What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is any sexually related behaviour between two or more people where there is an imbalance of power. This can include adult-child, older child-younger child, adolescent-younger person, or any situation where the other person is forced to participate. It is sexually abusive when the victim is unaware of the abuse (such as being watched while bathing, using the bathroom, changing, etc.), as well as when the victim is sleeping, unconscious, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or is too young, nave, or able to understand what is going on.

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How might this affect me?

The impact of sexual abuse can range from no apparent effects to very severe ones. Typically, children who experience the most serious types of abuse abuse involving family members and high degrees of physical force exhibit behaviour problems ranging from separation anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder. However, children who are the victims of sexual abuse are also often exposed to a variety of other stressors and difficult circumstances in their lives, including parental substance abuse. The sexual abuse and its aftermath may be only part of the child's negative experiences and subsequent behaviours. Therefore, correctly diagnosing abuse is often complex. Conclusive physical evidence of sexual abuse is relatively rare in suspected cases. For all of these reasons, when abuse is suspected, an appropriately trained health professional should be consulted.

Effects of abuse

Being abused as a child may have serious and long-lasting effects on a person. Such effects can include:

  • Loss of confidence, dignity and self respect
  • Low self-esteem and poor self-worth
  • Loss of hope for the future
  • Adverse effects on both physical and mental health
  • The inability to trust others even close family and friends
  • The inability to relax and enjoy life
  • Loss of innocence and childhood
  • Anxiety, guilt and fear
  • Sexual dysfunction, withdrawal, and acting out
  • Difficulties in relating to the opposite sex.

And may also lead to:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Obsessive behaviour and strict routines
  • Anxiety states
  • Self-harming e.g. cutting, scratching or burning
  • Depression and suicide.

Physical effects and behaviour changes in abused children.

The most obvious signs of childhood sexual abuse are the physical factors.

  • Children that are being sexually abused may have difficulty walking or sitting, have stained, torn or bloody clothing, or have pain or itching in the genital area
  • Some children may have bruises or external bleeding, vaginal bleeding or anal bleeding.

Children may also show certain behavior characteristics that may point to childhood sexual abuse.

  • These include a highly sexual form of play, bizarre or unusual knowledge of sex, and unusually seductive behaviors with peers
  • Children may also have poor relationships with peers, be delinquent, run away, or even threaten or attempt suicide
  • Teachers may also see deterioration in school work or sudden noticeable changes in behaviour
  • The child may become overly concerned about siblings
  • The child may even exhibit fear of physical contact.

Some general facts

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are subjected to some form of sexual abuse
  • In more than 75% of cases the abuse is committed by an adult the child knows and trusts
  • Most abusers are men but women are also capable of sexual abuse
  • Child sexual abuse is any type of sexual assault of a child under 16.

Sexual abuse takes many forms:

  • Fondling a child's genitals
  • Masturbation
  • Oral-genital contact
  • Digital penetration
  • Vaginal and anal intercourse.

Child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact; such abuse could include non-contact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography.

Some facts about male sexual abuse

  • 1 in 6 men report having had unwanted direct sexual contact with an older person by the age of 16. This figure is as high as 1 in 4 if indirect or non-contact sexual behaviour such as indecent exposure is included
  • Common symptoms for sexually abused men include: guilt, anxiety, depression, interpersonal isolation, shame, low self-esteem, self-destructive behavior, post-traumatic stress reactions, poor body imagery, sleep disturbance, nightmares, anorexia or bulimia, relational and/or sexual dysfunction, and compulsive behavior like alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, overeating, overspending, and sexual obsession or compulsion
  • The vast majority (over 80%) of sexually abused boys never become adult perpetrators
  • There is no compelling evidence that sexual abuse fundamentally changes a boy's sexual orientation, but it may lead to confusion about sexual identity and is likely to affect how he relates in intimate situations
  • Boys often feel physical sexual arousal during abuse even if repulsed by what is happening
  • Perpetrators tend to be males who consider themselves heterosexual and are most likely to be known but unrelated to the victims.

Why do children not speak out?

During the time that the abuse is taking place a child may say nothing. This may be as a result of:

  • Threats with further abuse and violence if they tell anyone
  • Fear that they will not be believed
  • Believing it was their fault that the abuse happened
  • An inability to describe or understand what has happened to them
  • Wanting to protect the family or even the abuser(s), who could be either male or female.

Child sexual abuse victims may temporarily block memories of what has happened but the effects will surface as they grow. Not talking about what happened will not make it go away but encourages it to fester. Adults often do not talk about child sexual abuse because of their own discomfort with the topic. If adults are not willing to talk about the abuse, the child will probably feel there is something to be ashamed of, that it is dirty and just too awful to talk about. This attitude will only serve to increase the child's feelings of guilt, shame and feelings of being abnormal and will compound their problems.

Children often feel powerless to stop the abuse. You cannot be responsible for consenting to an act you did not understand or which you were forced into.

Why has this happened to me?

Remember the abuser is always to blame for the abuse not the Victim.

No matter how long ago you were abused, your feelings about what happened to you are important. You have the right to be listened to, no matter what you want to say. Through speaking about your abuse you may well be able to overcome any difficulties that you experience as an adult.

Who are the perpetrators of child sexual abuse?

The majority of sexual offenders are family members or are otherwise known to the child. Sexual abuse by strangers is not nearly as common as sexual abuse by family members. Men perpetrate most instances of sexual abuse, but there are cases in which women are the offenders. Despite a common myth, homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.

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