Trauma of Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a painful reality. Millions of children
have suffered the shame, humiliation, anger and sadness
that sexual abuse often causes. Fortunately, as we become
better able to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and
help children understand that it's safe to tell someone
about it, more people are getting the help they need.
IS SEXUAL ABUSE?
Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether or not sexual
abuse has occurred. Clearly, if an adult has sexual
intercourse with a child, the child has been sexually
abused. But this is certainly not the only sexual act
that is classified as abuse. Even seemingly less serious
sexual behaviors are damaging to children and are considered
abusive. For instance:
or kissing a child in a sexual manner
a child watch pornographic movies or observe sexual
one's sexual organs to a child or making the child
display his or her own genitals
sexually explicit photographs of a child
with a child in a sexual or seductive manner
of the severity, any form of sexual abuse is detrimental
to the victim's well-being and requires serious attention.
IS SEXUALLY ABUSED?
Confronting sexual abuse, your own or a child's, is
often very difficult. It is not unusual to deny or try
to cover up sexual abuse. Sometimes this is because
the perpetrator, or abuser, has threatened harm if the
abuse is disclosed. Other times it is because of the
victim's feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment.
Telling someone about the abuse can he especially difficult
if the abuser is a trusted family member or family friend.
In fact, over one-third of individuals who are sexually
abused never reveal the abuse. Adults who have kept
the secret of sexual abuse locked away for many years
may find it too painful to re-open these wounds and
acknowledge the abuse. For these reasons, it is difficult
to determine how many people have actually been sexually
abused. However, recent studies have found that:
to two-thirds of females and one-third of males may
be sexually abused at some time in their lives.
abuse is present in all classes, races and religions.
Females are two to three times more likely than males
to be sexually abused.
majority of sexual abuse begins when children are
under 6 years old.
ARE THE SEXUAL ABUSERS?
Sexual abuse can occur both within and outside the family
However, almost all sexual abuse victims know their
abusers and oftentimes it is a male relative, such as
a stepfather, uncle, grandfather or brother. Although
less common, there are incidents in which the abuser
is difficult to understand what drives an individual
to sexually abuse a child; it is even more difficult
to understand when the abuser is a family member or
someone you love. Although little is known about the
characteristics of sexual abusers, we do know that many
perpetrators, or abusers, have themselves been sexually
abused as children. Also, many of these individuals
suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse problems or a variety
of other psychiatric disturbances. It is important that
the perpetrators of sexual abuse seek help. Often, psychiatric
treatment is beneficial.
WARNING SIGNS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
If a child spontaneously reports or suggests sexual
abuse, it is crucial to take it seriously; children
rarely make false accusations of sexual abuse. Unfortunately,
very few children directly report sexual abuse. Because
of this, it is helpful to be aware of some of the subtle
cues that might indicate abuse is occurring. Below are
some of the common symptoms that sexually abused children
and adolescents often display.
OF SEXUAL ABUSE IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
behavior, for instance, children engaging in sexual
play with dolls, or adolescents engaging in indiscriminate
behaviors such as running away or temper tantrums
behaviors such as thumb sucking, baby talk or curling
up in fetal position
and/or alcohol abuse
behaviors, cutting self or hurting self in other ways
behavior change in any direction. For example, suddenly
becoming a model child or suddenly beginning to act
rebellious or unruly
disturbances, especially nightmares or insomnia
or sad mood
anxious in general or having fears of specific settings
or circumstances, often related to the abusive situation
which in its mild form may include excessive daydreaming
or a disconnection of feelings and experiences. More
severe forms of dissociation, such as multiple personality
disorder, may include adopting different and distinct
personalities. The presence of multiple personalities
is often displayed by rapid changes in mood, lapses
in time or memory, and variations in skills and abilities.
urethral or rectal pain, bleeding or abrasions
urinary tract infections
the presence of any one of these symptoms does not necessarily
mean a child has been sexually abused. However, the
presence of a combination of these symptoms should alert
an adult to the need to investigate the possibility
of past or current sexual abuse. If you are concerned,
arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed
physician or psychologist.
LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
Unfortunately, children who have been sexually abused
are not always able to tell someone or get help. Although
the abuse may have stopped or perhaps was only a single
occurrence, failure to recognize or treat a sexually
abused child can lead to a variety of emotional problems
later in life. Recently, greater attention has been
given to the unique difficulties survivors of sexual
abuse must confront. Although every person's experience
is different, some common long-term effects include:
self-esteem, feelings of self-hatred or shame.
inability to trust, often leading to difficulties
in establishing relationships.
difficulties or a lack of ability to feel sexual with
individuals other than those with whom there is no
of the sexual abuse cycle: marrying an abusive partner
or abusing one's own children.
in alcohol or drug use, sometimes leading to substance
abdominal, urinary tract or gynecological problems.
anger and hostility.
Depression and thoughts of suicide.
disorders such as anorexia nervosa, an obsessive concern
about food, weight and body image that leads to self-starvation;
or bulimia, the destructive cycle of binge eating
Dissociative disorders, the most severe form being
multiple personality disorder
NEED FOR TREATMENT
If you, or someone you know, has been sexually abused,
there are a variety of helpful treatments available.
These range from self-help groups to individual or group
therapy to a combination of these treatments. Although
psychotherapy is the most common form of treatment used
to help sexual abuse victims, there are times when medications,
such as antidepressants, can be helpful. If psychiatric
problems have resulted from the sexual abuse, treatment
targeting these difficulties also might be necessary.
helps reduce the shame and isolation that often follows
abuse as well as helps people understand the wide range
of conflicting, and often confusing emotional reactions
to sexual abuse. Most importantly, treatment can help
people realize that the abuse was not their fault or
responsibility. The first step toward preventing and
treating sexual abuse is accepting the fact that the
victim does not provoke sexual abuse.
DO YOU DO IF YOU HAVE BEEN ABUSED?
Tell someone. You do not have to suffer the nightmare
of sexual abuse alone. There is help available. The
pain does not have to continue indefinitely. You may
be experiencing one or more of the symptoms we have
discussed or other problems that seem unrelated to sexual
abuse. Addressing the problems of the abuse is likely
to help alleviate many of your emotional difficulties.
Do not be ashamed; you are not to blame.
DO YOU DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD, OR ANOTHER CHILD,
HAS BEEN SEXUALLY ABUSED
Report it. If the abuse has occurred within your family,
contact your local child protection agency. If the abuse
has occurred outside of the family, report it to the
police. Your first responsibility is to protect the
a child even hints that sexual abuse has occurred, it
is important to take it seriously. Allow the child to
!talk freely and to feel safe talking to you. Disclosing
abuse is a frightening experience, especially for a
child. Show that you understand and believe the child.
Help the child realize that he or she did not cause
the abuse and is not to blame for it. Don't let the
child suffer alone.
LIES IN LEARNING MORE
We have developed this pamphlet, part of our Learn to
Understand Mental Illness program, to help you realize
that survivors of sexual abuse need and deserve compassionate
help. Reading this information may be your first step
you can recognize the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse
it may help you or someone else live a more healthy
and fulfilling life.
with permission from NAMI (National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill) of Wishigan. The information in this publication
is meant to compliment the advice and guidance of your
health care professional, not replace it. Please consult
with a licensed health care provider for help with these
issues. For information, for help, for options, call