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Surviving sexual abuse (young women)

Abuse; sexual; sexual abuse; incest; assault; sexual assault;

Contents

Sexual abuse is a serious crime and can have many short and long term effects on a victim/survivor. The effects of sexual abuse are not the same for every person, individuals may feel varied emotions that can depend on their own circumstances. The abuse may have happened a long time ago or be more recent.

This topic will explore feelings related to abuse and offer ideas that can help towards healing. It is important to acknowledge that both women and men may be abused.  For information about sexual abuse of young men see our topic Surviving sexual abuse (young men).

If you are currently at risk or in a situation of abuse and live in South Australia, you can call Police Attendance on 131 444  or 000 for immediate assistance..

Other resources:

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

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 you for sexual pleasure.

Sexual abuse of children and young people includes 

  • Having parts of your body touched in a sexual way.
  • Being kissed inappropriately which made you feel uncomfortable.
  • Being told to touch parts of your own body.
  • Making you touch parts of his or her body.
  • Masturbation (watching him/her touch his/her own body).
  • Being forced to act or model for pornographic purposes.
  • Being watched whilst showering or changing.
  • Putting any objects (including his penis and fingers) in the vagina, anus or mouth.
  • Making you have sex, or do sexual things with, or touch other people.
  • Saying sexual comments and suggestions to you.

The crime and the law

It is important to acknowledge that if you are a victim/survivor of sexual abuse then you are a victim of a crime. When people sexually abuse others they know what they are doing and that it is against the law.  If you wish to report a situation of abuse you can contact the Police.

In South Australia, if you wish to report a situation of abuse you can contact the Police Sexual Crime Investigation Branch on 8207 5800 (business hours) in Adelaide for support and information about the reporting process and the legal steps after this. You will be able to speak to a female Police Officer.

You can ask for support even if it is many years ago that you were abused.

What are the effects?

The effects of sexual abuse can vary a great deal between survivors, but it is important to remember that you could be reminded of the abuse in many different ways and at different times, and often this is out of your control. There are no time limits on how long you may feel the effects of sexual abuse.

If you have access to support, and to assistance that you find supportive, it will not take the past away but may lessen the negative effects and help you to develop more coping skills. Choose someone you feel completely comfortable with who respects you and listens to you.

It is helpful to understand the effects of the abuse so that you do not blame yourself. The offender or perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for all of the effects you experience. Following are some things that you might relate to.

Relationships

The abuse may have been perpetrated by someone you knew, making you feel unsure and afraid of trusting again. It may have been someone you were in a relationship with.

Stop and look around and you may find other people who you have relationships with who have never betrayed your trust. This may be teachers, friends, counsellors, or family members. The abuse need not mean that you will never trust again, but trust grows slowly and you may need help.

Poor Self Perception

When you have been sexually abused, someone has taken away your human rights and choices that may have left you feeling like it doesn't matter what you think. Your self esteem or perception of yourself may have changed and would be different from that of someone who has not experienced such trauma.

But remember! You have survived a distressing experience and have great inner strength and courage. Spending time thinking about this and all of the other good things about yourself will really help to undo the damage caused by the abuser. A counsellor or close friend may be able to spend the time with you recognising your strengths and re-building positive feelings about yourself.

Nightmares or Flashbacks

A terrible effect or reminder of the abuse is having nightmares. It is common to have nightmares, and sometimes memories as painful as abuse will only come back while you are in a dream state.

If you feel like nightmares are controlling you, then it can be helpful to take control back. When you wake up from a distressing nightmare, you may find it helpful to go over in your head what happened and then to change the way the story goes. It is your turn to tell the story. If you are dreaming that someone is chasing you, imagine that you turn around and start chasing the person back until you succeed. Be as creative as you like, this can help to release some anger too!

Triggers

Triggers can affect you in a similar way to nightmares. They can be little or big things (places, music, smells, rooms, clothes) that remind you of the abuse. Mostly they are unpredictable, sometimes you do not even know the things that will trigger a memory until they do, and so they can feel out of control. Being "triggered" into a memory does not mean that you are not coping.

Memories are unavoidable, but better managed if you can talk to someone. Think of ideas of how to avoid the things that trigger the memories (if possible) and how to cope if you do get sudden flashes of painful memory.

What am I feeling?

As there can be so many negative effects from sexual abuse, your emotions can have a difficult time dealing with so much at once. Again, you may not have the same feelings as someone else who has been abused, but there are some emotions commonly felt by survivors.

Fear

You may have felt a very strong sense of fear at the time of the abuse. You may have felt afraid about what was happening to you and your body, you may have been in fear of severe physical violence if you resisted. You may have been forced to keep the abuse secret (possibly with threats, bribes, manipulation and physical force). You may not have spoken out in order to protect yourself, fearing that you would be at more risk if the offender found out that you reported it or told someone.

If you are not sure or comfortable about reporting, that is okay, you will not be forced to if you see a counsellor, but talking to a friend or counsellor may help you feel supported.

Anger

Anger is a very powerful feeling that needs an outlet. You may feel angry toward the abuser who has taken so much from you. You may feel angry toward yourself thinking that you should have been able to stop it from happening.

You should never blame yourself, remember you are a victim of a crime someone committed against you!

It is good to release anger, but make sure it doesn't involve hurting yourself, other people or any property (this may have consequences you don't want).

Try doing something creative or energetic, going for a run or walk, or yelling, or telling someone about it.

Isolation

Although sexual abuse is common, people who have been abused often feel alone and isolated. Feeling 'different' can make you fearful of telling someone about the abuse.

Find a person who you feel comfortable with, whom you can trust. You may wish to talk to a counsellor or attend a group and meet other young people who have had similar experiences. Knowing that there are other people you can relate to may help you to not feel so isolated.

Sadness

The crimes committed against you have taken many of your choices away. You may feel sad for the invasion into your privacy, the childhood you did not get to enjoy because of what happened to you, for your loss of rights and for asking the question "why did this have to happen to me?"

If this sadness makes you feel tearful and like crying, then you should go ahead. This is your body's way of saying it needs to release some pretty strong emotions so let it go! You may need some extra tissues around this time, but it can feel a whole lot better than keeping these feelings inside.

Guilt

Guilt is a feeling some people have during or after a sexually abusive situation, even though there doesn't seem to be any reason to feel guilty. The offender should feel guilty, not you. The offender is responsible for these feelings you are having. If the abuser has told you that the abuse is your fault, this is not the case. If you are feeling guilty then the abuse will still be living strongly within you and it is important to change this. You may be asking yourself questions which are unfair to you and shift the blame away from the perpetrator.

If you can relate to some of these questions then a good friend or counsellor may be able to help.

  • "We have been going out for a few months, maybe it was fair"
  • "I should have seen the signs earlier and stopped going to see him"
  • "Could I have put up more of a fight?"
  • "Was I wearing the wrong thing?"
  • "Should I have walked home that way?"

Confused

Don't you think that with all those emotions that it is natural to feel confused? You may even still love the abuser or not know what to think.

Do not be hard on yourself for feeling confused, it is a very common feeling coming from a mixture of many different feeling.

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.

On the road again to healing your self esteem

Many young people who are survivors of sexual abuse have started on their own healing journey towards improved self esteem. Although what happened to you can never be undone, you can heal yourself and feel good about yourself. Helping yourself might include confiding to a friend you trust, re-discovering yourself, perhaps writing about what happened to you (the good and the bad parts) and doing what you need to take care of your body.

It is time to get back in contact with the 'real' you. Get to know yourself again, put what you need as number one priority. Here are some things you could ask yourself as you get 'on the road again' 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 in 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?
  • Maybe I'd like to read some books on self esteem or coping with sexual abuse?

Sex and sexual relationships

As a survivor of sexual abuse, you have had someone else make decisions about your sexuality and take power over this. This may make you feel very confused about sexuality and intimacy, because what should now be positive was negative for you. You may have mixed feelings if you are presented with a decision about sexual intimacy.

  • You may find that you go numb during sex, completely blocking out what is going on, as you may have done in the past to protect yourself.
  • Avoiding sex altogether is common, because of fear.
  • You may need to set very clear sexual boundaries with a partner who will respect you and your level of comfort.
  • You may be targeted by people who see you as vulnerable. Your experience may have left you feeling like you should satisfy other people's sexual needs. This is not the case but it may be caused by your difficulty in not caring for yourself or your body.
  • Flashbacks of the abuse may occur when you are intimate with someone, triggered by a place, type of touching and so on. Try to work out what triggers the flashbacks and make some changes.
  • You may find difficulty trusting someone enough to become intimate.

Finding difficulty becoming physically intimate is a natural reaction because in the past it has not been a positive experience. You have been hurt in your body (and your heart) by the abuse. You may redevelop trust with someone who is not using power over you and when you are making choices which are supportive of your safety and comfort levels. Again, you may wish to have the support of someone to talk with about this, in a safe and confidential environment.

Pregnancy and childbirth

You may find that you have

  • Concerns about whether you might lose your pregnancy because your body has been damaged by the abuse.
  • Worries about loss of control over your body during the pregnancy.
  • Concerns about putting on weight.
  • Concerns about whether your unborn child is a boy or a girl.

You may not want to have a male doctor or midwife because a man was responsible for the childhood sexual abuse (or a woman if relevant).

Vaginal examinations may be uncomfortable and traumatic. To help you feel more comfortable and in control of your body ask questions of your doctor or midwife, so that you know what is happening and why.

Research has shown that birthing is the most likely time for problems to occur. Some women have experienced extreme distress, flashbacks or a feeling of not being present (sometimes called dissociation).

To read more have a look at the topic Survivors of child sexual abuse on the Pregnancy part of this website.

Helping someone

Telling someone else about a personal experience of being sexually abused is one of the most difficult things to do and shows a great deal of trust.  This is a compliment to you because you have obviously made your friend feel safe enough to do so.  It may also make you feel uncomfortable! You may feel that it is too difficult for you to talk about or you don't know what to say. Some of the following points suggest ways that you can support someone who has disclosed sexual abuse and also support yourself.

  • Make it clear that you believe the survivor and listen. Don't expect your friend to tell you everything about the experience to prove that it is true.
  • Acknowledge what has happened, and the feelings associated with it.
  • Don't ask prying questions out of curiosity but as much as possible show care, support and interest.  Listening may be the best thing you can do.
  • Encourage your friend to get support to help with the feelings and what is happening.
  • Be open to helping in any way your friend wishes, do not pressure.
  • Do not expect any particular behaviour from her, different people deal with things in different ways.
  • Don't make judgements or support the abuser.
  • Don't put pressure on yourself thinking that you must come up with all the answers for your friend's complex issues. Sometimes just simple ideas can help the most.
  • Reassure your friend that surviving a huge trauma means that he/she must have great courage.

Resources

South Australia

General 

Further reading

Fergus L, Keel M, 'Adult victims/survivors of childhood sexual assault' Australian Centre for the study of sexual assault 2005
http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/wrap/w1.html

Holden T 'It's still not my shame' 2002 Women's Health Statewide (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

Yarrow Place 'The rights of survivors of rape and sexual assault' Booklet  

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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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