What is sexual abuse?
Any non-consensual sexual act whereby a person is forced to perform against their will is considered sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not just involve the act of penetration, this form of abuse can also involve forced kissing, groping, or sexual harassment. Perpetrators of sexual abuse don’t discriminate; regardless of your age, gender, race, background, or class, anyone can experience sexual abuse. There is a misconception that it is mainly children who are subject to sexual abuse, but it can and does happen to adults as well. Sexual abuse can be hard to define because of the many different forms it can take on, the different levels of frequency, the variation of circumstances it can occur within, and the different relationships that it may be associated with. The effects of sexual abuse can vary; abuse can leave survivors with permanent emotional damage, and sometimes physical damage too.
Ultimately, the effects of sexual abuse can have a life-long consequence on survivors. The effects of sexual abuse can lead to anxiety disorders; people who experience sexual abuse in childhood or their late teens may find that the emotional trauma can materialize years later in adulthood. If you have experienced sexual abuse, it is important to recognize that it wasn’t your fault and that you are not alone. The following section provides a more in-depth look at the effects of sexual abuse in adulthood:
What are the common effects of childhood sexual abuse in adulthood?
For many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the effects can be short-term or long-lasting. It is important to remember, however, that every individual is different, and for some survivors of sexual abuse the effects of the abuse can be more severe than others’ experiences. Remember that there is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience. The following effects of sexual abuse are most common amongst survivors:
1. Problems with self-esteem/lack of confidence
A common effect of sexual abuse is low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Survivors of sexual abuse have experienced a complete disregard for their personal safety and space, and so moving forward they can find it difficult to establish boundaries with other people and with themselves. A lack of confidence and low self-esteem can also have a detrimental effect on other aspects of your life. For example, you may find it difficult to navigate your relationships, career, and personal life.
2. Having issues trusting people
Sexual abuse is a heinous crime whereby your rights are completely violated by an abuser. One of the effects of sexual abuse is finding it hard to trust other people following the incident/s. The way you perceive the world can completely shift after experiencing sexual abuse; even people who you considered close to you such as family and friends you can now have trouble trusting their intentions.
3. Intimacy in relationships
As a survivor of sexual abuse, it is a possibility that your first experiences with sex came as a result of sexual abuse. If you experienced sexual abuse as a child, in adulthood you may struggle with intimacy. Consensual sexual encounters following sexual abuse can cause some survivors to experience painful flashbacks even though the sex is now on their own terms. Survivors may also struggle to connect with their partners, again this comes down to a lack of trust and low self-esteem.
Among survivors, depression has been found to be the most common long-term effect of sexual abuse. Survivors may have difficulty in coming to terms with the abuse which can create a variety of different issues such as thinking negatively about themselves, possessing feelings of worthlessness, and isolating themselves from others because they believe they have nothing to offer. For survivors of sexual abuse, their depression can involve feeling down much of the time, fantasizing about committing suicide, having disturbed sleeping patterns, and having disturbed eating patterns.
Other long-term effects of sexual abuse in adulthood can include:
● Mood swings
● Panic attacks
● Persistent anxiety and fear
● Withdrawal and isolation
● A sense of helplessness
● Relationship difficulties
● Poor physical health
● Localized pain.
What can I do if a survivor of sexual abuse turns to me for help?
It can be extremely difficult to know what to say when someone tells you they have experienced sexual abuse, regardless of their relationship to you and when the abuse took place. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very painful. Survivors may fear being judged or not believed. If a survivor chooses you to listen to their story, it is because they trust you. Consequently, it is important to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible. Consider the following ways to show your continued support.
- Don’t judge. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual abuse for an extended period of time, especially if they are close to you. Avoid making comments that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for ages now,” or “How much longer are you going to feel this way?”
- Check-in regularly. The sexual abuse may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. The effects of sexual abuse can be long-lasting; often remind the survivor that you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
- Seek further resources. Just because you’re a good supporter doesn’t mean that you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor.
What help is out there for adult survivors of sexual abuse?
Survivors of child sexual abuse may face many challenges as they begin the recovery process and heal. Tasks associated with everyday life may serve as a trigger for survivors of sexual abuse. Common activities and relationships that other adults who were not sexually abused don’t face can cause problems for survivors. Here are some resources that can help adults face and overcome obstacles that can often result directly from sexual abuse experienced as a child.
All survivors of sexual abuse deserve support and professional help. They deserve to have safe places to talk about their experiences whilst on their journey of recovery and healing. Support and professional help is available through online support groups, with community based peer led support groups and through therapy.
- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organisation.
The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives. 1in6 provides Resources and help for men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.
- Male Survivor: Support, Treatment, and Advocacy
Support, treatment, and advocacy for male survivors of abuse.
- Survivors of Incest Anonymous
Provides support and resources for anyone who has been affected by child sexual abuse.