The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimates that here in the UK, almost one in four children (24.1%) experience sexual abuse.
It’s a terrifying statistic, made more sobering considering that being sexually abused as a child can cause lifelong negative repercussions if victims do not find the support they need to heal.
This can include ongoing difficulties with relationships, self-esteem, personal identity, and stress management. You might even find it harder to reach goals or move forward in life.
What is sexual abuse?
It’s important to understand what qualifies as sexual abuse before dismissing an experience you might have had.
Sexual abuse does not have to be between a child and a ‘grownup’. It can, for example, be an older sibling who abuses you. Or it might have been a child of a similar age forcing you to do things against your will.
It is now recognised that sexual abuse does not even have to involve physicality to be extraordinarily damaging to a child and the future adult they will become. Sexual abuse can can be any situation where a child is exploited for the sexual pleasure of another.
Called ‘non contact’ or ‘covert’ sexual abuse, this can be things like an adult who constantly exposed their body to you, forced you to expose your body, showed you pornography, or an adult who constantly talked about sexual things to you.
Something like a child whose father always talks about her body being too sexual when she is going through puberty, or whose mother strips her and makes her stand naked in her room for hours as ‘punishment’ for ‘being bad’, can both result in the same symptoms of other forms of sexual abuse.
Wouldn’t I remember it if I was abused?
Victims of sexual abuse often do not remember the experience. In fact having no memory of certain parts of your childhood is often an indicator trauma of some form took place.
Psychoanalytical psychotherapy came up with the still popular idea that when things are too traumatic for the conscious brain they are delegated to the hidden ‘unconscious’ mind. Of course nowadays we understand the brain is not composed of clearly marked ‘closets’, and that trauma affects the brain in far more complicated ways.
So have I been sexually abused? Knowing the signs.
Sexual abuse can cause many issues, not just in your behaviours, but in your relationships, your sex life, the way you treat yourself, and even in your physical wellbeing.
Sexual abuse can cause long-term symptoms of trauma, similar to or including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Do the following symptoms sound familiar?
- foggy thinking
- memory loss around the trauma
- vigilance – more jumpy with noises and surprises than others are
- emotional outbursts
- not liking certain places/situations/smells/sounds without knowing why
- deep feelings of shame and guilt.
Healthy relationships tend to be very challenging if you experienced sexual abuse as a child. Do you experience some of the following?
Sexual abuse as a child can also really affect the way you approach sex. Do you recognise yourself in the following?
- or, in some cases, fear or dislike of sex
- saying yes to sex you don’t even want
- being a ‘pleaser’ sexually
- secretly not knowing what you really like sexually
- suffering confusion around your sexual identity
- dissociation during sex – like you ‘leave your body’ and watch from above
- needing to escape into fantasy in order to enjoy sex
- having sexual fantasies where you are abused or raped
- constantly using innuendo in conversation
You might also constantly attract relationships which ‘re-enact’ abuse. This can look like:
Being sexually abused as a child or adolescent can lead to physical symptoms as well, or issues with your body. These can include:
- constant low grade illnesses like cold and flu
- unexplained medical symptoms
- disconnected from your body, like not knowing how you got bruises or high pain tolerance
- feeling dirty all the time and like you can never get clean enough
- feeling you can’t trust your body.
The trauma of sexual abuse leads to many other psychological issues. Do you feel you might also suffer from some of the following?
And finally, sexual abuse is linked to the manifestation of certain personality disorders, in particular borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder.
Now I’m worried this might be me – what do I do?
The symptoms above are comprehensive, and many are also symptoms and signs of various other psychological issues. So the first thing to do is not to panic.
Unearthing previous trauma can lead to falling into a ‘vortex’ of research and worry. You can spend days or weeks in front of the computer or on forums and lose sight of the rest of your life. Try to stay balanced and practise good self-care until you can find support.
Support is essential. Reach out to good friends you trust immediately. Then do try to find professional support as soon as possible, whether that is a counsellor or psychotherapist with expertise around sexual abuse, or a local support group.
If money is an issue, you can speak to your GP, or read our guide to low-cost counselling for helpful tips. Don’t forget that if you are feeling very down there are support lines like the Good Samaritans you can call.
If you do suspect you were sexually abused as a child, you might find yourself suddenly experiencing large waves of anger and fury. It is highly advised you don’t react by immediately contacting and accusing all the people who might have abused you.
You will be doing this from a vulnerable place, and can put yourself at risk of attack, psychological manipulation, and emotional abuse. You might even in the process alienate yourself from other family and friends whose support you count on.
Again, seek professional support first. A qualified mental health professional will help you process the experience and reach a more stable place. Then you will be better prepared to decide if, how, and when you will approach those involved.
At Harley Therapy all of our therapists have a minimum of five years of experience working with clients just like you. They create a warm, safe environment for you to work in, and can be booked at three London locations. Not in the UK? We now offer Skype counselling worldwide.
Question we didn’t answer? Or want to share an experience with other readers? Comment below.