Why It Is Important for Adult Survivors of CSA to Disclose

Part two of a four-part series.

Posted Oct 24, 2019

This is part two of a series of four articles encouraging former victims of child sexual abuse to come forward to disclose the abuse. If you were sexually abused as a child or adolescent but have never told anyone about it, this series of articles is for you.

Step #1: Acknowledge the Abuse and the Damage It Caused

There are understandable reasons why you carry this secret, yet carrying it probably feels like a tremendous burden. You may want to tell someone, to get this secret off your chest, but you may be too afraid or too ashamed to do so.

Like many victims of childhood sexual abuse, you may blame yourself rather than the person who abused you, so you keep the abuse a secret. Even years later, when they have become adults, many former victims still dare not risk confiding in someone about what happened to them when they were a child. They are afraid of being judged, or not being believed, or in the case of males who were victimized, being seen as less of a man. And even though the abuse may have occurred many years ago, many former victims are still afraid of their perpetrator, who may have threatened to hurt them or someone they are close to. 

In addition to fear and shame, there is yet another reason why many victims of childhood sexual abuse don’t speak out: They are confused. Many children and adults are confused as to whether they were, in fact, sexually abused. Some make the assumption that if they were not penetrated they were not sexually abused. Those who were abused by a female perpetrator often don’t consider it sexual abuse. And many believe that if they experienced any pleasure it means that they were willing participants. Still others were told by the perpetrator that he or she was “teaching” them about sex and they believed it.

What Constitutes Child Sexual Abuse?

Many people think of childhood sexual abuse as being an adult molesting a child. But childhood sexual abuse also includes an older child molesting a younger child. In fact, child sexual abuse includes any contact between an adult and a child or an older child and a younger child for the purposes of sexual stimulation of either the child or the adult or older child and that results in sexual gratification for the older person. This can range from non-touching offenses, such as exhibitionism and child pornography, to fondling, penetration with a body part or an object, and child prostitution. A child does not have to be touched to be molested.

If you experienced any of these acts at the hands of an adult or an older child (at least two years older) you were sexually abused. It doesn’t matter whether it “felt good,” it doesn’t matter whether you feel you were a willing participant, the truth is you were sexually abused. As difficult as it can be to admit this to yourself, it is a vital step in your recovery. 

There are thousands upon thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse who have never reached out for the help they so desperately need. Many of these victims suffer emotionally every day from the devastating effects of the abuse.

If you are a former victim of child sexual abuse and have not received help for the trauma you likely experience these effects whether you are aware of them or not. These effects include: posttraumatic stress symptoms, depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, difficulty trusting others, negative self-image and low self-esteem, self-destructiveness (cutting, suicidal thoughts or attempts) violence directed toward others, eating disorders, sexual identity confusion, problematic sexual behavior and sexual dysfunction.

But the long-term consequences of CSA also extend beyond victims themselves to impact survivors’ interpersonal relations with significant individuals in their lives. For example, a number of studies suggest that CSA survivors’ intimate partner relationships are characterized by lower relationship satisfaction, more overall discord, an increased risk of domestic violence, a greater likelihood of separation or divorce and difficulties related to child rearing.

The primary damage caused to a child or adolescent when they are sexually violated in any way is shame. There is the shame that is created any time a person is victimized since the act of victimization causes a person to feel helpless and this helplessness creates a feeling of shame. There is the shame that comes when a child’s body is invaded in such an intimate way by an adult. There is the shame associated with being involved with something that the child knows is taboo, or as many children describe it, doing something that makes them feel “icky.” There is the shame that comes over a child when his or her body “betrays” her by responding to the touch of the perpetrator. And finally, there is the shame that comes when a perpetrator projects his or her shame onto the child.

Shame can damage a person’s self-image in ways that no other emotion can, causing them to feel deeply flawed, inferior, worthless, bad, and unlovable. If someone experiences enough shame, she or he can become so self-loathing that she becomes self-destructive or even suicidal. Here is a summary of how the shame associated with sexual violations can affect the victim:

  • Self-destructive behaviors (abusing your body with alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or too much or too little food, self-mutilation, or being accident-prone).
  • Self-sabotaging behaviors (starting fights with loves ones or sabotaging jobs).
  • Perfectionism (based on the fear of being caught in a mistake and being further shamed).
  • Constant self-criticism and self-blame.
  • Self-neglect.
  • Intense rage (frequent physical fights or road rage).
  • Acting out against society (breaking rules or laws).
  • Repeating the cycle of abuse through victim behavior and/or abusive behavior.
  • Repetition of the sexual violation (putting yourself in dangerous situations).

These issues can sometimes continue to plague former victims for years. If you experience any of these symptoms and you were sexually abused as a child, the chances are high that there may be a connection between the two. 

As if this isn’t enough, physicians and other health care providers are also aware of other little known effects of child sexual abuse including:

  • Chronic unexplained pain (e.g., headache, pelvic, back, muscular)
  • Unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms/distress
  • Disordered eating, obesity, or wide fluctuations in weight
  • Sleep disturbances (insomnia, hypersomnia)
  • Sexual problems (e.g. avoidance, many sexual partners, unsafe sex practices)
  • Self-harm behaviors and/or suicide ideations/attempts
  • Difficulties with child rearing
  • A tendency to sabotage your relationships and your success
  • Dissociative states (blanking out, long silences)

So you can see, there are many negative effects of child sexual abuse—all the more reason why you need to reach out for help. In the next article I will discuss Step Two of my three-step program: Acknowledge the damage caused by keeping the secret.         

References

Engel, Beverly. (2019). I'm Saying No! Standing Up Against Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, and Sexual Pressure. Berkeley, CA: She Write Press

Handbook on Sensitive Practice for Health Care Practitioners: Lessons from Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. (2019) www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services