What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is when another person uses a child for sexual gratification. This can be exposure, showing pornography, touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, or any other sexual act.
Child sexual abuse usually involves the use of threats, coercion, manipulation, bribery or force. Frequently children are emotionally dependent on the adult who abuses them. Some offenders take a considerable length of time to develop the child’s trust before starting the abuse. All offenders take advantage of children’s powerless position in the world.
While it is difficult to gain accurate figures on the prevalence of child sexual abuse in New Zealand (see Research & Statistics), we do know that it effects girls and boys across of all ages and racial groups, whether they are rich or poor, attractive or plain, disabled or without a disability. We also know that around eighty five per cent of offenders are known to the child.
Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse can cause a wide range of effects on a child’s development and wellbeing. The effects of child sexual abuse differs from those of adult sexual assaults because the abuse took place during the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual development. It can impact on the child’s whole personality, self-esteem, confidence, ability to form relationships and so on.
It is common for survivors of child sexual abuse to experience depression, self and interpersonal difficulties, physical and sexual health difficulties, fears and phobias, destructive behaviours and so on.
Should I tell anyone?
There is no right course of action in disclosures … There is no right time to tell, no right way to tell, and no right decision whether to tell … Be clear, whatever you do, you are doing it for yourself.
The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis 1988
Suffering in silence is a pattern that survivors can find themselves in, even when they realise the effect this silence has on their lives. Some survivors might feel responsible for protecting the rest of their family from the uncomfortable truth.
Disclosure can lead to a release of feelings. Some survivors feel they have opened a floodgate of emotions (which may seem to overwhelm them) while others report feeling immediate relief and the sense of releasing themselves from the hold of the abuse.
What Will People Think?
How people react to a disclosure of child sexual abuse depends not only on whether they feel comfortable about discussing personal matters but also on their level of awareness and understanding of sexual abuse.
Talking about it with other people in your family may be different from talking about it with more “neutral” people such as friends or counsellors. Family members will be forced to face a lot of issues, which they may feel uncomfortable with. If the offender is also a member of your family, or a close family friend, that can also raise many issues for your family.
Sometimes, no matter who you choose to tell, the reaction is very good and you immediately receive the acceptance and support you need. At other times the listener finds the subject so uncomfortable they turn away or try to play down what you are telling them. Others cover up their embarrassment by becoming angry – sometimes, irrationally, with you.
These people do not usually mean to be hurtful – they are just not very good at dealing with sensitive subjects. It is likely they do not realise just how much they are adding to your difficulties. With time, they will probably learn to be more understanding and to put your feelings before their own. Giving them information to read may help.
Whatever happens, it is important for you to not be put off or silenced by insensitive reactions. There are many people around who will understand and know how to comfort, help and support you.
Is recovery possible?
It is natural to feel like you will never be ‘normal’ or happy again but recovery (or “healing”) is possible. However, it is important to know that recovery is a process not an event.
It is also your process and learning to trust that process and your control over it is a big part of recovery.
There may be crisis points, where you feel vulnerable. There may also be a whole range of issues to be worked through and paths to be navigated – grieving your stolen childhood, mourning a lost fantasy figure, an ideal family life, containing that anger, renegotiating your relationships, discovering your sexuality and so on.
At times it can feel never-ending. It may be an effort to stay healthy or sober or present. It may be an effort to take care of yourself, to refuse the easy slide back into the well-worn ruts that meant coping.
But it’s worth it. Gradually you deepen that trust in yourself, in your senses, your responses and in your being. You are able to stay in the present. The changes can be deep and lasting.
You also do not need to do it alone.
Support For Survivors
Once you have decided to seek out some support, there are a number of options open to you
Counselling – a person trained and experienced in sexual abuse counselling can help you to go through what you are feeling. Contact your local sexual assault support agency to find out what counselling services are available in your area.
Support services – Many sexual assault support agencies offer general support for survivors, as well as families and friends. This support can be someone at the end of the phone to talk to when you need to, through to someone to accompany you to the police, court, medical examinations and so on.
Friends & Family – Sometimes it can help to talk to people that you can trust to provide support, including family and friends. However, some people may not understand about sexual assault and their reactions may be unhelpful. Talk to people whose judgement you trust, who will not gossip, who will listen carefully to you and who will not judge you.
Dealing With Specific Issues – the effects of child sexual abuse can lead to specific issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, and anger management. It may be beneficial to seek support from specialist services dealing with these issues.
Past Experience – consider strategies that may have helped you deal with stress and traumas in the past. It can be helpful to have a range of activities that can help you “switch off” and relax, e.g. exercise, listening to music, hot bath, gardening. You may also know of activities that have helped you process your emotions in the past, e.g. meditation and relaxation techniques, keeping a diary, drama etc.
there are a number of books written on child sexual abuse. Try your local library or contact your local sexual assault support agency for recommended books.
Whatever supports you choose is up to you but try and ensure you do have some support and “time-out” options in place.
Below is a short list of books that other survivors have found useful. All should be available through bookshops or libraries.
Bass, Ellen & Davis Laura 1994 The Courage to Heal: A guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 3rd ed. New York: Collins.
Carter, W. L. 2002 It Happened to me: A teen’s guide to overcoming sexual abuse workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Davis, Laura 1990 Courage to Heal workbook: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. 3rd ed. New York: Collins.
McGregor, Dr Kim 2008 Surviving & Moving On: Self-help for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Auckland: Random House
Maltz, Wendy 1991 The sexual healing journey: A guide for survivors of sexual abuse. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Mather, Cynthia 2004 How long does it hurt: A guide to recovering from incest and sexual abuse for teenagers, their friends, and their families. Rev ed. San FranciscoL Jossey-Bassey.