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Child sexual abuse

If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, dealing with memories of the abuse can be very painful and difficult. We are here when you are ready to talk.

Sexual abuse of children involves any sexual activity with a child under 16 years of age. This can involve a range of behaviour including:

Sexual abuse can start when children are babies and can continue on into adulthood. It is most often carried out by a person who is well known to the child, often within the family or in another position of trust.

Sexual abuse of children is not about uncontrollable desire – it is a desire to exert power and control over a young person for sexual gratification.

It’s impossible to give a description of what a sexual abuser will look like; if it was so easy then children could be much more easily safeguarded. The reality is that sexual abusers are fathers or stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, teachers, priests, the man next door, care workers – in fact it could be anyone.

The one common thread across the range of sexual abuses is that it is a desire for power over the young person; it is a betrayal of the young person’s trust in that adult. Very often the abuser will turn the blame onto the young person, accuse them of instigating the abuse, blame them for being ‘flirtatious’ or looking ‘sexy’. The grooming process can encourage the secrecy, make the young person feel ‘special’ and further compound the guilt and shame for that young person with gifts or money.

All of this helps to create and encourage feelings of shame and self blame in the young person, silences them and further protects the abuser.

Grooming is a way abusers gain the trust of the child or young person, and sometimes the trust of the whole family. We have often heard news reports of trusted family friends or babysitters being uncovered as abusers, sometimes having groomed the child and other family members for several years before the abuse begins. This shows that there is no credence to the theory that abusers are ‘sick’ or have uncontrollable urges.

Common feelings experienced by survivors and some coping strategies

Child sexual abuse can have an impact on a woman’s ability to trust and to develop intimate relationships in adult life. Women may experience depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, lack of confidence and low self esteem.

Other common feelings are:


Abuse is not an expression of love. It hurts the person who is abused, mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically and it can have long term effects such as anger, fear, shame, guilt and self hatred.

Also, abuse is the responsibility of the abuser – it can’t be blamed on the behaviour of someone else. Someone who sexually abuses a child does so because he chooses to. Only he is to blame.

“He told me I was his special girl. I liked being the special one. I must have wanted it.”

No one wants to be abused, but we all want to be loved. We need attachments: we can’t survive without them. Abusers are very skilled at maintaining that culture of silence – it allows the abuse to continue. If a child is drawn into the abuse and made to feel that she is a willing participant, then the silence is assured. This is a real betrayal of a child’s feelings and need for affection.

“I used to get aroused by him. I had orgasms – how could it be abuse when I got pleasure out of it?”

Sometimes our body responds to stimulation because our bodies are designed that way and abusers make the most of this. We can’t control our body’s reactions and as children we are inexperienced in sexual matters.

Orgasm can be a response to fear and hyper arousal, it does not matter if you experienced pleasure, this doesn’t mean that you wanted the abuse to happen.

We feel that for it to truly be abuse we must have hated and despised every moment of it but for some women, feeling that closeness and intimacy with someone who says he loves you can feel very good. We then blame and hate ourselves for all these mixed up feelings. Abusers use this against us; tell us that we ‘asked for it’ and that the abuse continued ‘because we wanted it’.

Children can be told they have to accept punishment for bad behaviour. Abuse is not punishment for being naughty. No matter how ‘bad’ a child is, she does not deserve to be sexually abused as punishment.
This is yet another excuse used by abusers to justify their behaviour.

“He was a sick man. He needed psychiatric treatment.”

Only around 2% of sex offenders are referred for psychiatric treatment.

It’s often assumed that you can spot a sex offender by the way he looks or behaves but most abusers are perfectly normal men. This is the most widely accepted myth around sexual abuse of children.


Firstly, it’s OK to be angry with this person, or people who abused you.

Anger is a very normal reaction to hurt and pain but we’re raised to believe that it is a bad thing and that we should suppress it. Often our anger and our aggression are used against us as an excuse not to deal with the abuse as the anger is all people see, not the pain behind it.

People are scared of anger, and we can be scared of it when it’s inside ourselves: we may feel that if we let it out it may overwhelm us and we won’t be able to control it. So very often we turn it in on ourselves, blame ourselves, hurt ourselves, or just swallow it and try to block it all out.

In their book, ‘The Courage to Heal – A Guide for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse’, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis talk about ‘getting in touch with your anger’ and ‘directing it where it belongs’.

They give examples of some exercises you can do to release some of that anger safely, so that you don’t hurt yourself. These include positive expressions of anger such as:

Experiencing flashbacks

Flashbacks are a natural reaction to the trauma of sexual abuse but they can be very frightening and women often describe feelings of fear, confusion, panic, being out of control, terror. This is because they can happen when you least expect them and can be triggered by a noise, a smell or by seeing something that reminds you of your childhood or the abuse.

No, you are not crazy. You may feel that you can’t speak to anyone about your flashbacks because you think you are going crazy, but it’s a natural part of the healing process.

Sometimes women will try to avoid all the things that trigger flashbacks but the down side of this is that it can really limit what you do and where you go. There are other ways to help alleviate the fear and panic that flashbacks cause.


Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected anxiety attacks that can include sweating, tightening of the chest, shortness of breath, numbness, tingling of the hands and feet or needing to go to the toilet, your mouth may dry up and you may jump at even the slightest noise.

When you first experience a panic attack you may be confused, not sure of what is happening to your body and frightened that you can’t control it. But panic attacks are another way your body has of coping with the abuse you experienced. If your body feels threatened, it responds with the ‘fight or flight’ response and a panic attack is an exaggerated form of this.

Although panic attacks are your body’s way of coping with the memories of your abuse, there are some things that can make it worse. These include:

Self Injury

There are a number of myths around self injury – such as, ‘it’s a suicide that failed’ or ‘it’s attention seeking’. This is not the case. Self injury is a way of coping with emotional pain, it’s a release when the pain becomes too much to bear.

Women survivors who self injure are not insane or dangerous, they are just trying to cope with the pain in their lives without hurting anyone else. It’s important to recognise that women who are self injuring need to have space to talk about their experiences, need to be believed and most importantly, need to be free of judgment.

There are a number of good publications about self harm that can be
obtained from book shops or on loan from the Rape Crisis Centre library.

There are also a number of ways to keep yourself as safe as you can when you are self injuring:

Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol or prescription or non-prescription drugs are often used by women survivors as a way of coping with memories of sexual abuse.

Often drugs can be prescribed to assist the woman to cope with how she is feeling or to improve sleeping. Whilst this can be a very effective short term support it should be remembered that it is easy to become dependent and reliant on medication which numbs the pain. Open discussion with your GP will allow you to determine what the best treatment plan is for you. Sometimes illicit drug use and/or excessive drinking is a problem for women who have abuse issues, and these mask the pain and block out feelings and memories.

If heavy drinking or drug use are factors it may be better that this is addressed prior to entering into any kind of therapy or counselling.

Whilst feeling the emotions and experiencing and acknowledging the pain you are in are extremely difficult it is a vital part of the healing process.

Eating Disorders

Many studies have shown that a high number of women who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse have eating disorders. For some women, control over their eating is a way of coping and expressing their emotions. Some women who are bulimic or compulsive eaters reveal that bingeing is their way of numbing the emotions they feel. Food becomes an effective coping strategy.

Some women who have been abused believe that if they are too thin or too obese they will become unattractive and the abuse will stop. Others have expressed a need to be in control in the area of food. Purging is a way for some to release their emotions. If they believe they cannot tell anyone about the abuse and express the emotions they are experiencing, purging may be the only way they know how to get those feelings out. Many feel relieved and calm after purging.

If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, dealing with memories of the abuse can be very painful and difficult. At times you may feel like you are reliving the abuse. If your memories are flooding back and you feel like you are re-experiencing the abuse, you may feel like you are going crazy and at times may have suicidal thoughts. You will probably want to isolate yourself and not talk to anyone. It is good to have someone to talk to and help you through it, rather than having to experience the feelings, emotions and pain all alone. Having someone to turn to and support may help you feel less alone and make the difficult times a little easier to get through.

Working with a support agency can help you come to terms with the abuse.

There are two things it is important for all survivors’ of abuse to remember. Firstly, it was not your fault, that you did nothing wrong and you did not deserve it. Secondly, you do not have to keep secrets any more because it really is okay to talk about it.

Recommended reading

The Courage to Heal – A Guide for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Vermillion Books: 2002
An excellent all round resource with many first person accounts as well as suggestions for useful exercises on ways of dealing with different feelings. Copies of this book are available for loan from the Rape Crisis Centre library.

Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Men and Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Harper Collins: 2003 (Revised Edition)
By the authors of ‘The Courage to Heal’. Looks at how sexual abuse affects you and working out ways to heal from it.

The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Harper Collins: 2000
To be used alongside ‘The Courage to Heal’. Includes checklists, writing exercises, activities etc. Intended to help adult survivors overcome the effects of child sexual abuse.

Breaking Free Workbook: Practical Help for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
by Carolyn Ainscough and Kay Toon

Sheldon Books: 2000
Based on ‘Breaking Free’ and on the authors’ years of experience of working with groups of women survivors of child sexual abuse.

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