consequences of the abuse: Survivors may wonder whether they will be able to form normal relationships, or whether they might become abusers themselves. There may be difficulties in enjoying normal sexual activities.

Isolation and stigmatization: Survivors may feel they are totally alone with their experience. They can feel that they have been marked out and that somehow others know of their history without being told and so treat them differently.

As with human response to any trauma, the degree of the reaction can vary widely between individuals.

(To be continued next week)

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