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childhood sexual abuse

It is beginning to be acknowledged that Childhood Sexual Abuse happens far more frequently than most people believed, or previously wanted to believe. Around 65% of women that contact rape crisis centres are adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse involves an abuse of power and an abuse of trust - the abuser being an adult, or sometimes, an older child.

As children we look to adults and older children for guidance about how to 'be' in the world, to show us what is acceptable and what is wrong. If a manipulative adult /older child abuses that trust and coerces a child into a sexual situation, possibly saying it is right, or that something bad will happen if the child does not do as they are told, it is hard, if not impossible for the child to disobey even when it results in distress and confusion in the child's mind. 'Grooming' a child is common practice amongst abusers who will spend time and effort insidiously compelling a child to do as she or he is told. Often bribes or threats are used to maintain compliance.

In determining whether the actions of an adult or older child can be defined as sexual abuse, it is necessary to understand the intention and motivation behind the behaviour - watching a child in the bath is not necessarily sexually orientated or abusive. Also, sexual abuse has nothing to do with 'sex play', which can often be indulged in quite normally by consenting same age children, and is a part of their learning experience.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse it is possible that you will be feeling recurrent depression or anxiety; you may suffer panic attacks, phobias and/or flashbacks. Maybe you are filled with anger and shame and/or feel worthless. You cry a lot or you find it difficult to show emotion. Perhaps you suffer from disturbing thought patterns and intrusive memories, and your feelings reveal themselves in physical symptoms, unexplained illnesses - maybe you find relief by self-harming - cutting or burning yourself, neglecting your needs or drinking too much. Feeling sick or afraid when you hear the abuser's voice or a similar voice, seeing an object or place that reminds you of the abuse, feeling confused about what happened, remembering only parts of what happened or remembering it in vivid detail, blaming yourself for what happened are all common responses to childhood sexual abuse.

If you have been sexually abused as a child you may recognise that you experience some of the effects mentioned above. Maybe it feels quite frightening to see all the possible ways that you may have been affected written down. Whatever those effects are, there are also ways of improving your life that you can benefit from. It is important to understand that however you have been affected, and whatever your feelings about the abuse, it is OK to feel whatever you do - your feelings are individual and normal.

It is also important to believe that it is never the fault of the child when they have been abused - the blame and guilt always lie with the abuser.

Abuse thrives on secrecy, and speaking out and acknowledging what happened to you is a very important part of healing. Some survivors find it easier to speak to people over the phone to begin with; others find it helpful to read books on the subject - reading the testimonies of other survivors can help you to feel less isolated.

As a first step you could try talking through your options with a rape crisis worker on our helpline. You are in control of the call, and can decide what you do or do not want to disclose. It may help you to be clear in your own mind how you want to proceed with your healing. It is completely confidential.

There are several stages in the process of healing including acknowledging what happened to you, breaking the silence, believing that you were not to blame, living through and integrating the feelings of grief, pain and anger and, maybe if it feels right for you, confronting your abuser. It is hard work and it takes time and it may be painful, but eventually you will reach what is known as the stage of resolution, where, at last, you will be free to move on and concentrate on the present and your aspirations for the future.

Childhood Sexual Abuse (reproduced by kind permission of Croydon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre)