Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
It has been conservatively estimated that 20-40 percent of girls and 2-9 percent of boys have experienced some form of sexual contact in childhood from someone older and/or more powerful.. This, by definition, is childhood sexual abuse. More and more of these individuals are disclosing their abuse and seeking professional help for related difficulties, because of the increased attitude of openness and acceptance regarding this issue in society.
Unfortunately, it continues to be more difficult for men who have been sexually abused as children to come forward because of societal attitudes that men are not supposed to be weak or vulnerable.
What are the effects of child sexual abuse?
The effects of childhood sexual abuse on the individual are related to many factors such as the severity of the abuse, the frequency and duration of the abuse, the closeness of relationship between the victim and the sexual perpetrator, the presence or absence of other family problems, the quality of other relationships when the abuse is disclosed or discovered. Some who have been abused appear to have no long-lasting effects, but many others manifest a variety of symptoms and difficulties.
There are many ways that people experience the harm that results from having been sexually abused. Consider the following questions: (Bass and Davis, 1988):
- Do you often feel that you are not a worthwhile person?
- Do you feel bad, dirty, or ashamed of yourself?
- Do you have a hard time nurturing yourself?
- Do you feel that you have to be perfect?
- Do you have trouble knowing how you feel?
- Have you ever worried about going crazy?
- Is it hard for you to differentiate between various feelings?
- Do you experience a very narrow range of feelings?
- Are you afraid of your feelings? Do they seem out of control?
- Do you feel present in your body most of the time? Are there times when you feel as if you've left your body?
- Do you have a restricted range of feelings in your body? Do you find it difficult to be aware of what your body is telling you?
- Do you have a hard time loving and accepting your body?
- Do you have any physical illnesses that you think might be related to past sexual abuse?
- Have you ever intentionally hurt yourself or abused your body?
- Do you find it difficult to trust others?
- Are you afraid of people? Do you feel alienated or lonely?
- Do you have trouble making a commitment? Do you panic when people get too close?
- Do you expect people to leave you?
- Have you ever been involved with someone who reminds you of your abuser or someone you know is not good for you?
- Do you try to use sex to meet needs that aren't sexual?
How can I know if I was sexually abused?
If you remember being sexually violated as a child, trust your memories, even if what you're remembering seems too awful to be true. Children simply do not make things up. It is common, however, for individuals who have been abused not to have clear memories. One way of coping with sexual abuse is to repress or forget that it ever happened. Even in the absence of conscious memories, certain experiences can trigger intense feelings of fear, nausea, and despair. Some of these “triggers" include specific sounds, smells, tastes, words, and facial expressions.
Whether or not you have specific memories, if you suspect that you were sexually abused, then you probably were. Often the first step in remembering involves having a hunch or a suspicion that some type of violation occured. Pay attention to these feelings, for people who suspect that they were sexually abused generally discover that this has been the case.
If it happened back then, why do I have to deal with it now?
There are many factors contribute to children not receiving the help they need at the time of the abuse. Abusers often scare children by threatening to retaliate or by insinuating that the child will not be believed. The abuser may also confuse the child by implying that the abuse is the child's fault. Comments such as “You asked for it," and “I know you enjoyed it" are often used to blame and to silence the child. Sexual abuse of a child can never be the child's fault.
Unfortunately, many children who do seek support are met with reactions such as disbelief, lack of concern, and even blame. Despite efforts to seek help, the abuse may continue or even get worse. For whatever reason, if the abuse is not dealt with at the time, its damaging effects will still be present years later.
Will I Ever Feel Better?
The devastating effects of sexual abuse do not need to be permanent. You can heal! You have already survived the worst part, the abuse itself. You have choices now that you didn't have then. If you choose to commit to your own healing process, have patience with yourself, and let others support you along the way, you can learn that it is possible not only to “survive," but to experience what it means to be truly alive.
Where Do I Begin?
If you think that you may have been sexually abused, speaking with a trained professional can be extremely helpful. You don't need to be alone in your pain. In fact, “breaking the silence" is one of the most important components of the healing process. Make an appointment with a professional who will understand what you have been through.
Need Additional Help?
The following are excellent sources of information on child sexual abuse:
- Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse (Christian) Lynn Heitritter & Jeanette Vought. Bethany House Publishers 1989.
- The Courage to Heal. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
- NNU Counseling Center: For appointments dial (208) 467-8466