Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience an array of overwhelming and intense feelings. These may include feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. Abusers have been known to tell children that it is the fault of the child that they are abused, shifting the blame away from the abuser, where it belongs, and placing it on the child. Along with this, abusers may threaten or bribe the child into not speaking up; convincing the child that he or she will never be believed.i The reaction of a survivor’s friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, same and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it.

While each individual’s experiences and reactions are unique, there are some responses to child sexual abuse that are common to many survivors:—i

  • Low self-esteem or self-hatred
  • Survivors may suffer from depression
  • Guilt, shame and blame
    • Survivors may feel guilt or shame because they made no direct attempt to stop the abuse or because they experienced physical pleasure
  • Sleep disturbances / dblue ribbonisorders
    • Survivors may have trouble sleeping because of the trauma, anxiety or may directly be related to the experience they had as a child; children may be sexually abused in their own beds.
  • Lack of trust for anyone
    • Many survivors were betrayed by the very people they are dependent upon (family, teachers etc.) who cared for them, who insisted they loved them even while abusing them; learning to trust can be extremely difficult under these circumstances.
    • 93% of victims under the age of 18 know their attacker.—-ii
  • Revictimization
    • Many survivors as adults find themselves in abusive, dangerous situations or relationships.
    • Woman who were sexually assaulted before the age of 18 [are] twice as likely to report being raped as adults.—-iii
  • Flashbacks
    • Many survivors re-experience the sexual abuse as if it were occurring at that moment, usually accompanied by visual images of the abuse. These flashes of images are often triggered by an event, action, or even a smell that is reminiscent of the sexual abuse of the abuser.
  • Dissociation
    • Many survivors go through a process where the mind distances itself from the experience because it is too much for the psyche to process at the time. This loss of connection with thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of identity, is a coping mechanism and may affect aspects of a survivor’s functioning.
  • Sexuality / Intimacy
    • Many survivors have to deal with the fact that their first sexual encounter was a result of abuse. Such memories may interfere with the survivor’s ability to engage in sexual relationships, which may bring about feelings of fright, frustration, or being ashamed.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often adopt coping mechanisms (or survival strategies) to guards against feelings of terror and helplessness that they may have felt as a child. These past feelings can still have influence over the life and present behavior of an adult survivor. Here are some common coping mechanismsi:

  • Grieving / Mourning
    • Many things were — childhood experiences, trust, innocence, relationships with family members. The survivor may feel a deep sadness, jealousy, anger or longing for something never had.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
    • The abuse of substances can act as an escape from the intense waves of feelings, the terror and helplessness.
  • Disordered Eating / Eating Disorders
    • Compulsive control of food intake can be a way of taking back control over the body that was denied during the abuse.
  • Self-injury
    • There are many ways survivors have coped with the feelings that can cause emotional or physical injury on the self. Burning or cutting are some ways for a survivor to relieve intense anxiety, triggered by memories of the abuse

 

Treatment—i
In most instances, the survivor never discussed the abuse with others while it was occurring. In fact, many survivors do not remember the abuse until years after it has occurred, and may never be able to clearly recall it. Usually, after being triggered by a memory, this individual learns how, as an adult, to deal with the effects of the abuse.

It is important to speak with someone, whether it be a friend or counselor, about the abuse and past and current feelings.

Community health centers, mental health clinics and family service centers may have counselors who have worked with survivors before. They may also be able to refer you to a self-help group.

If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.

i—Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dr. Carol Boulware, MFT, Ph.D. 2006.http://www.psychotherapist.net/adultsurvivors.html

ii—-U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement. 2000.

iiiExtent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice. 2006. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij

 

This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-K023 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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Male Sexual Assault

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Can men be sexually assaulted?

Men and boys are often the victims of the crimes of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape. In fact, in the U.S., about 10% of all victims are male.1

The term sexual assault refers to a number of different crimes, ranging from unwanted sexual touching to forced penetration.

Male survivors and others affected by sexual violence can receive free, confidential, live help through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, 24/7. Call 1.800.656.HOPE to be connected to a local rape crisis center in your area, or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline to get live help in an instant-messaging format.

Support

Although it can be difficult for male survivors to seek help for fear of how others will react, there are support resources available. Survivors can receive live help through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, 24/7.

Sometimes male survivors find it easier to first tell an anonymous hotline staffer rather than a loved one. This allows the survivor to speak to someone who is impartial and trained to listen and help. Many male survivors find that talking to the hotline first makes it easier to tell friends and family later.

What concerns do male survivors have when seeking support for a sexual assault?

Safety

Often, perpetrators use force or threats to prevent a survivor from seeking help. RAINN has tips and resources to help survivors stay safe. In addition, survivors can find local sexual assault service providers here on RAINN’s website. These organizations may be able to offer additional safety options and support in their local communities. The hotlines are also available to educate survivors about the resources available (1-800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org).

Privacy

Sexual assault is a very personal crime. Many survivors do not wish to share what happened to them publicly and fear that disclosing or reporting the attack may require them to talk publicly about their assault. There are several ways to learn more about recovery and resources anonymously by using the National Sexual Assault Hotlines (1-800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org), which are free and confidential.

Self-blame

Male survivors may blame themselves for the assault, believing they were not ‘strong enough’ to fight off the perpetrator. Many are confused by the fact that they became physically aroused during the attack, despite the assault or abuse they endured. However, these normal physiological responses do not in any way imply that the victim ‘wanted’ or ‘liked’ the assault.

Is it normal to feel this way?

While not every male survivor of sexual assault reacts in the same way, many reactions are quite common. If left untreated, these effects can have a long-term impact on a survivor’s well-being.

What are some possible effects of sexual assault on a male survivor?

Psychological

  • Sense of self and concept of “reality” are disrupted.
  • Profound anxiety, depression, fearfulness.
  • Concern about sexual orientation.
  • Development of phobias related to the assault setting.
  • Fear of the worst happening and having a sense of a shortened future.
  • Withdrawal from interpersonal contact and a heightened sense of alienation.
  • Stress-induced reactions (problems sleeping, increased startle response, being unable to relax).
  • Psychological outcomes can be severe for men because men are socialized to believe that they are immune to sexual assault and because societal reactions to these assaults can be more isolating.

Heterosexual Male Survivors

  • May experience a fear that the assault will make them gay.
  • May feel that they are “less of a man.”

Homosexual Male Survivors

  • May feel the crime is “punishment” for their sexual orientation.
  • May worry that the assault affected their sexual orientation.
  • May fear they were targeted because they are gay. This fear may lead to withdrawal from the community.
  • May develop self-loathing related to their sexual orientation.

Relationships / Intimacy

  • Relationships may be disrupted by the assault.
  • Relationships may be disrupted by others’ reactions to the assault, such as a lack of belief/support.
  • Relationships may be disrupted by the survivor’s reaction to or coping with the assault.

Emotional

  • Anger about the assault, leading to outward- and inward-focused hostility.
  • Avoidance of emotions or emotional situations, stemming from the overwhelming feelings that come with surviving a sexual assault.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing any of the thoughts or feelings listed above, please contact The National Sexual Assault Hotline, either online or by phone at 1-800-656-HOPE to speak with a trained staffer.

Other Organizations

Survivors of military sexual assault can receive help via the Department of Defense(DoD) Safe Helpline, a groundbreaking crisis support service for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault. The service is anonymous, secure, and available 24/7 to the worldwide DoD community — providing victims with the help they need, anytime, anywhere.

Learn more about the laws in your state through RAINN’s state database.

References
  1. This section was adapted from materials provided by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.