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Surviving sexual abuse

sex; sexual; abuse; assault; rape;

Contents

Sexual abuse is a serious crime and can have many short and long term effects on a victim or survivor. The effects of sexual abuse are not the same for every person. People may feel a variety of emotions that depend on their own circumstances.

If you are currently at risk or in a situation of abuse and live in South Australia, you can call 131 444 for Police assistance.

For further assistance in South Australia you can call:

In other states and countries call your local crisis service or police service.

You can ask for help from these services even if the abuse happened some time ago.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal and/or emotional. It is an abuse of power and often of trust by someone who uses another person for his or her own sexual pleasure. Sexual assault refers to any unwanted actions that are of a sexual nature that make the victim feel frightened or hurt them in some way.

What kinds of things are sexual abuse?

Everyone has the right to feel safe all the time. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, then it could be sexual abuse.

So, what might be happening? It could involve:

  • having parts of your body touched in a sexual way
  • being kissed inappropriately, in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • being told to touch parts of your own body
  • being made to touch parts of another person's body
  • being made to watch someone masturbate or touch their own body in a sexual way
  • being made, by coercion or physical force, to act or model for pornographic purposes, or to watch pornographic material
  • being watched while showering or changing
  • putting objects (including penis and fingers) in the anus or mouth, and for young women, the vagina
  • making you have sex, or do sexual things with other people (rape)
  • making sexual comments and suggestions to you
  • sending sexual comments or suggestions to you via SMS or email.

Sexual abuse, sexual assault and the law

Sexual assault, rape and sexual abuse are illegal. The law says that if you did not freely agree to any sexual acts, then you have not said 'yes'. Legally you can only agree to sexual acts if you are over 17 years old.

It is not OK for someone to offer money, favours or gifts to try and get you to do sexual things that you do not want to do. It is not OK for someone to blackmail you, use physical force or threaten you or people you care about, to get you to do something which makes you feel uncomfortable or makes you feel bad about yourself.

When people sexually abuse others, they know what they are doing and they should know that it is against the law.

Who abuses young people?

The commonly held stereotype of a sexual abuser is that of an old man in a raincoat hanging around in parks. The reality is that most sexual abuse is done by people known to the victims. Men and women who sexually abuse young people are of many different ages and appearances.

No person, male or female, young or old, has the right to make any young person do sexual things they would not have freely chosen to do.

You have the right to say NO.

< a>you keep yourself safe?

Remember that everyone has the right to feel safe all the time.

When you were in primary school, you probably did some lessons with your teacher about keeping yourself safe.

As a class you probably spent some time thinking about 'what you could do if…' in lots of different situations, and then wrote down and sorted through ideas about how to keep safe and help you sort out the problem.

The last things you would have learnt were:

  1. telling someone about your problem was the first step to solving it.
  2. to tell and keep on telling until something is done.

Coming forward - why is it hard to tell?

Some young people feel that if they disclose (tell someone about what happened) they will be harshly judged by those around them. Sometimes they feel like they are to blame in some way. Often the abuser will say things like, "He/she was asking for it by wearing clothes like that, or behaving like that", or "She/he made me think it was OK".

No one can make anyone think sexual abuse is OK. People choose what they want to think or do.

What is important is to remember that sexual abuse is an abuse of power and it is not your fault.

People who abuse may use tactics to stop you telling anybody about what has happened to you. Some of these may include the following:

  • making threats of violence to you or your family
  • giving you gifts, money or favours to keep you from telling anybody
  • making friends with your family
  • convincing you that it was your fault
  • convincing you that it will be bad for you and your family if you tell someone
  • threatening that you will lose your job
  • threatening to send or post information about you (including photos of you) on the Internet
  • sending threatening text messages.

Not telling anybody when something happened does not mean that you are weak or stupid, that you wanted it, or that you could have stopped it. It may have been the safest option for you at the time. But when you are ready, it does help to tell a trusted person about what has happened - this person may be able to protect you in the future, or help you to come to terms with what has happened.

What are the effects?

The effects of sexual abuse can vary a great deal. You could be reminded of the abuse in many different ways and at different times, and often this might feel out of your control. Even if you have access to help that you find supportive, it will not take the past away, but may lessen the long term negative effects and help you to develop more coping skills. Choose someone you feel completely comfortable with, who respects you and listens to you, to help you through this very difficult time.

Relationships

  • The abuse may have been perpetrated by someone you knew, making you feel unsure and afraid of trusting anyone again.

Poor self-perception

  • Your self-esteem or view of yourself may have changed, and would be different to that of someone who has not experienced such trauma. You may feel really bad and lose confidence in yourself.

Nightmares or flashbacks

  • It is common to experience nightmares, and for memories of what happened to come at unpredictable times. Things such as places, smells, rooms, or clothes can remind you or trigger memories of the abuse.
  • The topic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may be useful if you have these sorts of feelings.

Sexual abuse also puts people at risk of sexually transmitted infections, and for girls, an unwanted pregnancy.

What am I feeling?

As there can be so many effects from sexual abuse, you can have a difficult time emotionally dealing with so much at once. You may believe that the abuse has not affected you, but then you might feel emotions that you can't explain, or have sudden mood swings.

Fear

  • You may have felt a very strong sense of fear at the time of the abuse because of the abuser.
  • You may not have spoken out in order to protect yourself, fearing that you would be at more risk if the abuser found out that you reported it or told someone.

Anger

  • You may feel angry toward the abuser who has done this to you.
  • You may feel angry toward yourself, thinking that you should have been able to stop it from happening.

Isolation

  • Although many people experience sexual abuse, it is common to feel alone and isolated since most people do not talk about it.
  • Knowing that there are other people you can relate to may help you to not feel so isolated.

Sadness

  • You may feel sad about the invasion into your privacy, and for the loss of your rights.

Guilt

  • Guilt is a terrible emotion to feel during or after a sexually abusive situation, and must be reversed.
  • The abuser should feel guilty, not you. Abuse of any form is about power, not about sex.
  • If you are feeling guilty, then the abuse will still be living strongly within you and it is important to change this. A counsellor may be able to help, and a good friend can be helpful too.

Confused

  • With all those emotions, it might be fair to feel confused. If the abuser was someone you were once close to, you may even still feel love for them, or not know what to think.
  • Do not be hard on yourself for feeling confused. Remember, you are a survivor.

What if I felt like I enjoyed it?

Some young people worry because their bodies may appear to become sexually aroused by what is happening to them, even though it frightens them. This is a physical reaction and it is your body's way of coping with the situation. This does not mean that you wanted or enjoyed the abuse.

Will I become an abuser too?

Often in the media they make it seem that young people who are sexually abused go on to become abusers themselves. This is not true and the link between the two is in no way proven. You have a choice about whether this is true for you. There is no reason to believe that if you have been abused you will become a perpetrator of abuse in the future. You have control over your life and can make choices based on what is right for you.

On the road again to healing your self-esteem

It is time to get back in contact with the 'real' you. Get to know yourself again. Put what you want as a high priority.

Here are some things you could ask yourself as you get 'on the road' to healing your self-esteem:

  • What things do I like to do?
  • Who is a good person to talk to when I need it?
  • What things do I value or believe in?
  • What is my personality like? How would someone describe me?
  • What am I good at? (Talking, reading, playing tennis, being messy?)
  • Do I want to talk to a counsellor?
  • Would I like to join a support group?
  • Do I want to read some books on self-esteem or sexual abuse?

Helping someone

If someone you know has decided to tell you that they have survived sexual abuse, chances are it was one of the most difficult things they have ever had to do, and that they trust you heaps! It may also freak you out! You may feel that it is too difficult for you to talk about, or you don't know what to say.

  • Make sure they know you believe them.
  • Listen to what they say, and do not expect them to tell you everything about the experience to prove that what they are saying is true.
  • Acknowledge what has happened, what they are saying and what they are feeling.
  • Encourage them to seek support, but don't pressure them.
  • Be open to helping them but be clear with each other about what you can and cannot do.
  • Don't put pressure on yourself thinking that you must come up with solutions for your friend's complex issues.
  • Reassure the person that he or she has survived a huge trauma and therefore is a strong and courageous person. Acknowledge the courage it has taken to talk to you.

If you are worried and don't know what to do to help your friend, it may be a good idea for you to talk to one of your trusted adults or ring any of the numbers listed on this page.

It is not a good idea to talk to other friends in your group. How would you feel if someone told your other friends about something you had said in confidence?

Sex and sexual relationships

Being subjected to sexual abuse can get you feeling very confused about the whole idea of sexuality and intimacy. You may feel a variety of emotions if you are presented with making a decision about sexual intimacy. You may find difficulty trusting someone enough to become intimate. It would probably be helpful to talk with a counsellor about this.

Does this mean I'm gay?

A common misconception is that if a young man is sexually abused by a man, it means that you become sexually attracted to men. Being attracted to other men is not related to whether or not you were sexually abused by men. Being same-sex attracted is about love and forming positive relationships. Being raped or abused does not need to impact on whether you are attracted to men or women.

Yarrow Place student project information booklet

The Yarrow Place Rape and Sexual Assault Service (South Australia) has published a booklet which contains a lot of information about rape and sexual assault, including the law, rights of survivors of rape and sexual assault, recovering from rape and sexual assault, impacts of sexual abuse and myths and facts.

There is also information on their site about:

Resources

South Australia

Australia

Further reading 

Australian Institute for Family Studi es - National Child Protection Clearinghouse
http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/ 

Australian Centre for studies of sexual assault and rape 
http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/ 

Holden T 'It's still not my shame' 2002 Women's Health Service (South Australia)
http://www.whs.sa.gov.au/pub/Its_still_not_my_shame_report.pdf

South East Centre Against Sexual Assault Australia 'Working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse'
http://www.secasa.com.au/index.php/workers/50/133

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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