What is sexual abuse?
You're probably careful around strangers. Adults have probably told you ever since you were a little kid about not taking candy or gifts from strangers, never getting into a car with someone you don't know, and maybe even what to do if a stranger tries to touch you inappropriately. You may hear about people on the news who are hurt sexually, such as in a rape or a kidnapping.
But what about when you're touched inappropriately, not by strangers, but by people you know—parents, stepparents, grandparents, coaches, teachers, camp counselors, or neighbors? This is known as sexual abuse.
The most extreme form of sexual abuse is rape, but there are other kinds of sexual abuse. Here are some examples:
- touching your private parts
- forcing you to touch someone else's private parts
- forcing you to wear sexy clothing
- asking you to pose for sexual pictures
- forcing you to have oral sex
- forcing objects inside your vagina or anus
- fondling or kissing you in a way that feels bad
- forcing you to watch people have sex
- showing you sexual movies
- saying sexual things
- forcing you to have enemas, genital exams, or other medical procedures that aren't really needed
- telling you that you are only good for sex
- ridiculing you about your body or your sexuality
You may be surprised to know that sexual abuse is usually not about sex. It is more about power and control. People who sexually abuse others are often insecure. They may have problems with drugs
and have troubled intimate relationships with other adults. They may even have been sexually abused themselves when they were young. But instead of getting help for these problems, they sexually abuse others as a way to feel powerful or to get revenge on others for their problems. back to top
What is incest?
When sexual abuse occurs within a family, it is called incest. Anyone can be a perpetrator of incest—fathers, stepfathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, mothers, stepmothers, sisters, and aunts. Studies show that almost half of all the young people who are sexually abused are abused by family members.
Incest is especially damaging for a person being abused because the abuser is probably a person she loves and respects. As one survivor of incest said: "My father, who was supposed to keep me safe from harm, was the harm." A victim of incest may be confused about the fact that a family member she spends time with every day also hurts her. She may wonder, "How can the same person who picks me up after school and takes me out for ice cream come into my bedroom at night and put his hands under my pajamas?" This can make it hard for her to trust her judgment about anything.
Sometimes a brother and sister do sexual things to comfort each other. This often happens in chaotic or abusive families. Afterward, the siblings involved feel a lot of confusion and shame. back to top
What if the abuse occurs outside the home?
Many girls (and boys) have been sexually abused by a coach, a teacher, a counselor, a religious leader, a family friend, a neighbor, or a complete stranger. This kind of abuse is just as frightening and just as serious as incest. You may have thought that you were developing a special relationship with one of these adults. Perhaps your coach was impressed with your athletic ability and gave you extra attention. Perhaps your teacher said you had great talent and encouraged you to take on special projects after school. And then, little by little, friendship turned into abuse. It can be hard to report such perpetrators because they are often charming and popular in the community. People may have a hard time believing that these adults behaved badly—especially if they have been respected as authority figures. Fortunately, more people are coming forward to report this kind of sexual abuse, and more abusers are being punished for their actions. back to top
Who is at risk?
Children who don't get the right kind of love and attention from their families are often needy and insecure. This insecurity can make a girl more likely to respond to a sexual abuser because that person may give her a lot of attention and promise her all kinds of things. Because she does not get the right kind of attention at home, she may have trouble telling the difference between "good" and "bad" attention.
Sexual abuse also happens in families that are socially isolated or ones in which one parent dominates the other. It often happens in families where other kinds of abuse are going on, like drug
abuse or domestic violence
A young person can also become more vulnerable to sexual abuse if one parent is physically or mentally ill, or if a girl is somehow separated from her family for a period of time. Incest is more likely to occur in households in which the mother was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. back to top
How common is it?
If you have been sexually abused, you are not alone. One out of three girls and one out of seven boys are sexually abused by the time they reach 18. Sexually abused teens come from every race, religion, and culture. They come from rich families and poor families. In at least 89 percent of sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the young person knows, loves, and trusts.
Studies show that girls are twice as likely as boys to be sexually abused. That may be partly due to the fact that boys don't feel as comfortable reporting sexual abuse. They may fear that other people will think they are weak or weird, even though they didn't do anything to cause the sexual abuse. Also, girls are more likely to be seen as sexual objects. back to top
What are the effects of sexual abuse?
The effects of sexual abuse can be devastating. Most survivors feel an enormous sense of guilt and shame. They may feel ashamed that they didn't fight off the perpetrator's sexual advances or that they let it go on for a long time without telling anyone.
You may blame yourself for being sexually abused. The abuser may tell you it's your fault or say confusing things like "You're so sexy, I can't keep my hands off you" or "You really want to be close to me, don't you?" In a strange way, blaming yourself may give you hope that you can somehow control the sexual abuse.
When you do tell someone, you may find yourself saying things like "But I'm the one who asked for the back rub" or "I climbed into his bed." It's important to remember that sexual abuse is never your fault. How you dress, talk, and act can't cause sexual abuse to happen—and changing those things won't make it stop either. The person abusing you has a serious problem and needs help. You don't have to defend his actions. The adult is supposed to be responsible and have better judgment.
If the abuse felt good, you may feel particularly ashamed. Remember that it is natural to have sexual feelings when you're touched in a sexual way. A girl who is sexually abused does not want to be abused. Her body simply does what bodies are supposed to do. Her body isn't betraying her. The abuser is.
Another common effect of sexual abuse is rage. While the abuse is happening, most victims feel pain and anger. But it's often hard to express that anger in words. So as time goes on, the anger gets repressed. It collects inside—eventually turning into rage. Some people turn that rage onto themselves, resulting in self-destructive behavior. Victims of sexual abuse often develop eating disorders
, injure themselves
, or abuse drugs
, or tobacco
. They often have anxiety, learning disabilities
, trouble sleeping, nightmares, and flashbacks. They may develop physical problems like genital pain or stomachaches.
Young people who are sexually abused are also three times more likely to become depressed
or suicidal. In one study, the risk of repeated suicide attempts was eight times greater for teens with a sexual abuse history.
Survivors of sexual abuse often have trouble trusting others. They may have trouble expressing affection and may see sex as potentially dangerous. Or they become sexually promiscuous. (Many prostitutes were victims of sexual abuse when they were young.) Victims of abuse also tend to find partners who abuse them. back to top
Why is it so hard to report the abuse?
If you are a victim of sexual abuse, it can be very difficult to turn in your abuser. If it's someone at home, you may love that person and find it tough to admit that the abuse actually happened. You may not want to risk losing the good parts of the relationship.
Many young people don't report abuse because they are afraid of breaking up their family or being sent to a foster home. It's also difficult for a young person to go against the authority of an adult, especially a parent. It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that the other parent in your household perhaps does not believe you or denies that the abuse is happening. We are told that our parents know best—and many times they do. Unfortunately, adult abusers do not know best.
Many victims of sexual abuse worry that no one will believe them. If they were told to keep the abuse a secret, they may be afraid of getting punished. This is because perpetrators often threaten to hurt the girl, or someone she loves, if she reports the abuse.
Sometimes, young people think that what happened to them isn't bad enough to qualify as abuse. They say things like "It wasn't incest. He was just a friend of the family." Or "It only happened once." Or "It was just my brother, and he was just a year older than me." Sometimes with brothers and sisters who are close in age, both siblings have initiated sexual contact, rather than one person holding power over the other. This can cause the same problems as other types of abuse and incest, but the solution is more about healing for both survivors than it is about punishing either of them. back to top
Can I ever recover?
You can definitely recover from sexual abuse, but it takes time and commitment. The first step to recovery is recognizing that you were abused. This can be hard to do because it often means giving up a relationship that may mean a lot to you. Facing what happened to you can make you feel angry, depressed, and sad. You may even feel a bit crazy at times. That's why you can't heal from sexual abuse alone. At least one person needs to know what happened to you. That person can be a friend, a fellow survivor, or a family member. A professional therapist
is probably best equipped to understand and to help you.
When you first tell someone that you were sexually abused, you may feel both scared and relieved. Sometimes, even with a person you trust, it takes a long time to be able to tell your story. Then you may wonder if you've done the right thing. It helps to start with the person you trust the most. Ask yourself:
- Does this person love and respect me?
- Have we been able to talk about personal things before?
- Does this person care about how I feel?
- Do I trust this person? Do I feel safe with this person?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then you may have found a supportive and trustworthy person to help you begin your healing.
You'll also need to make an appointment with a mental health professional. Both long- and short-term psychotherapy help victims of sexual abuse recover. But be patient. Sexual abuse and incest are serious stuff. The effects do not go away overnight.
Many victims of sexual abuse join support groups. Support groups are usually made up of people who have been through similar experiences and have the same sorts of problems. They meet on a regular basis—usually once a week—to share their own abuse stories and listen to the stories of others with similar experiences. Support groups often help victims realize that they are not alone. Talking about their pain, anger, and sadness helps them overcome some of the overwhelming shame and guilt that they feel. They can begin to enjoy life again, despite the abuse.
At some point, you may even want to confront your abuser. Together, you and your mental health professional can figure out if that's right for you and when you might be ready to take that risk. It's important to remember that your abuser may never own up to his or her behavior.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse and want to get help, go to the iEmily hotlines
page. back to top