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What is child sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse happens to children far more often than many people realise. A third of Rape Crisis service users in England and Wales are adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

Sexual abuse of a child by an adult or 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 okay 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.

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Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse are never to blame for the abuse that they experienced. 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility lies with the abuser or abusers.

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.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to child sexual abuse – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But, for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced child sexual abuse – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.