Sexual Abuse affects every person differently. The impact it has on a victim depends on a variety of factors- the individual’s personality, the nature of the abuse itself, the identity of the abuser, and how long it persisted. For some survivors of sexual abuse, they are able to go on to lead productive lives without suffering from too much distress. For others, the trauma of sexual abuse stays with them into adulthood, and can be devastating. The effects are cyclical, chronic, debilitating, and sometimes fatal.
From RAINN-Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience an array of overwhelming and intense feelings. These may include feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. Abusers have been known to tell children that it is the fault of the child that they are abused, shifting the blame away from the abuser, where it belongs, and placing it on the child. Along with this, abusers may threaten or bribe the child into not speaking up; convincing the child that he or she will never be believed.i The reaction of a survivor’s friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, shame and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it.
While each individual’s experiences and reactions are unique, there are some responses to child sexual abuse that are common to many survivors:i
- Low self-esteem or self-hatred
- Survivors may suffer from depression
- Guilt, shame and blame
- Survivors may feel guilt or shame because they made no direct attempt to stop the abuse or because they experienced physical pleasure
- Sleep disturbances / disorders
- Survivors may have trouble sleeping because of the trauma, or anxiety may directly be related to the experience they had as a child; children may have been sexually abused in their own beds.
- Lack of trust for anyone
- Many survivors were betrayed by the very people they are dependent upon (family, teachers etc.) who cared for them, who insisted they loved them even while abusing them; learning to trust can be extremely difficult under these circumstances.
- 93% of victims under the age of 18 know their attacker.ii
- Many survivors as adults find themselves in abusive, dangerous situations or relationships.
- Woman who were sexually assaulted before the age of 18 [are] twice as likely to report being raped as adults.iii
- Many survivors re-experience the sexual abuse as if it were occurring at that moment, usually accompanied by visual images of the abuse. These flashes of images are often triggered by an event, action, or even a smell that is reminiscent of the sexual abuse of the abuser.
- Many survivors go through a process where the mind distances itself from the experience because it is too much for the psyche to process at the time. This loss of connection with thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity, is a coping mechanism and may affect aspects of a survivor’s functioning.
- Sexuality / Intimacy
- Many survivors have to deal with the fact that their first sexual encounter was a result of abuse. Such memories may interfere with the survivor’s ability to engage in sexual relationships, which may bring about feelings of fright, frustration, or being ashamed.
Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often adopt coping mechanisms (or survival strategies) to guard against feelings of terror and helplessness that they may have felt as a child. These past feelings can still have influence over the life and present behavior of an adult survivor. Here are some common coping mechanismsi:
- Grieving / Mourning
- Many things were lost — childhood experiences, trust, innocence, relationships with family members. The survivor may feel a deep sadness, jealousy, anger or longing for something they never had.
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- The abuse of substances can act as an escape from the intense waves of feelings, the terror and helplessness.
- Disordered Eating / Eating Disorders
- Compulsive control of food intake can be a way of taking back control over the body that was denied during the abuse.
- There are many ways survivors have coped with the feelings that can cause emotional or physical injury on the self. Burning or cutting are some ways for a survivor to relieve intense anxiety, triggered by memories of the abuse
How to Recover
Recovering from Sexual Abuse is possible. The study of Trauma Psychology has paved the way for many new insights on how trauma like sexual abuse alters the way the mind functions. While in the past the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was seen as a syndrome only affecting war veterans, it is now known that sexual violence is the most common underlying cause of PTSD – a devastating and often debilitating condition that often results in a diminished quality of life.
The good news is, the brain has a remarkable capacity to heal itself-and there are many therapies that have been found effective at alleviating the symptoms of PTSD.
Unfortunately for many survivors and PTSD sufferers, there are many barriers to accessing this level of care. Millions of men and women are without insurance, and even those who do have coverage often find that mental health services-especially newer treatments- are barely covered.
TREE Climbers has plans for political advocacy around this issue, and of eventually offering clinical services within it’s own freestanding facility, but we also realize that many survivors cannot wait for those efforts to come to fruition.
On our “Get Help” page, you can find various links to seek help and Treatment. A good place to start is the National Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline (sponsored by RAINN) at 800.656.HOPE, or visit their online hotline to ask about services in your area. Most local chapters provide free sessions with a counselor, as well as free self-help groups.
For those who are unable to find the help they need through the resources listed, we can offer support and advocacy . Our volunteer care coordinators can work with you directly to help locate resources in your area. If you would like to speak with one of our volunteers, send an email to Rebecca@TreeClimbersinc.com, including the best way to contact you and your current location, and someone will get back to you within 48 hours. If you need help immediately, call the NSA hotline (800.656.HOPE) or call 911 if you are thinking of hurting yourself or others. We are not able to provide crisis management services.