Regardless of how much is denied or what assaults are repressed, sexual abuse has repercussions. All kinds of abuse are harmful. Recovery, however, is possible.
Sexual abuse suffered as a child can have lasting effects, and is recognised as a catalyst for disturbed behaviour in teenagers and adults. Recent studies have shown that one third of abuse is carried out by people who are under the age of 18, and it is now known that most abusers themselves were abused as children.
In Britain, it has been said by social workers for children that one in eight children have suffered some sort of abuse. Others consider this estimate conservative. Largely the majority of offenders are male and in more than 85 per cent of cases, they come from within the child’s family circle.
The reason that child sexual abuse has been brought – comparatively recently – to the attention of the wider public, taking precedence as a social concern over issues such as marital rape and divorce, is that now, in increasing numbers, there is more support for adult survivors to speak out about their experiences.
Human development, including sexual development, occurs within the intimacy of family life. This includes relaxed privacy, exposure to nudity and learned responses to sexual situations and intimacy. Learning about sexuality is unfortunately still usually unstructured, accidental and all too often sex education comes through personal experience.
When sexual abuse happens within the confines of the family, a term that is often used is ‘dysfunctional’, which literally means that the family is not functioning properly. The child is not being nurtured properly and is not receiving accurate and positive reinforcement of the person he or she is. Abused people suffer a lowering of self-esteem. The ability of abused children to be themselves, to develop normally, ask questions, receive honest answers and simply to feel safe and secure, is affected.
Abuse creates a distorted image of what relationships are, especially if the abuse is perpetrated by a family member or a figure of authority.
Abuse establishes patterns of behaviour to which every thought, feeling and action become connected. More often than not it is the abuser who sets up these patterns and it is only by breaking these established patterns and habits that the abused person can break the abuser’s power over them.
Good relationships with friends, members of family and partners can be the most healing and stabilizing elements in the new life of a person recovering from abuse. Establishing new relationships means breaking with the past and all the old patterns. Working out for him- or herself what is right and wrong can be a tough process, ultimately challenging those parts of an individual which have been most injured – the sexual self and personal identity. It often takes a great deal of effort to go through this process.
Child abuse is not a modern phenomenon. Child prostitutes were very popular in Victorian times. Then it was a sin in an age of hypocrisy. Now it is recognised as creating severe psychological problems.
The term transference refers to the projection of feelings, thoughts and impressions about one person onto another, and we all do it. Our minds are associative and many patterns are forged at an early age, when we are taught to recognise and respond to certain cues. Later, these cues will invariably create a similar response. The associations can be illogical – a voice or a smile can cause a person to react as they did with the person who originally made the impression. Breaking with transference involves recognizing patterns and modifying our behaviour.
Sexual abuse is assault on a person’s body and directly affects feelings about him- or herself sexually. Resolving guilt, shame and poor self-image is the most difficult task for someone recovering from abuse.
Feeling positive about sexuality means learning truly to love your body. The first step is to identify what you feel comfortable with sexually and what the things are that make you feel uncomfortable. Work on a specific list and tackle each area, one at a time; this way you will gradually begin to regain power over your body and your feelings. Fantasies can be problematic for everyone. Fantasies which result in orgasm, but which remind a person of past abuse generally get in the way of intimacy and closeness and often recreate feelings of guilt and shame. The alternative is to focus on various different images which will release a person from the negative connotations of past experiences, and which can be one of the cornerstones upon which they base their new sexuality.
Other triggers that contribute to many sexual difficulties for abused people are memories and flashbacks. Both may occur before, during and after sexual contact, and can be brought about by any number of situations. The responses are varied, but can be terrifying for both partners.
People who experience difficulties should try to work out exactly what it is that is happening, talk the difficulties through and make changes that acknowledge the possibility of triggers and allow for the responses to them. For instance, the bedroom, for the moment, may not be the safest place for the individual to make love. Gender identification is simply what sex you feel yourself to be. Frequently when abuse occurs within the family, gender identification may become confused. It is important to establish what has been taught about being male and being female, and how the person actually feels about different genders.
There has been no research which establishes that sexual abuse alters a child’s sexual orientation, but being abused by someone of the opposite or same sex can create confusion for some people, especially if they recognise that they received pleasurable physical feelings from the abusive act. This is true for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. No one moves easily from one category to another and it is important for sexual development that an individual doesn’t place greater value on one over the other.
Individuals may often find their sexual identity changing as they work through abusive experiences. Feeling more free to take on a sexual identity, be it homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, can be an important way of making a statement, increasing self- esteem and accessing personal power.
Recovery from sexual abuse takes determination and support. Abuse doesn’t take place in a void and it often happens with the consent or collusion of parents or carers. It is easier to recover if a person can allow him- or herself to trust friends and partners. Support can allow an individual to feel liberated from their past.