Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Being sexually abused as a child can have lasting effects on an individual. Sexual abuse can take many forms: exposure, spying without permission, genital contact, penetration, sexual jokes, exploitation, pornography, and other types of interaction are some examples. Often, the abuse is done by a person who the child already knows or trusts. The effects of the abuse as an adult will depend on a variety of factors, and the good news is that support is available and healing is possible.
Some common symptoms of trauma include:
- Changes in sleep, appetite, or energy levels
- Health issues, including pain, headaches, stomachaches, and others
- Trouble concentrating
- Self-blame, shame, guilt
- Increased fear and hypervigilance
- Dissociation, feeling disconnected or numb
- Anger or thoughts of revenge
- Depression, despair, hopelessness
- Suicidal ideation
- Decreased trust and increased relationship problems
Experiencing a trauma is often a life-changing event. Some individuals will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many will experience symptoms that change their lifestyle. Trauma changes the perception of the world and people in it. Exactly how a trauma will influence an individual is hard to tell, but research has shown that these factors can provide information:
- Frequency of the event – In general, the more often an individual experienced the traumatic event, the more severe the impact can be.
- Relationship with the perpetrator – Having a close relationship with the person prior to the abuse can have a more severe impact, especially if the perpetrator was a family member.
- Intensity of the event – As the intensity of the abuse increases, so too can the effect on the individual.
- Age at time of the event – The younger an individual was, the more likely it is that abuse can have a more serious impact.
- Level of support to individual – The more support an individual has prior to, during, or after the event the more likely for healing and the easier it can be for the individual to recover.
- Beliefs of the individual – Different life perspectives and beliefs can dramatically influence a person’s experience and opinion on the trauma and recovery.
It is important to remember that while some of these patterns have been observed, an individual who has been sexually abused has had their rights violated. Even once instance of inappropriate sexual contact can be traumatic and have an influence on life choices.
Those who experienced sexual abuse as children may grow up to have a higher chance of developing the following concerns:
- Negative self-image
- Pervasive guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Body image issues, Eating Disorders
- Chronic health concerns, pain, somatic complaints
- Avoiding routine healthcare and dental checkups
- Stress and Anxiety
- Trouble developing relationships, including:
- Fear of intimacy
- Difficulty establishing boundaries
- Getting into abusive relationships
- Sexual difficulties, including but not limited to:
- Avoiding sex
- Lack of interest in sex
- Approaching sex as an obligation
- Difficulty becoming aroused or experiencing orgasm
- Pain during sex
- Feeling distant during sex
- Utilizing compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
Finding relief from trauma symptoms is possible. One of the biggest hurdles that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse face is overcoming the stigma and shame of telling someone of the past abuse. Men especially may find it difficult to share that they were sexually abused. For most, it is easier to avoid the thoughts, feelings, and any reminders of the abuse. All of this can prevent any progress of healing, as isolation, fear, and dysfunctional behaviors can take over.
This first obstacle can be defeated when a person finds a safe relationship in which to confide. This might be a friend, counselor, or staff member at a Sexual Abuse Crisis Center. Many times, people are encouraged to share about their past after hearing a similar story that provides hope and encouragement. Having the proper support can make a tremendous difference in the process of healing.
Trauma informed care is one approach to healing, and can be applied in a variety of ways. It includes being educated about trauma and the effects it has on an individual. It also proposes concepts such as safety, trust, choice, community, empowerment, and a cultural perspective. These concepts, in addition to supportive relationships, help the individual to regain an understanding of how sexual abuse as a child influenced any previous patterns of coping, and how they can regain the ability to take their life in a direction of their choice. Trauma informed care is often provided in counseling/therapy or through interactions with support groups at Crisis Centers or other service agencies. Care should always be provided by a trained individual.
Some components of healing include:
- Building skills to help manage symptoms of trauma as well as how to engage in healthy relationships.
- Educating about trauma.
- Encouraging communication of internal experiences such as feelings, thoughts, and any flashbacks or other concerns. Most survivors have spent years keeping these silent, so encouraging communication in appropriate settings is beneficial and helps teach how to utilize emotions in a productive way.
- Strategizing for various circumstances, such as going on a date, attending family reunions, going to the doctor for a physical, or any other event that proves to be problematic.
- Engaging in non-verbal therapies such as yoga, running, gardening, working with animals, art, or other formats. These methods help individuals to regain a sense of connection to their physical experiences in a positive way and can provide excellent adjuncts to other forms of healing.
How to Seek and Offer Support
If you are looking for support, you can do an online search for local agencies that provide counseling and other services for adult survivors of sexual abuse. Organizations like the YMCA and YWCA could be a good place to start, and often offer childcare services. You can also check with your insurance for mental health benefits, or look up local agencies that provide mental health services at a decreased cost, as long as you qualify.
If you are the loved one of a survivor, you can participate in the healing process in multiple ways. Firstly, you can educate yourself about trauma and begin to have conversations that encourage understanding and developing options for how you can offer the proper support needed. Building trust, choice, and long-term connection can help the individual overcome different social problems. If you are the partner of a survivor, these skills can eventually help to resolve any sexual concerns, too.
Remember you are not alone. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you can find help by talking to a counselor.