This article isn’t meant to make anyone paranoid. But recognizing the signs of abuse may help you heal and/or provide support to someone close to you.
Wouldn’t I remember it if I was abused?
Child-victims of sexual abuse often do not remember the experience. In fact having no memory of certain parts of your childhood is often an indicator trauma of some form took place.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimates that in the UK, almost one in four children (24.1%) experience sexual abuse. It’s a terrifying statistic, made more sobering considering that being sexually abused as a child can cause lifelong negative repercussions if victims do not find the support they need to heal.
What is sexual abuse?
It’s important to understand what qualifies as sexual abuse before dismissing an experience you might have had.
Sexual abuse does not have to be between a child and a ‘grownup’. It can, for example, be an older sibling who abuses you. Or it might have been a child of a similar age forcing you to do things against your will.
It is now recognized that sexual abuse does not even have to involve physicality to be extraordinarily damaging to a child and the future adult they will become.
Sexual abuse can can be any situation where a child is exploited for the sexual pleasure of another. Non-contact or ‘covert’ sexual abuse, can be things like an adult who constantly exposed their body to you, forced you to expose your body, showed you pornography, or an adult who constantly talked about sexual things to you.
Non-contact sexual abuse can be something like a child whose father always talks about her body being too sexual when she is going through puberty, or whose mother strips her and makes her stand naked in her room for hours as ‘punishment’ for ‘being bad’, can both result in the same symptoms of other forms of sexual abuse.
Psychoanalytical psychotherapy came up with the still popular idea that when things are too traumatic for the conscious brain they are delegated to the hidden ‘unconscious’ mind. Nowadays we understand the brain is not composed of clearly marked ‘closets’, and that trauma affects the brain in far more complicated ways.
Sexual abuse can cause many issues, not just in your behaviors, but in your relationships, your sex life, the way you treat yourself, personal identity, low self-esteem, stress management, it might be harder to reach goals or move forward in life. It can also cause long-term symptoms of trauma, similar to or including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Have I been sexually abused? Knowing the signs.
Healthy relationships tend to be very challenging if you experienced sexual abuse as a child.
Do you experience some of the following?
- Foggy thinking
- Memory loss around trauma
- More jumpy with noises and surprises than others
- Emotional outbursts
- Not liking certain places, situations, smells, sounds without knowing why
- Deep feelings of shame and guilt
- Fear of intimacy
- Trouble setting boundaries and saying no
- Fear of being alone
- Easily stressed by relationships
- Often overwhelmed by emotions
- Resentment and anger issues
Sexual abuse as a child can also really affect the way you approach sex.
Do you recognize yourself in the following?
- Promiscuity or, in some cases, fear or dislike sex
- Saying yes to sex you don’t even want (being a ‘pleaser’)
- Secretly not knowing what you really like sexually, confusion around your sexual identity
- Dissociation during sex, feeling like you ‘leave your body’
- Needing to escape into fantasy in order to enjoy sex
- Having sexual fantasies where you are abused or raped
- Constantly using sexual innuendo in conversations
You might also constantly attract relationships which ‘re-enact’ abuse. This can look like:
- Emotional abuse
- Attracting those with traits of narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
- Always playing the victim
Being sexually abused as a child or adolescent can lead to physical symptoms as well, or issues with your body. These can include:
- Constant low grade illnesses like cold or flue
- Unexplained medical symptoms
- Disconnected from your body, not knowing how you got bruises or high pain tolerance
- Feeling dirty all the time, like you can never get clean enough
- Feeling you can’t trust your body
The trauma of sexual abuse leads to many other psychological issues. Do you feel you might also suffer from some of the following?
- Anxiety/ social anxiety
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal thinking
- Low self-esteem
- Identity crisis
- Sexual problems
- Panic attacks
- OCD around cleanliness or self-care
And finally, sexual abuse is linked to the manifestation of certain personality disorders, in particular borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder.
Now I’m worried this might be me – what do I do?
The symptoms above are comprehensive, and many are also symptoms and signs of various other psychological issues. So the first thing to do is not to panic.
Unearthing previous trauma can lead to falling into a ‘vortex’ of research and worry. You can spend days or weeks in front of the computer or on forums and lose sight of the rest of your life. Try to stay balanced and practice good self-care until you can find support.
If you suspect you were sexually abused as a child, you might find yourself suddenly experiencing large waves of anger and fury. It is highly advised you don’t react by immediately contacting and accusing all the people who might have abused you.
You will be doing this from a vulnerable place, and can put yourself at risk of attack, psychological manipulation, and emotional abuse. You might even in the process alienate yourself from other family and friends whose support you count on.
Again, seek professional support first. A qualified mental health professional will help you process the experience and reach a more stable place. Then you will be better prepared to decide if, how, and when you will approach those involved.
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Source: Original, unedited article by Wade Harris. https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/were-you-sexually-abused-as-a-child.html. Accessed October 7, 2019.