Sexual abuse is sexual behaviour forced upon an individual without their consent. People of all ages can be targeted by abusers, with many experiencing it in childhood. It is a traumatic and distressing experience and even when the abuse ceases, it can leave the survivor with many challenges and issues later in their lives until they receive the right support. These can include: Panic Attacks, Flashbacks, Self-Harm, Body dysmorphia, Nightmares, Insomnia, PTSD, OCD, Eating disorders, Low Confidence and Low Self-Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Phobias and more.
How they begin
When an abuser has a target(s) in mind, they will create a fixation on that person and find opportunities where the individual will be vulnerable to abuse. The abusers objective is to gain the trust of their victim and their families. They can do this in a number of ways which may include:
- Volunteering or working near their target(s).
- Befriending friends or family of their target.
- Familiarising themselves with the daily routines of their target in order to be in the area.
- Buying unsolicited gifts for no specific reason or occasion.
- Offering babysitting or chaperoning services with good intention i.e “I will keep them safe” “You go and enjoy the trip, you deserve it” “I’m happy to help”.
- If the target expresses a wish of a place they’ve always wanted to visit is something they always wanted to get, the abuser will likely say “I can take you there” “I can get this as I have a friend who works for.” so as to impress the individual and their family.
Once they gain the trust of their target and they are alone, they may begin by making sexual references in order to gauge how it is perceived. This is often an introduction to more detailed sexual comments leading to sexual behaviour or perhaps even exposure to sexual content in the media.
How they protect themselves
Abusers are manipulative and can make their victims feel as if they are to blame. They create a bubble of secrecy around their behaviour and may use a threat of negative consequences if their victims show signs of speaking out. Things abusers may say can include:
- No-one will believe you.
- I will tell everyone you are a liar.
- People will stop talking to you.
- You caused all of this.
- This is our secret.
- I can look after you.
- Your family don’t treat you right, I can protect you.
They are also known to make undermining and hurtful comments relating to appearance. They likely undermine their target’s family and people close to them, planting the seed that their family members do not love them.
These threats and comments , despite being inaccurate often are constructed to inhibit confidence and deter the victims from speaking out, which enables the abuse to continue, with the abuser feeling invincible and in complete control of the situation.
Possible signs of sexual abuse
- Changes in behaviour or emotions: crying, anger, anxiety etc.
- Drug or alcohol abuse.
- Pain or irritation of genital area.
- Recurring bruises.
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares.
- Reluctance to be around a particular person or hesitance to go somewhere.
- Withdrawal or disinterest in normally enjoyed activities.
If these points apply to someone you know, please do not be alarmed as they are not always exclusive to sexual abuse, they may be due to another issue, but it will equip you with the knowledge of possibilities in order to influence the nature of questions you may ask them if you offer them a safe space to open up.
If there is a clear admission, depending on the age of the survivor, you can ask them which support you can offer them and which steps they would like to take when they are ready. Offer them reassurance that they are safe, that they are not alone and together you will face and overcome these challenges.
Please be mindful in events where there are no clear admissions, that it is always best to have all the information before making accusatory statements as there may be innocent parties involved.
Coping with sexual abuse
People who have suffered from sexual abuse, especially if it happened in childhood, likely didn’t have an understanding of what was happening at the time and even now may find it difficult to process. Survivors feel guilt and shame due to mistaking the initial attention for genuine affection, especially if they were previously neglected by parents or parental figures. This conflicting emotion can cause them to feel like they had somehow consented to or created the abuse, which of course was not the case. This can be extremely isolating and lonely due to the way the abuser made them feel.
Things to consider
- This was NOT your fault. This is not a reflection of you as a person. The abuser violated your trust and perhaps the trust of your family.
- No-one owns the rights to your body and you should not feel dirty or shame. Only the abuser should feel negative feelings about themselves.
- Your abuser was not an abuser because of you, therefore it’s not personal to you. They are likely to have had a number of victims. They target those who are vulnerable and feel like they can control.
- Why did they say those horrible things? Remember your abuser did not want you to feel confident because if you were, you would likely find it easy to speak out and get them in trouble. So their motive was to make you feel bad about yourself saying whatever was necessary to inhibit your confidence. These things didn’t apply personally to you at all.
- If you are being unkind to yourself or harming yourself, you are continuing where the abuser left off. Adopt compassion for yourself and what you went through. If it had been a friend that went through it instead of you, you would show love and support, you deserve the same.
- You CAN overcome the issues that sexual abuse has left you struggling with. You can feel confident and happy again.
- Practise grounding techniques if you feel anxious. Acknowledge that you are safe in the moment and the things happening in flashbacks and nightmares are not your reality now. You are no longer a victim but a survivor.
- As well as the people who already love you, there are amazing people in the world you haven’t met yet that are waiting to love you for exactly who you are!
- You will feel safe with a partner you trust and be able to share intimacy in a safe space.
- You may have experienced this a long time ago and it has been triggered by something years later. This can feel overwhelming but it’s important to confide in someone you trust or reach out for support. You are not alone.
- Avoid using alcohol, drugs or overeating as self-medication to suppress memories. They temporarily alleviate the pain but can develop into an addiction. Alternatively, take steps to look after your mind and body. Be mindful of what you eat, ensure you are hydrated and getting enough exercise. This will keep you strong, healthy and equip you with means of coping with symptoms.
- Avoid doing anything to excess such as overworking or doing things on impulse. Acknowledge the important of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation on your journey to healing and restoring balance.
“I can’t go to that event because they are going to be there”
If you are at an event where your abuser is attending, the people in that building that may know you experienced abuse include you, them and whoever you may have confided in. It is highly unlikely the abuser will speak out about what they did as they will inevitably be in trouble, therefore the only person likely to speak out is you. For that reason you should feel comfortable at that event. The abuser however, should not.
“I can only be happy when the abuser dies”
In reality, you deserve to feel happy NOW. You are a survivor and if you imprison yourself until the abuser dies, it is a pledge to remain a victim until they are no longer physically here.
Why wait, you can free yourself now, they can no longer hurt you.
“They will always own me after what they did”
There is only one person with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and that’s you. It’s impossible for another human being to have ownership over you. However if you believe you are owned by someone, you will become restricted and stop living your life to the fullest. It’s important to sever the link to that inaccurate belief which was created by your abuser with the purpose to try and control you which they are no longer able to do.
Living as a survivor of sexual abuse can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. If you would like to speak to one of our trained mentors, you can find out more here: Read more…
You can also access support for sexual abuse or sexual violence here…
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