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Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Child Molestation or childhood sexual abuse is defined as the act of a person – adult or child – who forces, coerces or threatens a child to have any form of sexual contact or to engage in any type of sexual activity at the perpetrator’s direction.

Any sexual contact, whether it be overt or not, between a child and someone the child trusts, damages a child in countless ways.

Child sexual abuse is shockingly common – by the age of 18, one in five boys and one in three girls will have been the victim of child sexual abuse. Despite the prevailing myths surrounding childhood sexual abuse, we must make it very clear that BOTH girls AND boys can be the victim of childhood sexual abuse.

The sexually abused child will stop growing and developing emotionally when the first attack occurs. Recovery from child sexual abuse doesn’t begin until the sexual abuse survivor becomes an adult…if then.

What Are The Acts of Child Sexual Abuse?

Sexual intercourse is not the only way in which a child can be sexually abused or molested. Other child sexual abuse acts may include some combination of the following.

Offenses that include touching are:

  • Fondling
  • Penetration of a child’s vagina or anus with either a penis or an object when not performed for a valid medical reason
  • Forcing a child to touch an adult’s sexual organs

Offenses without touching include:

  • Exhibitionism or indecent exposure
  • Masturbating in the presence of a child
  • Presenting pornographic materials to a child
  • Exposing a child to sexual intercourse on purpose

Sexual Exploitation can include:

  • Creating pornography with children in photographs, film or any form of modeling
  • Soliciting a child for prostitution

Three Stages of Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

Stage I: Initial Reactions To Sexual Abuse
  • Post-traumatic Stress Reactions – flashbacks, nightmares.
  • Changes in normal child development.
  • Cognitive distortions
Stage II: Accommodation To Ongoing Sexual Abuse
  • Usage of coping behaviors to increase safety and reduce pain during sexual abuse. Coping behaviors include: memory suppression, denial, dissociation, Stockholm Syndrome, accommodation syndrome.
Stage III: Long-Term Elaboration and Reflections:
  • Normal childhood development distorted.
  • Ongoing coping responses to the abuse.

What Are Some Common Reactions to Child Sexual Abuse During Childhood?

Responses and reactions to childhood sexual abuse are varied from person to person and can include:

Emotional Isolation – children who live through sexual abuse feel emotionally isolated. Often, the abuser threatens the child he or she is abusing that the child must keep the secret. This burden of secrecy may continue well into adulthood. Keeping a secret like being sexually abused can make the child feel different, apart from others – like he or she isn’t “normal”.

Betrayed Trust – a child who has been sexually abused has also had their trust fragmented, especially if his or her abuser was a family member. Trusting other people – and even trusting yourself – after experiencing childhood sexual abuse can be very difficult.

Self-Blame and Guilt – children often misinterpret the reason that he or she was sexually abused. The child may feel as though the sexual abuse was his or her fault, or a punishment for misbehaving. The sexual assault perpetrator may even have told the child that he or she was “being punished” for “being bad.” As most children assume that adults are “right,” and the guilt and shame for being punished in such a violating manner can persist well into adulthood.

Triggers – childhood sexual abuse survivors often have things that trigger memories of the abuse. These triggers can include things like gynecological exams, childbirth, sexual touch from partners, certain smells, some colors, types of furniture or cars, can bring back memories that hold feelings about the abuse. These triggers can be very vivid and painful for a sexual assault survivor.

Challenges Affecting Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

All victims of sexual assault take time to heal. Because childhood sexual abuse interrupted an important developmental process and broke feelings of trust during a particularly vulnerable time, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse may have stronger, different reactions than other sexual assault survivors.

Mourning – an adult survivor of sexual abuse may come to realize just how much he or she lost after he or she was victimized. Childhood sexual abuse means loss of innocence, loss of childhood experiences, loss of trust, innocence, a normal family dynamic. These losses must be named, grieved, then buried, to move on with your life.

Depression – among childhood sexual abuse survivors, the highest reported symptom is depression.

Suicidal Ideation – adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse may think often about death, dying and wishing they would die. If you, or someone you love, is considering suicide, please call The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255.

Anger – many children who were sexually abused grow to feel very angry – the type of anger that is directed at fate or a deity, not at a person or a situation. Adult survivors of sexual abuse may feel anger at themselves – for not preventing the abuse, anger at the abuser, or anger at parents/caregivers for not protecting the child from the sexual abuse. As a child, your anger was powerlessness – it had no effect on the abuser.

Relationship Difficulties – sexually abused children are at the whim of their abuser and what the abuser wants. The adult’s desires and wants come ahead of the child’s needs. Often, the sexual abuse has been kept secret for many years. As a result, adult survivors of sexual abuse may struggle in relationships. They may put the needs of their partner well before their own. They may have problems asserting themselves with their partner, colleagues, family and friends.

Romantic Relationship Difficulties: an intimate relationship involves some amount of trust, respect, love, and intimacy. Learning to trust after the broken trust of childhood sexual abuse is beyond difficult. While learning to trust again, adult survivors may vacillate from being un-trusting to too trusting. There may also be an unhealthy fear of intimacy which can lead adult survivors to flee from intimacy or cling too tightly for fear of losing the relationship.

Sexuality – the childhood sexual abuse survivor likely had his or her first experience with sex as a result of the sexual abuse. This can make sex and sexuality very confusing for an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. During sexual acts as an adult, body memories may flood the body, interfering with the ability to have normal sexual relationships, may make the survivor scared, ashamed, and frustrated. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some adult survivors become overly promiscuous as a result of that childhood trauma.

Self-Harming Behaviors – to avoid the overwhelming memories and feelings of being a sexual abuse survivor, many people resort to self-harm and self-injury. An adult sexual abuse survivor may cut, burn, or otherwise maim parts of their body – including the genitals.

Eating Difficulties – many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have problems with eating. They may also have issues with self-image. These problems with eating can involve starving themselves, binging and purging, or overeating.

Low Self-Esteem: due to the negative messages received by the abuser and internalized a result of childhood sexual abuse, low self esteem is common among adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Substance Use and Abuse: due to the horrifying memories and jagged emotional scars left on adult survivors, many choose to self-medicate their problems away by using drugs and alcohol – leaving them numb. This clearly creates greater issues in the future.

How To Recover From Childhood Sexual Abuse:

People who seek out counseling or professional support of some kind have a chance to move forward and having a successful, safe and happy adult life. A therapist will be able to provide you with some coping techniques in order to move on with your life as a survivor, not a victim.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often develop strategies for survival to protect themselves from the trauma that occurred in their childhood. Many people never discuss the abuse with anyone which is not healthy and can lead to harmful coping techniques.

Treatment for Childhood Sexual Abuse:

After a therapist, trained in trauma and abuse counseling is located, this is what an adult survivor can expect from therapy. It’s important to note that if an adult survivor does not feel comfortable with a therapist, he or she should shop around to find a better therapist.

Early Phases of Therapy: an adult childhood sexual abuse survivor works with a therapist to build trust in preparation for the healing process. The adult survivor is encouraged to share their stories of childhood sexual abuse, which may be difficult. Many of these memories may be jumbled up, fragmented, not along a timeline or continuum.

Middle Phases of Therapy: This is where the hard work of therapy begins, including reprocessing the trauma in these steps:

  1. Acknowledge the childhood sexual abuse and the impact it has had on the adult survivor’s life.
  2. Experiencing, then releasing some of the feelings associated with the trauma. Many times, these feelings have been unexpressed until now.
  3. Exploring the feelings toward the abuser, the non-protective parents or caretakers.
  4. Then making cognitive reassessments about the abuse, exploring the “why did it happen?” and “who was responsible?”

Once these steps have been repeated over and over, the traumatic events are confronted then processed. The adult survivor is then un-stuck in time, and the abused child is integrated into the adult self, so they can work together toward a goal. Cognitive restructuring, education, and creation of new coping strategies are learned and experienced.

A clear line between the present and the past can then be drawn, which places the adult survivor in more control of his or her life.

Termination Phase: the adult survivor has been empowered to make choices and decisions without the counselor. This forces the adult survivor to establish other support networks, like self-help group, friends, partners or other family members.

Self-Help For Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

Locate a therapist in your area who specializes in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and make an appointment.

It’s okay to not want to see a therapist, but you should talk about what happened to you. It will release the pent-up emotions you’ve been holding on to.

Remember that the abuse was not your fault – it does not mean that you are trashy, dirty, or bad. The shame you feel should be the shame felt by your attacker.

Don’t tell yourself that “you should be over it by now.” The sexual abuse occurred during a pivotal time in your life, it disrupted normal childhood development, and it destroyed your childhood.

Take the time you need to mourn the loss of your childhood, the loss of your innocence, the loss of trust. Acknowledge that these losses occurred and take the time you need to grieve each of them.

Do not rush the grieving process – all of those feelings have been suppressed for so long that it will take a good deal of time to work through them.

Tell yourself that you are strong, and you will become something better than your abuser tried to make you.

Get to know yourself, mentally and physically. Reclaim your body as your own. Baby steps. Always baby steps. Celebrate your progress no matter how big or small.

It’s okay to be afraid to let a partner get to know you too fast. Or to be intimate. You set your own pace. Take your time to learn to trust them and yourself.

You are allowed to tell your partner that you want to take a step back if you find that being intimate is more than you think you can handle. If they care about you, they will understand. And if they don’t understand, then you deserve someone better.

It’s okay to enjoy sex as just sex. It does not make you a bad person because you have physical needs. Your abuser did not do this to you.

How to Help An Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

There are some ways that you can help an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

Listen. Listen without judgment. If an adult survivor wants to tell you about what happened, know that this is a big leap of faith for them.

Tell them, “I believe you.” An adult survivor fears that people do not believe the sexual abuse occurred – often because they’ve been told that the abuse was all in his or her head.

Tell the adult survivor that you are always there whenever you need them – for whatever you need.

Don’t try to force them to talk about the sexual abuse. They’ve kept quiet about it for a reason.

If a male friend tells you that he is an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it is extremely important that you tell him that you believe him. This is especially important as most men do not admit to being sexually abused.

Remind the adult survivor that it’s okay to trust their partner – their partner is not their abuser.

Don’t tell them time will heal all. While it may be true, it’s a cliche that sounds both dismissive and rude.

An adult survivor may worry about having kids, or being around kids, out of fear that they will perpetuate the vicious cycle of abuse. Tell them they are strong and can break the cycle.

If the adult survivor is nervous about having children, suggest a pet to ease into caring for someone dependent upon them.

Don’t tell them “it’s in the past.” For an adult survivor, it may still be very present in their minds.

Sexual Assault Hotlines:

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255

Additional Resources For Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

Wings Foundation A private, not-for-profit agency founded in 1982 to help break the cycle and heal the wounds of childhood sexual abuse.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network The United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization.

American Humane Association Ensuring the wellness and well-being of children and animals. Unleashing the full potential of the bond between humans and animals to the mutual benefit of both.

HAVOCA is run by survivors for adult survivors of child abuse. We provide support, friendship and advice for any adult who’s life has been affected by childhood abuse.