What is it?
Sexual abuse can be anything from an unwanted comment to non-consensual penetrative sex. It can be a derogatory comment shouted by someone on the street, someone groping you in a club or bar, anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or sexualised. We are often so surrounded by these behaviours that we forget that they are assaults.
I remember being in secondary school and being taught that I should walk with my keys in my hands, that I shouldn’t wear my hair in a ponytail as it is easy to grab, that I should carry a rape alarm. Young people, girls especially, are taught so much about how to avoid being sexually abused, that it almost becomes second nature.
According to Rape Crisis, nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted each year in England and Wales. This is an overwhelming number. Nearly half a million people every year!
How can it affect you?
Anyone can be the victim of sexual abuse and anyone can also be the perpetrator. It is a complete myth that we can tell if someone is a threat to us. Literally anyone could be a perpetrator; a stranger, family member, friend, partner, teacher, colleague, employer, and so on. In terms of childhood sexual abuse, the perpetrator could be an adult but it could also be another child.
Sexual abuse of any kind can have lasting effects. I am lucky in that I have never been overtly sexually abused, but I have been cat-called in the streets and I have been unwantedly groped on nights out.
Because of these, I do always carry my keys when I am walking alone (one key sticking out between two of my fingers so that it could hurt someone if I was attacked – just like I was taught as a teenager), I choose what I am going to wear carefully, and I have a tendency to become hyperaware when a stranger talks to me on a night out.
These are thoughts that almost come as second nature to me, and probably to many women and girls, and I am someone who has never experienced overt sexual abuse or assault.
The Effects of Sexual Assault
So, let’s have a think about what it could do to someone who has experienced this.
Someone who has experienced sexual abuse in the past might become withdrawn, avoiding meeting new people, shying away from friends and family members, missing school or work.
They might experience depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, self-blame, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or urges, drug and alcohol problems and so on.
Many people who have experienced sexual abuse find that they blame themselves. “If only I hadn’t gone into that room.”, “I should have been in bed – not wondering the house at night”, “I should have been able to stop it”, “I shouldn’t have worn a skirt”.
Self-blame, shame and guilt are massive problems in the aftermath of a sexual assault, especially in the case of childhood sexual assault. I have heard many experiences from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and so many of these survivors blame themselves.
However, what they forget to do is see themselves as a child. They were a child when the abuse happened and yet they are looking back at their experience of sexual abuse as an adult and thinking “why couldn’t I stop them?”. Oftentimes, they were a child being assaulted by an adult – it is very difficult for a child to physically stop and adult from doing something.
The most basic self-care might go out the window for someone who has experienced sexual abuse. They might stop showering, eating properly, exercising, and so on. They might ultimately suffer from an eating disorder.
These might be the result of a depression that could develop in the aftermath of a sexual assault, or they could be the results of an effort, conscious or subconscious, to make themselves unattractive to potential future perpetrators.
Lack of Trust
Someone who has experienced sexual abuse, in childhood or adulthood, may lose the ability to trust themselves and others. They might no longer be able to trust their gut instincts, and it takes some time to re-build this. They might no longer be able to trust the intentions of others and again, this takes a lot of time to re-build.
Relationships are therefore likely to be a struggle in the aftermath of a sexual assault or sexual abuse. Intimacy might feel repulsive and you might feel unable to open up to the other person.
What can you do?
There are plenty of things that you can do to help yourself during your recovery from sexual abuse.
The first and most important thing that I would suggest is to talk to someone, whether it’s a friend, peer, or professional. I will list some resources and ways of reaching out below.
I know that many people do find it difficult to talk about their experience, but if you find the right place to do so, please consider it.
I can’t tell you how many clients have shared their experiences with me after 10, 20, even 50 years, and have said that they wished they had shared it sooner. But remember, only share with someone if you feel comfortable enough to do so.
If you are seeing a counsellor and you don’t feel comfortable sharing your experience with them, it might be that the relationship hasn't had time to develop yet, or it might be time to start looking for another counsellor.
So, there are a number of other things that you can do to help yourself along this journey.
1. Look at your ‘shoulds’ – when we talk or think, it is important to pay attention to when we say the word ‘should’. This word is a signal that you should stop and evaluate why you are doing what you are doing. A very common thought after a sexual assault is “I should be over this by now”. It is a complete myth that there is a timeline for recovery. Everyone recovers at their own pace and it cannot be rushed. So, pay attention to your ‘shoulds’ and find out if they are coming from within or from the opinions of others.
2. Anticipate setbacks – recovery from any traumatic incident is very rarely a smooth journey, and it is important not to be discouraged by setbacks. Pay attention to what triggers set backs, flashbacks, and panic attacks. If you can figure out what is triggering these, you can then avoid them or try to work through them with a therapist.
3. Learn to self-soothe – you might want to learn about mindfulness, meditations, yoga, or to focus your breathing. Similarly you might want to take up self-defence, boxing, or something to relieve your anger. Try to find out what would calm your mind and soothe you the best – it might be a combination of relaxation techniques, relieving anger, and feeling empowered and able to protect yourself.
4. Stay connected – It is important to try not to isolate yourself. Try to stay in touch with friends and family. They might not understand what you are going through, but if they are trying to help or understand, it will be worth staying connected to them in the long run – even if their current efforts to help aren’t doing much for you. Try explaining to them what would help you, or that what they are doing isn’t helpful right now. It might be that you want to meet other survivors of sexual assault and abuse. To do this you might need to reach out online or join a support group, talking to others who have been through similar experiences can be helpful as we feel less alone, however it is important not to compare your recovery to others – recovery is different for everyone and comparisons can deflate us when we need empowering.
5. Nurture yourself – focus on yourself and creating a safe environment for yourself. Try to remove negative input from your life, whether its TV shows, social media account, magazines and so on. Fill your life with things that are likely to impact you positively. You might want to read books on self-development, or follow the Instagram accounts of someone who has been through a sexual abuse and come out the other side. Whatever it may be, try to focus on building the positives and breaking away from the negatives.
6. Re-frame – it is often important to reframe how we are thinking about things. I once spoke to an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse whose only goal was to be able to have sexual relations with a man without hating him. After quite a few sessions, this goal was reframed as ‘having sexual relations with a man only when I want to.’ Re-frame how you see your recovery, how you see your relationships with others, and how you see yourself if necessary.
Where can you find help?
If you wanted to find a private counsellor, you can search on websites such as the Counselling Directory, BACP, or simply search google for a counsellor in your area.
As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below is a list of websites and resources that I have compiled, but it is not extensive and all-encompassing. However, many of these websites also contain their own lists of other resources. It might be work checking with your GP as there might be some free counselling services in your area that you can access through the NHS. If you are a student, it might be worth checking with your student counselling service.
- Aurora Foundation: http://www.aurorafoundation.org.uk/links
- Life Centre: https://lifecentre.uk.com
- Rape Crisis Scotland: https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/publications/?cat=12
- Rape Crisis: https://rapecrisis.org.uk
- Survivor’s Network: http://survivorsnetwork.org.uk/content/resources
- Survivors: https://www.survivorsuk.org
- The Bridge: https://www.thebridgecanhelp.org.uk
- The Harbour Centre: http://www.theharbourcentre.co.uk/information-resources/z-support-services
- The Survivors Trust: http://thesurvivorstrust.org/find-support/
- Women’s Support Project: http://www.womenssupportproject.co.uk/content/rapeandsexualassault/176,172/
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