SURVIVORS OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE AND INCEST
There are women and men everywhere who were sexually abused as children or teenagers. The SAVI report commissioned by Dublin RCC in 2002 found that one in four women, and one in six men had experiences of some form of sexual assault before the age of eighteen.
Abusers may be strangers, but much more often they are fathers, brothers, stepfathers, and grandfathers or trusted family friends. Women also abuse. Sometimes children are abused by young people of the same sex or age. Some are abused in groups, in residential settings, in sex rings or rituals.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse means forcing or manipulating a child to take part in sexual activity, which for a child is always inappropriate. This can take many forms:
• Being made to look at pornography
• Being made to watch sexual acts
• Being watched in a sexual way
• Being touched in a sexual way
• Being made to masturbate or to masturbate the abuser
• Being raped. This involves penetration of mouth, anus or vagina by any object, by a finger or penis
• There are many more acts that are performed as part of sexual abuse
Child Sexual Abuse is often not physically violent, i.e. physically painful, but it is always psychologically violent. The sexual abuse of a child may be something that happens once or every day for many years. Sometimes abuse is remembered in vivid details; sometimes a person will only have vague feelings that 'something happened', and others may have 'forgotten' for many years and only as adults find memories coming to the surface of their minds.
Many people who were abused as children keep silent about what has happened to them. They are often too afraid to tell someone at the time. The abuser may have threatened them not to tell or they may tell someone who does not believe them. The abuser may have blamed the survivor, saying that the abuse has happened because the survivor is bad or different, or because they wanted it to happen, and that people would reject or punish the person if they knew about it. As adults, it may still be difficult to trust anyone enough to tell them the full story. Feelings of guilt and shame, terror, depression, fear of being overwhelmed by painful memories that bring it all back and feelings of self-disgust can all prevent people from sharing their pain.
The pain and trauma continue after the abuse has ended
A child cannot be sexually abused without being also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually abused. The abuse will produce profound and long lasting effects on all these levels, but remember that it is possible to recover from these over time. Many people feel they just want to forget the past, but often find they cannot. Others feel they should be 'over it' by now and this internal pressure may be reinforced through responses by people who are trying to be helpful but do not really understand. The survivor may have nightmares or flashbacks that he or she needs to share with someone who understands. Some adult survivors of sexual abuse lack confidence. They dislike themselves or blame themselves, or mistreat themselves by starving, over-eating or drinking a lot to block out the pain. They may find it hard to trust people or have relationships that help them to feel good. They may feel that they are over-protective of their children. They may feel that they do not deserve to be loved or happy and sex may be a problem because it triggers off memories of abuse or because they feel under so much pressure to prove 'normal'. For more information on the effects of sexual violence, please see 'effects of sexual violence' on this website.
Too much to cope with alone
Survivors often contact Rape Crisis Services for support when they find the memories of abuse are too much to cope with alone. Sometimes reports of sexual abuse in the media bring back memories, or memories can be triggered by changes in their lives such as a new relationship, having a baby.
You have a right to support
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, only you can decide if the time is right for you to talk to somebody. There is no magic formula to make you feel better, to take away the fear or other difficult feelings, or to make you forget, but we do believe that talking helps.
It may be months or years before you feel the hard work of thinking, talking and understanding begins to get you towards where you want to be. But here at the centre we have seen a lot of other survivors who have been this way before you and we know it is possible to come out the other end transformed and much stronger than ever before.
Some suggestions for reading:
If you are dealing with child sexual abuse on your own at the moment it may help to get a hold of some of the books listed below and perhaps to write down some of your thoughts and feelings.
Ellen Bass & Laura Davis: Beginning to heal, A First Guide for Female Survivors of Sexual Abuse, Cedar Press1993.
Ellen Bass & Laura Davis: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Harper and Row 1988.
Laura Davis: The Courage to Heal Workbook. Therapy Exercise Book for Female and Male Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Harper and Row 1990.
Also Mike Lew has written and published a number of books specifically geared towards male survivors.