Coping with sexual abuse

The term sexual abuse most commonly refers to the involvement of a young  person below the age of sixteen 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 sixteen 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.

On this page we concern ourselves mainly with the effect on  students of having been a victim of sexual abuse when they were younger.  However, we hope that this information and the information on rape and sexual  assault will also be of help to those who have experienced abuse in other  situations.

Commonly those who are currently experiencing abuse are referred  to as victims of sexual abuse; those whose experience of abuse is in the past  are referred to as (adult) survivors of sexual abuse.

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 football coach and thought he was alone with the  experience until a number of boys reported being similarly abused several years  later.
  • A young girl whose teenage step-brother used to play games with her at an  early age which she realised 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.

The experience of abuse is not restricted to one sex and indeed abusers are  not invariably male. Most recent estimates in Britain suggest at least 10% of  children suffer sexual abuse at some time, with two thirds of the victims being  girls. In over 90% of the cases the perpetrator of the abuse is male.

Helping Yourself

Try not to blame yourself

No matter what the circumstances of the sexual abuse of a child,  it is never the fault or responsibility of that child. Even if you are aware  that there was some degree of collusion or you feel in hindsight that you wish  you had been able to act differently, this does not lessen the absolute truth  that is the duty of adults to care for children and protect them from  exploitation. Some survivors find it helpful to observe children who are the  same age that they were when the abuse took place in order to underline for them  how great the power difference between adults and children really is and how  easy it is for an older person to manipulate the trust, innocence and  vulnerability of a child.

Take care of yourself now

The fact that something bad has been done to you is not a reason  to deny yourself pleasure, or to punish yourself. It is in fact a reason to care  for yourself. If you can learn to treat your body with respect and kindness, you  will help the healing process. Therefore look for simple ways to show care for  yourself and kindness to your body. If you find you are tempted to harm yourself  - for example by starving or overindulging, by cutting yourself or even by  attempting suicide - seek help and support so that you can begin to bring this  behaviour under control.

Find appropriate outlets for your feelings

If you have been abused you have a perfectly good reason to be  very angry and full of grief. It can be hard to know what to do with these  feelings. It may not be possible or helpful to express them to the person  responsible. Even if you do, he or she may well fail to accept responsibility.  Feelings can be helped by finding others who will listen to your story  sympathetically and help you express yourself. Writing down what you feel can  help - many survivors find it helpful to write down their feelings in the form  of a letter - you don’t have to send it. Many activities can help relieve pent  up feelings of anger - exercise, sport, or simply going somewhere private or  noisy and shouting. Grief can be relieved by allowing time to reflect and by  expressing the sadness. You may fear that once you allow these feelings to  emerge they may take you over. This is a natural fear; however in fact the  opposite tends to be the case - once a feeling is allowed adequate expression it  becomes more easy to control.

Try and find both support and privacy

Abuse can be a profoundly isolating experience. Even when you do  speak about it, people may either dismiss what you tell them or they may  over-react. However as is now recognised, abuse is an all too common experience,  so you are certainly not alone in what you have suffered. There are now many  agencies which will offer appropriate support and have much expertise in helping  survivors heal themselves. We list some below.

Some people have the opposite experience and find that the abuse  which has happened to them has become common knowledge, and as a result feel  that their privacy has been invaded. Remember you only need to tell the people  who you want to tell and it is up to you to decide how much you want to tell  them. Certainly no-one will be able to guess what has happened to you if you  decide not to tell them and no-one has the right to force their opinions or  their advice on you.

Do not despair

Human beings are remarkably resilient and have a vast capacity for  healing themselves. You may well feel that you have been irreversible damaged  emotionally or even physically; that you may not ever be able to form a  functioning relationships or have an enjoyable sex-life; that you will never  recover. However this is not likely to be the case. Although you can never  change your history, with time and care you can make sense of what has happened  to you and can minimise the negative effects.

The victim's experience at the time of abuse

  • Victims report feeling very alone with the experience of abuse. Often they  are afraid of telling, 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 survivor's experiences in later life

Sometimes the experience of abuse appears to be wholly or  partially forgotten for some years while the survivor continues with their life.  Memories 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 survivor 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 find they tend to avoid  intimate relationships and are distrustful of the motives of all 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 stigmatisation. 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. Some people apparently come to terms with very  severe abuse comparatively easily; others find the abuse has a lasting effect on  them. Neither of these responses is more correct or more healthy than the other.