The Long Term Devastating Effects of Sexual Abuse Young Survivors

Over the past few years there have been numerous stories, articles, revelations of rapes, and other sexual abuses on very young girls. This trend continues unabated.  It has almost begun to feel uncomfortably and perversely as if it is the norm and as with other forms of violence against women, that it is just the way things are. But as we have seen from  the me too movement, things can and do change if there is sufficient will by the people I have written about this topic a few times as have other colleagues. As we talk about the act of abuse I feel it is imperative that we also focus on the real impact on the survivors i.e. the psychological, psycho sexual impact. It is topic that needs to be addressed on a regular basis because it continues to happen on a regular basis and people need to be aware of the impact it has on the victims. I am convinced people don’t really understand the totality of losses involved in the savagery of the act. A survivor’s emotions, behaviour, sexuality, attitudes and spirituality are all damaged. For many of the clients I see, sometimes the aftermath of their experiences is their reason for seeking therapy even though their presenting problem may be quite different. I am sharing just one of the many letters I receive on a regular basis on this topic.

Dear Aunty Gloria,

 I am in my fourties now. I have been through 2 marriages and several relationships that have all collapsed. I have always thought I just was not one of those people who had the luck of sustaining a successful union. After my last relationship ended, I decided I had had enough and I was not going to attempt to have any further relationships. I am well educated and relatively successful professionally. I would consider myself a catch for any man but I could never keep one.

The most incredible thing happened to me a short while ago reading one of your articles. I suddenly recalled two of my uncles and a nephew sexually abusing me from the ages of 8 to 14. I was horrified at the memory. I thought I had imagined it and it was just a waking nightmare. Once the thoughts came into my mind, I remembered so many of the things that happened around that time. I decided to verify the memory by asking family members about the relatives and the things I remembered of the things going on at the time. Everything was confirmed.  I could not believe that nothing was done to support me and to punish the relatives. I was so angry I started drinking to get rid of the thoughts and to deal with the anger. My mother had passed so I couldn’t confront her about I; that left me feeling very angry because I was sure she must have known. It suddenly made sense why I was taken out of school and sent abroad very suddenly. I didn’t understand it and why I felt I was being treated differently to my siblings

I started to understand why I have been unable to feel trust or safe with any man. I have problems with all relationships. Even with female friends, I just cannot trust anyone. I went through a period with my husband’s where I was physically unable to enjoy intimacy. I would just go through the actions like a robot and it affected all my relationships with men. I just thought I was one of those women who didn’t enjoy sex.

The more I read your articles, the more I understood more about myself and when I travelled abroad for 3 months I decided to get professional help. I went to see a therapist and I made a break through. I have returned back home now and I was reading your column I was thinking that the issue of child sex abuse is quite rampant in our country and we don’t really pay enough attention to it. I think the work you are doing in your column is fantastic and I would be honoured to meet you.

Name with held

The survivors of sexual abuse have borne many losses. Some may be more obvious than others. Many report feeling ‘different’ from other people as if the abusive relationship sets them apart from others. Right from the beginning of the abuse the victim undergoes a crisis of identity and an ultimate loss of a sense of being normal or like being like everybody else. Another obvious loss is the loss of innocence. Survivors of sexual abuse are caught in a very complex and bewildering situation where they are trying to cope with adult experiences and feelings but only having the resources of childhood. They are not actually catapulted into true adulthood as may be thought, with its mature understandings and motivations. Instead, survivors of sexual abuse are caught in a no man’s land where they are confronted with events that they are not equipped to deal with.

The loss of innocence in childhood sexual abuse is physical as well as emotional and has repercussions at every level. Survivors tend to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them for anyone to have treated them in that way. Sometimes this belief is deeply buried and may resurface in self destructive behaviours such as eating disorders, drugs and alcohol abuse. Others may engage in promiscuity, become suicidal, or may find huge difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships. What is clear is the devastation sexual abuse causes to every aspect of a person’s attitude and life.

One way in which our psyche protects us is by repressing or denying truths or events which it would be unbearable to acknowledge. If in the right environment, feeling safe and contained, maybe with a counsellor or a trusted person, tiny fragments of memories of abuse might begin to surface.

Most people will assume that the abuse victim’s strongest feelings of betrayal and exploitation would be towards the perpetrator. However from what the majority of my clients say, the strongest sense of outrage is directed towards the mother. Whether the mother is seen as having a direct part to play in the abuse or of turning a blind eye or remaining ignorant, survivors feel  the mother had failed at performing her vital role of  creating and maintaining a secure environment for her child. Obviously in the cases where the mother is the perpetrator, the effect on the victim is almost overwhelming.

For some survivors of sexual abuse, loss is a continuing experience. Though sexual abuse is generally thought of as something occurring in infancy or childhood, it is a perfectly valid term for unwanted sexual contact at any age. Victims of rape, sexual harassment in the work place, or sexual brutality within marriage could all be described as having been sexually abused. Their self esteem usually deteriorates, and they feel sullied. Rape victims sometimes develop fears such as going out alone, and women abused by their partners can find satisfying, loving relationships hard to achieve or sustain. All these have their parallels in childhood sexual abuse.

The impact and ramifications on survivors of childhood sexual abuse vary, particularly because of the age at which the abuse occurs. The sense of powerlessness and of intimidation or menace, while quite real for an adult victim of rape, loom even larger for a child, who has far fewer resources and coping strategies.

It is useful for family members or those around survivors of sexual abuse to bear in mind common psychological processes such as transference (Where a person transfers an emotion meant for one person on to another). It is also important not to minimise the awfulness of sexual abuse, or to turn away from survivors or to try to deny how they are feeling. It is important that they feel able to express how they feel and for them to be validated. We must break the cycle of abuse and people need to have the confidence to fight through the secret and silence of these terrible acts. If you have a similar story you can share I invite you to send in your letters in confidence and also welcome any comments to the readers’ stories.



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One Response to The Long Term Devastating Effects of Sexual Abuse Young Survivors

  1. Femi Diipo February 4, 2019 at 11:16 am

    Sexual abuse and harassment is a menace that we all need to work together and rid our society of. None of us can be truly safe as long as we have these perpetrators among us and our girl child and women are not safe.
    It is very saddening when one hear these stories and I really always pray that all those who are responsible for this abominable act are made to pay severely for their grave actions.
    To those who have been a victim, may the lord continue to keep you strong


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