Sexual abuse describes any type of unwanted sexual activity. It can happen in person or online, at home or at school, and can be with someone you know, a stranger, or even a family member or partner.
Victims may be forced, pressurised or tricked into taking part. Examples of sexual abuse range from rape and sexual assault to sexting, from domestic abuse to seeing someone exposing themselves.
How does sexual abuse affect people?
“The effects on survivors are huge and impactful,” says our member Jayne Booth. "Victims may experience a range of feelings and emotions such as anger, shame and guilt."
The abuse often takes place over a period of time, and can be accompanied by physical, psychological or emotional abuse. Most perpetrators are known to their victim.
“There’s often a period of grooming,” says Jayne. “There’ll be nice treatment; buying things for the victim, being kind and attentive and gradually building trust. The perpetrator will ingratiate themselves into the family and become indispensable - the go to person for the victim.”
Once the abuse begins there may be threats to the victim’s safety and to family members. Victims will be undermined and told they won’t be believed. They may be isolated from family, friends and sources of support, allowing the perpetrator to gain further control.
“The grooming process changes the physiology of the brain,” Jayne says. “It changes how a person thinks and erodes their core beliefs. The victim may believe they’re to blame which may make it difficult for them to seek help - indeed perpetrators often state victims want the sexual activities.”
What are the signs someone is being or has been abused?
Signs can be difficult to spot, but there are several things to look out for says Jayne. Victims often disengage from their normal life and routines. Any change in behaviour over an extended period, or deterioration in mental wellness, needs to be noticed.
“They may become angry or aggressive,“ adds Jayne, "or withdrawn and distant from family and friends.
"Perpetrators may use the support network as a way of controlling victims, so they may become afraid of what the perpetrator may do or say. By distancing themselves, they’ll feel able to protect family and friends."
How do you cope with past abuse?
“Survivors do cope with past abuse” says Jayne. “They find many ways to manage day to day.
“However, they’re dealing with traumatic memories, which aren't processed in the same way as regular memories. They can pop up when least expected through flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. It will be as if they’re going through the trauma again - it will feel real.”
Survivors may seek coping strategies to manage their pain, which can be physical, psychological and emotional. Some of these can be unhealthy.
"It may be self-harm, drugs, alcohol, food - anything which may help them manage the pain of what's happened," says Jayne.
"Sexual abuse might also lead to dissociation, where survivors don’t connect with the trauma so they don't have to deal with it."
How do you overcome the trauma of abuse?
“Slowly,” says Jayne. “There needs to be time and space to explore how the survivor feels about all of this.
“It may be beneficial to join survivors’ groups. Knowing you’re not alone can be powerful, especially when the perpetrator uses isolation to groom the victim.”
How can therapy help survivors of sexual abuse?
Survivors of sexual abuse can find it difficult to talk about their experiences. They may be scared about speaking up, nervous about whether they will be heard, or worried they’ll be judged.
Jayne says: “Counselling is a wonderful way to heal. It’s a safe space where there is no judgment, a non-oppressive environment to just be.
“Often abuse is silent, the victim does not have a voice. In therapy, the survivor can use their voice in any way they wish. It can help them heal by validating every feeling they may experience, even the difficult ones such as love for their abuser."
Some survivors may never speak of the abuse but work on coping strategies. Therapy can help them learn how to manage the panic attacks and deal with the nightmares or flashbacks.
“It’s where a survivor can rebuild their self and explore their identity to become more than a victim,” says Jayne.
More about sexual abuse
What is counselling?
Find out how counselling works, what therapists do and what happens in a therapy session.
How to get therapy
Where and how you can get access to counselling and psychotherapy, including free and paid for services
Get help for someone else
How to offer support and where to get advice.