How are sexual abuse adult survivors affected?
M. Elizabeth Ralston, PhD
Executive Director, Lowcountry Children's Center
The impact of child sexual abuse may be different for each individual. Certainly there are individuals who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse and have managed their victimization in a manner that has resulted in little negative impact. However, due to the fact that child sexual abuse happens to children and the offenders are usually powerful people in the child's life, the potential for negative effects is high. In addition, many victims creatively figure out how to survive the horror of childhood sexual abuse. The fact is whatever behavior or method a child uses to survive, the outcome is that they have survived. As the child victim grows up, sometimes the behaviors that they developed to survive as a child begin to get in the way of their adult functioning. For example, to manage the fear or pain of sexual abuse, a child may stop feeling. This survival behavior works for the child, but when the child grows up and is safe from sexual abuse, not feeling can become a problem as it limits the survivor's ability to fully experience their life. When you stop bad feelings, you also tend to stop good feelings. Survivors may want to seek treatment to undo their earlier survival behavior of not feeling and begin allowing themselves to experience their feelings.
Another example may be that the child avoids others due to not being able to trust. This may be a good survival behavior for the child who is being victimized, but if carried into adulthood limits the survivor's potential for emotional closeness with others.
Survivors who believed that the abuse was their fault may feel guilty and have a sense of not being okay as a person. Feeling negative and bad about oneself may result in feeling depressed and at the extreme may lead to thoughts of suicide. Feeling bad about oneself may also lead to negative behaviors that result in negative feedback from others. For example, if a survivor believes that they are bad, they may do bad things that causes others to tell them that they are bad. This may seem like an oversimplification, but individuals do act based on what they believe about themselves and those actions then reinforce what they believe.
Many survivors feel angry about being victimized. Children who are victimized often have little opportunity to learn how to identify or respond to their feelings of anger. They may be smart enough to know that exhibiting anger is not safe. This learning then interferes with the management of anger during adulthood. Survivors deserve to feel angry about being sexually abused. They also deserve to learn behaviors that allow them to express their anger in a manner that does not get them in trouble or does not harm them. For example, acting out anger by hitting others may put the survivor at risk with law enforcement. The survivor deserves to learn new behaviors such as how to verbally express anger that does not create risk.
Some victims believe that if they are perfect that no one will know that they have been sexually abused. Their effort to keep others from knowing of their victimization is usually in response to feeling that they will be blamed or shamed if others know. Although achieving and doing well may be a positive outcome of having been victimized, victims do not deserve to believe that their value is based only on their positive achievement.
Survivors may have tried to protect themselves by "getting away." This may have resulted in their actual running away or in the use of drugs or alcohol to "get away" from the reality of their abuse. These behaviors may have worked at some level for the victim, but may interfere with their life, which suggests a need to reevaluate
Survivors who feel like "damaged goods" may feel inadequate and not worthy of close relationships. Those who believe that the abuse was the result of their physical appearance may develop eating disorders or purposefully make themselves less attractive in an effort to protect themselves from the sex offender.
Survivors who were taught by the offender that sex was a way to get attention and be close may have learned to use sex as an adult. This may result in sexual promiscuity without emotional intimacy.
Whatever survival behaviors were developed by the child sexual abuse victim, survivors deserve to honor the fact that they have survived and deserve an opportunity to decide what of those behaviors they want to keep and what behaviors they may want to change. This process offers the survivor an opportunity to move into a more powerful proactive position in their life.