]Statistics: The stats are increasingly hard to ignore. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused by the age of 18. A majority, (93%) of victims, are sexually abused by a family member or trusted friend. Although statistics indicate the prevalence of sexual abuse, most who study the problem state that many victims never report their abuse or are confused about what qualifies as abuse. This means that the actual number is probably much higher.*
Power and control: The most important thing to understand about sexual abuse is that the offender is motivated by power and control. Just as someone may use a gun to get power over a bank teller and force them to hand over money, the sexual offender uses sex to have power over their victim and force them into unwanted acts. Sometimes people mistakenly believe that what a person wears or how they act is the reason for an assault or abuse. However the data does not support this thinking as children are the largest group of sexual abuse victims not because of what they wear or how they act, but due to their vulnerable nature.
Responses: There is a great deal we now know about the effects of sexual trauma, however every person is unique and therefore every survivor’s story and their responses will be different. There are certain patterns that often emerge based on an experience of sexual abuse or assault. Children are most likely to show distress through behaviors such as acting out aggressively and sometimes sexually, or the opposite of withdrawal and fear. Most children don’t tell about the abuse they experience due to threats of harm told by the perpetrator or worries related to not being believed by others. Since the abuser is most likely a family member or trusted friend, children are placed in a difficult situation that they can perceive as a risk to family happiness and unity.
In adult women, 94% who experience sexual assault report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many will have thoughts of suicide or self-harm (cutting, burning). There is a high percentage that will use drugs or alcohol to numb the overwhelming emotions and “triggers” that they experience throughout the day and problems with sleep during the night. Some become hyper-sexual in an attempt to gain back control that was lost during the abuse. Others will engage in other risky behaviors that threaten safety and may lead to death (passive suicide). These ways of behaving are in response to trauma and are not an indication of a moral, spiritual, or character flaw. They are responses to having one’s body and soul violated.
Who is to blame: Whatever the circumstance, whether the abuse occurred when a person was a vulnerable child, a defiant teenager, a young and impressionable adult, an adult male, a married woman or at any other stage of life, it is never the fault of the person who is abused. Never! Children cannot consent to have sex so it is never a child’s fault. Again, because the act of sexual abuse is about power and control the full responsibility falls on the person who willingly and knowingly violates the victim. If you were not shielded when you were a small child from the abuse of someone older or in authority, that was wrong and you should have been protected. If you told about the abuse and those you trusted did not report the abuse, that was a violation of your trust and it should have been reported. If you had the courage to tell someone about the abuse and they didn’t believe your story or minimized your experience, that was wrong and you should have been believed.
The Healing Process: sexual trauma can have a lasting impact on a person, it does not have to be an identity or determine their future. Telling the story of what happened in a safe place with a safe person is the first step toward freedom from the guilt, shame, and anger that often keep sexual abuse survivors in the cycle of pain. Counseling with a person who has training in the treatment of sexual abuse and assault can also provide relief and healing. Those who have the support of family and friends have been shown to move through the healing process more quickly and with less negative symptoms than those who have less support or are not believed. There is now a new field of study called posttraumatic growth that is researching and documenting the positive outcomes of those who have experienced trauma, received treatment, and then report high levels of character and spiritual growth including a greater sense of purpose. There is hope and healing is possible!
*Statistical information cited from www.rainn.org