What is child sexual abuse?
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) happens more than many people realise. Around half of people who contact Rape Crisis Centres are adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse of a child by an adult - or sometimes by an older child - is an abuse of power and of trust.
As children, we look to adults and older children to help us figure out how to 'be' in the world, to show us what's OK and what's not. If a manipulative adult or older child abuses that trust and coerces a child into a sexual situation, maybe saying it is right or that something bad will happen if the child doesn't do as they're told, it is hard for the child to disobey, even when it causes them distress and confusion.
To figure out whether the actions of an adult or older child amount to sexual abuse, we need to understand the motivation behind the behaviour; watching a child in the bath, for example, is not necessarily sexually orientated or abusive. Also, sexual abuse has nothing to do with 'sex play', which often takes place between consenting same-age children as part of their learning experience.
It's quite common for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to experience a range of health and other difficulties. For example, survivors often go through:
- recurrent depression or anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and/or flashbacks
- feelings of anger, shame and/or worthlessness
- finding they cry a lot or find it difficult to show emotion
- disturbing thought patterns and intrusive memories
Survivors' feelings can also reveal themselves in physical symptoms, unexplained illnesses and so on.
Some people find relief by self-harming, including cutting or burning themselves, neglecting their own needs and health or drinking and/or smoking too much.
Other common responses to experiences of childhood sexual abuse include:
- feeling sick or afraid at the sound of the abuser's voice or a similar voice
- having memories of the abuse, fear and trauma triggered by particular objects, places, TV programmes, smells etc.
- feeling confused about what happened, only remembering bits of what happened or remembering it all in vivid detail
- shame, guilt and blaming yourself over what happened
If you have been sexually abused as a child you might recognise some of these effects in your own life. You might even feel mixed emotions about seeing all these possible effects written down.
However you feel childhood sexual abuse might have affected your life, whatever feelings you have about the abuse you’ve experienced, they are all valid and there is support available for you.