What is Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse is any action that pressures or coerces someone to do something sexually they don’t want to do. Sexual violence and abuse happens along a continuum from unwanted touch, to sexual harassment, oral sex, or rape with a body part or object. Just because someone doesn’t say no doesn’t mean they said yes. Victims sometimes freeze, or are intoxicated, feel pressure or obligation, are intimated or coerced.
Some examples of sexual abuse are:
- Unwanted kissing or touching
- Rape or attempted rape
- Sexual contact with someone who is very drunk, drugged, unconscious or otherwise unable to give consent
- Threatening someone into unwanted sexual activity
- Pressuring someone to have sex or perform sexual acts
- Forcing someone to watch pornography
- Using sexual insults toward someone
Sexual assault and abuse…
- ...can happen with strangers but usually happens with someone you know
- ...happens to both women and men
- ...occurs in same-sex and heterosexual relationships
- ...can happen between two people who are married or dating
- ...can occur even when it’s not rough or violent sexual activity
- ...can happen when one person is in a position of power and authority over the other like a priest or pastor, coach, or teacher
Human Trafficking & Sexual Exploitation
Sex trafficking is the exploitation of women and children, within national or across international borders, for the purposes of forced sex work. Commercial sexual exploitation includes pornography, prostitution and sex trafficking of women and girls, and usually involves exploiting a human being in exchange for goods or money. Each year, an estimated 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders - and additional numbers of women and girls are trafficked within countries. Canada is often a transit country. Some sex trafficking is highly visible, such as street prostitution. But, many trafficked victims are invisible and operate out of brothels, which can be in suburban neighborhoods, massage parlours, spas and strip clubs. Adult women make up the largest group of sex trafficking victims, followed by young women. A smaller percentage of men and boys are trafficked into the sex industry as well.
Impact & Coping Strategies
Child sexual abuse, or sexual abuse and violence as an adult, can have devastating and enduring impacts. People experience abuse in different ways, and even one-time incidents or seemingly less invasive acts can have profound impacts.
This can include feelings of powerlessness, grief, loss, shame, numbness of mind or body, anger, suspicion, depression, among many others.
Self-Blame & Self Hatred
Most survivors blame themselves and feel deep and debilitating shame and self-loathing. Internalized, this translates to feeling that they are unworthy of love and acceptance, that they’re responsible for the abuse, that if people really knew them they would run away, believe they must have deserved the abuse, and many other self- destructive thoughts. Accepting that a person was completely powerless is really difficult, so survivors may also blame themselves in order to believe that they had some kind of control over the situation.
Denial of Sexual Abuse
Some survivors have clear memories of the abuse while others suppress the memories until they are able to deal with them. It’s common for survivors to deny the abuse happened, especially if the perpetrator is a loved family member or a revered and trusted community member. Denial is also a coping mechanism that allows survivors to push the abuse down until they are strong enough to deal with it.
Minimization & Rationalization of Sexual Abuse
In addition to denial, survivors may minimize or rationalize the sexual abuse, in order to protect and help themselves cope with the intense emotional and psychological pain of the abuse.
Dissociation & PTSD
Dissociation is common with survivors especially in intimate situations following the abuse. Individuals may “check out” for a while and may not be present as a way of coping with intense or painful moments. Post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD - see description) is also experienced by many survivors of trauma, including sexual abuse. PTSD can include intrusive and painful memories, flashbacks, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Poor Personal Boundaries
Many survivors of sexual abuse and violence have poor personal boundaries as a result of having had theirs violated. This can result in survivors not knowing where their own boundaries are, what’s healthy and what’s not, how to protect themselves, how to say no, or in being overly willing to please. This can make people vulnerable to future abuse.
Problems Trusting Others
Trusting others is often challenging for survivors. They may be suspicious of the motives of others, be hyper-vigilant about body cues or what someone says. This can also be true in close relationships where it’s hard for the survivor to believe that they are safe and cared for.
Poor Body Image
As the body was the site of the abuse, in addition to flashbacks, many survivors can experience body memories of the abuse, which are deep seated and traumatizing. Survivors may also feel deep loathing for their bodies, especially if they experienced pleasure during the abuse. In addition, they may question their gender-identity if they were abused by someone of the same gender.
The use of drugs and alcohol to self- medicate and numb is common among survivors. Often, part of the healing journey for survivors is forgiving themselves for the ways that they’ve coped, including the use and misuse of substances, which can lead to addiction. For many survivors, drugs and alcohol help them to manage the intense pain of the aftermath of sexual abuse. With the right supports, survivors may be able to make different and healthier choices as they move along the healing path.
In addition to drugs and alcohol, some survivors find relief through self-harm. People self-harm to release overwhelming feelings and pain that they are unable to manage in other ways. By focusing on the feelings rather than the act of cutting or other self-harm, and helping survivors learn different coping strategies, they are often able to reduce or eliminate the need to self-harm. Most people who self-harm don’t intend to cause themselves serious injury and are not usually suicidal.
Another coping strategy for some survivors following abuse is frequent sexual encounters, which in some cases includes prostitution. Many survivors engage in multiple sexual interactions that may expose them to additional risk. One of the impacts of childhood sexual abuse may be the development of an unhealthy sexuality that equates sex with love, and some survivors may engage in compulsive sexual activity that leaves them feeling empty and alone. Survivors may also have poor personal boundaries, may believe their only value is as a sexual object, or may gain a sense of power in controlling another person sexually.
Sexual abuse can profoundly impact a survivor’s ability to experience deep intimacy with another person. Sometimes it may feel as though there’s always someone else in bed with you, and survivors may experience flashbacks, anxiety and panic in sexual situations. As well, men may experience problems with erections or ejaculation. Many survivors also have difficulty receiving pleasure from someone else, and may prefer to avoid sex completely, or may choose to masturbate rather than engage in intercourse. A loving partner can be a strong support for a survivor, and together they can work to create a safe space. However, this is often overwhelming and many partners may feel at a loss to know how to help the survivor. They may feel alone, and may need their own support. (See partners and families description and resource section for more information.)
Additional impacts can include insomnia and sleep disorders, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, headaches, stomach-aches, fear of going outside, fear of being alone, eating disorders, perfectionism, vaginal or pelvic pain, erection or ejaculatory issues, chronic physical complaints, among many others.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is common among sexual abuse survivors. People suffering from PTSD may:
- Re-live the event through intrusive and traumatic memories of the event, flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares and trouble sleeping. Survivors may experience heart pounding, rapid breathing, nausea, sweating, muscle tension or pain, and hyper-ventilation.
- Experience non-verbal body memories of the abuse. This can happen in many circumstances but especially during intimacy.
- Feel emotionally numb, or experience memory loss about people and events related to the trauma. Survivors may also avoid places, thoughts or feelings that remind them of the abuse.
- Experience memory loss, have trouble concentrating or focusing, and difficulty maintaining relationships
- Be hyper-vigilant and concerned for their safety, jumpy, easily startled, and irritable
- Feel depressed, isolated and alone, alienated from others, have difficulty trusting others, and may feel guilt or shame about the abuse.
PTSD has a physical cost as well. Survivors who experience PTSD over a prolonged period of time may have high blood pressure, lower energy, increased sensitivity to pain, light and noise, have digestive problems or headaches, in addition to heart disease and auto-immune disorders as a result of increased stress hormones and adrenal collapse. Survivors may choose to seek professional help with a doctor or psychologist and/or they may find support and relief through holistic practitioners like naturopaths, osteopaths, energy healers, or by practicing yoga or meditation, among others.
A promising therapy that many survivors have found effective is Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. EMDR is a powerful short-term therapy for treating PTSD for victims of sexual assault and abuse, military combat, accidents, and many other traumatic events. It uses a person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to subdue the power of emotionally charged memories of past trauma. Practitioners use different methods that can include asking the person to follow his or her fingers back and forth in front of their face while they recall a disturbing event. Sometimes therapists also use headphones with alternating sounds, paddles that transmit a mild electrical current in the person’s hands, or they may use hand or toe tapping. Before and after each EMDR treatment, the therapist will ask the survivor to rate their level of distress. The goal is to reduce the impact of the disturbing memories and negative association with the traumatic events, so that they will become less disabling.
How EMDR works is a bit of a mystery. Yet practitioners believe that it helps to relax the person’s memory, realign the brain, and allows negative thoughts and memories to be reprocessed into something more manageable and less traumatic. Some studies have suggested that when PTSD is caused by childhood trauma the results of EMDR are less substantial than with adult-onset trauma. However, many survivors of childhood sexual abuse have found EMDR successful in reducing symptoms of PTSD, and enabling them to manage their feelings and memories more effectively.