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Sexual abuse, or sexual violence, describes any type of sexual activity that is unwanted. There are many different types of abuse, including those we’re more familiar with (such as rape and child sexual abuse) and those we may be less aware of (like female genital mutilation and sexual exploitation).
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, at any stage of their lives. No one ever deserves it or ‘asks for it’. On this page we will look at how being abused in this way can make you feel, the power of talking and how to look after your mental health.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse happens when someone is forced or pressured into taking part in any type of sexual activity. This includes being forced to have sex (rape), being sent sexual messages/images against your will (sexting) or being touched in a sexual way without your permission (sexual assault).
This type of abuse can also involve being forced to have sex with someone in return for money (sexual exploitation), being bullied in a sexual way (sexual harassment) or being forced to take part in ritual abuse (female genital mutilation).
If you’ve experienced sexual violence, you may feel very alone. But in reality, this is not the case. There are thousands of people who have gone through similar experiences and there is a huge amount of support out there.
The most important thing is to speak up and not to suffer in silence.
Giving consent means giving permission to someone. Sexual abuse takes place when consent is not given. According to the law, a person consents to sexual activity if they:
- agree by choice
- have the capacity to make that choice
What you were doing, how you were dressed and whether or not you were under the influence of drugs/alcohol does not matter - if you did not give consent, or did not have the capacity to, you were abused. And this is not your fault.
If you said yes because you were scared for your safety (or someone else’s safety), it wasn’t your fault. If you didn’t say the word ‘no’ or couldn’t speak through shock, it wasn’t your fault. If you were unconscious through alcohol/drugs, it wasn’t your fault.
You're a survivor because every day you make a choice not to be governed by their harsh words or actions. No one has the right to take away your happiness.
- Assunta Harris, A Sheep Amongst Wolves.
How being abused can make you feel
Experiencing sexual violence can lead to a number of different emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may experience some (or all) of the following:
Numb - The shock and trauma of sexual abuse can make you feel numb to it. You may find yourself feeling strangely calm, or simply unable to process what has happened.
Guilty - You may be telling yourself that it was your fault, even though it wasn’t.
Angry - Feeling anger is common, you may feel anger at the person who did this to you, or even at yourself.
Ashamed - You may feel embarrassed and ashamed about what happened, even though it was not your fault and totally out of your control.
Depressed - You may lose your enjoyment of life, feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to anymore.
Anxious - Activities you used to do without a second thought may now make you feel anxious, like going out alone.
Additionally, sexual abuse or violence can have a profound effect on a survivor’s attitude towards sex. You may find that you have become very conflicted after the event. It is normal for your attitude towards sexual encounters to turn one of two ways:
- becoming hyper-sexual or
- suffering from sexual anorexia (avoidance)
It’s important to recognise that your attitude towards sex, following abuse, is not bad or immoral. You may have a lot of inner hurt and pain that is implicating your thoughts and behaviours towards sex. But recovery and healing is possible, and you won’t feel this way forever.
Sexual abuse and motherhood
Pregnancy and birth can be a particularly tricky time for sexual assault and abuse survivors. This is a time when women are usually expected to be full of joy and anticipation, however, survivors can find they experience painful and difficult feelings related to the assaults and abuse.
Counsellor Jo Baker shares her advice for expectant mothers, following sexual assault or abuse.
The power of talking
Many people find rape and other forms of sexual abuse difficult to talk about. It’s a dark subject that we, as a society, can shy away from. Shying away from subjects like this however only contributes to myths and misinformation about sex abuse. It can also make survivors of sex abuse worried about speaking up.
The more we talk about what’s happening, and the more we spread messages of support and awareness, the more we can fight against this. By doing this we can also encourage survivors to talk about what happened to them.
We’re big believers in the power of talking - whether it’s with a friend or family member, with a support group or with a professional.
I still battle with PTSD but am able to cope much better since I started counselling. I'm able to finally start to put down the guilt, shame and self-blame that has haunted me for years.
- Sue shares how counselling has helped her to deal with her abusive past.
Looking after your mental health
It’s normal for your mental health to be affected if you are the victim of sexual abuse. It is a traumatising experience that often requires support to come to terms with. Looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health.
For many, speaking to a counsellor helps. Counsellors who help survivors are trained to help with the psychological effects of sexual violence. This may include low confidence levels, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You can speak to a counsellor at any time - even if you experienced sexual abuse many years ago. Some people live with the effects of an event that happened in their childhood, especially if they didn’t (or couldn’t) seek support when it happened. Talking about these effects with a professional can help you process past emotions.
Just remember, whatever your situation is - you are not alone.
Sexual abuse in men
While it’s not as common (or perhaps, as commonly reported), sexual abuse happens to men too. Unfortunately, many men find it difficult to talk about, especially if they have been abused by a woman. They may worry that they aren’t going to be believed or that they don’t deserve support. This is not true.
Everyone’s experience is so unique, but I would encourage all boys and men to talk more. Don’t man up – speak up.
- Phil speaks up for other boys and men who’ve been abused.
If you’ve been abused, reach out. If you’re not ready to talk to someone, you know you can speak to a counsellor. There are also resources and support groups online that are set up specifically to help male survivors of sex abuse, including:
Child sex abuse
When sexual abuse happens in childhood, it is known as child sex abuse. Under this umbrella, there are two types of abuse, contact abuse (when an abuser makes physical contact with a child) and non-contact abuse (when non-touching activities take place like exploitation or being shown pornography).
In the UK, one in 20 children has been sexually abused. Understandably, this can have a huge impact on the child’s mental health and well-being. To find out more about child sex abuse, including keeping your child safe and getting support, we recommend visiting dedicated support networks like the NSPCC and Childline.
What to do if you’ve just been abused
If you’ve just been sexually abused, try to remember that it is not your fault and that you are not alone. The Rape Crisis website has some advice about what to do immediately after being abused, including how to report it to the police.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Currently, there are no official rules or regulations that stipulate what level of training a counsellor supporting sexual abuse survivors needs. However, there are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors that can improve their knowledge of this area.
With this in mind, where possible it is always recommended that you check to see if they have had further training in matters of sexual abuse.
Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing counsellors dealing with sexual abuse.
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