Sexual abuse survivors, form a large proportion of people seeking counselling or psychotherapy. Sexual abuse is not only a physically abusive act but also a betrayal of trust, by an adult who is in both a position of authority and a protector of the child, but who chooses to take advantage of this position. A child’s innocence is destroyed by the very person that they would have expected to protect them and the effects on the child are both traumatic and long-lasting. In order to survive, in many cases memories are literally pushed from their conscious minds and in some cases the child may have been so young that memories are mostly pre-visual.
Survivors of sexual abuse, both adults and children, often suffer from long term effects, especially if the abuse was over a long period of time or committed by a close family member / person in a position of perceived authority.
Some of the most common effects are :
- Excessive control: Survivors may become control freaks or need to be the controlling partner in any relationship in order to manage their high levels of anxiety.
- Shame: This can lead to many other problems including a deep sense of inferiority and inadequacy, a belief that they are a flawed human being.
- Difficulty in sustaining relationships: Because sexual abuse occurs in a context that includes both emotional and sexual intimacy, a combination that resembles healthy adult relationships, survivors often lack skills in sustaining intimate relationships as adults.
- Sexual dysfunctions: Survivors may experience a range of sexual problems, including decreased sexual desire, increased sexual dysfunction and a tendency to have multiple short term sexual relationships.
- Flashbacks and intrusive memories: These can be so intrusive into the survivor’s personal life that they may interfere with their ability to function on a day to day basis.
- Eating disorders and Substance Abuse: Substance abuse, whether it is drugs, alcohol or food, serves to numb the pain sufficiently for the survivor to cope with day to day life.
- Dissociative reactions: This is a psychological defence mechanism employed to keep traumatic memories from conscious awareness. Due to the severity of the childhood trauma, ‘alters’ may develop to carry the memory and the pain which can remain unknown to the main personality.
- Self-mutilation: Children who are abused often feel that a major jolt to their body, by self inflicted pain, can reduce their emotional pain. Repetitive self injury is not seen as a suicidal gesture but one aimed at reducing overwhelming emotional pain.
- Depression and anxiety: Survivors often have an inability to self nurture and statistically have a five times higher life time risk of major depression, than the rest of the population. Generalised anxiety disorders and phobias are also more likely to occur in incest survivors.
Sexual abuse survivors may not even remember the abuse happening or may completely repress it until many years later, when a new period of stress in their lives may induce flashbacks or memories and lead them to seek trauma counselling.