Sexual Abuse Survivors

Do Victims of Sexual Abuse Survive?

Almost every day we hear about a new case of celebrity sexual abuse. Is this because of things like the #MeToo movement… people feel more comfortable talking about these issues, or is there an overall increase in individual cases? The experts are divided. In a story by Kristy Totten of Nevada Public Radio it was reported that:

Daniele Dreitzer, the executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, told KNPR’s State of Nevada said, “We’re not seeing evidence that this is a result of more assaults happening. We really do believe that it is more people feeling comfortable speaking out.”

Dreitzer said more people are coming forward with their own experience or are calling to ask how to help family and friends. She attributes the rise in calls to people breaking their silence through the Me Too movement and the change in the national conversation about sexual violence.

“More people are recognizing I think that in some cases may be an experience they had that they didn’t necessarily identify as being sexual violence maybe was,” she said.

Here are some common myths about sexual abuse:

  • MYTH: Sexual abuse only occurs to women. In fact, both men and women can be perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse.
  • MYTH: Sexual abuse always occurs between strangers. In fact, most victims of sexual abuse actually know or are related to their perpetrator.
  • MYTH: Sexual abuse is always violent. In fact, many acts of sexual abuse are not violent, but all people have the right to decide what they want to do and what they do not want to do sexually.
  • MYTH: Sexual abuse occurs most often in same-sex relationships. In fact, sexual abuse occurs in both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.
  • MYTH: Sexual Abuse always involves physical contact. In fact, sexual abuse may not involve any physical contact at all and can include such behaviors as repeatedly using sexual insults to other people, spying on someone, spreading explicit sexts, ogling or leering, suggestive comments, etc.

Just as myths abound about sexual abuse, many people who have been sexually abused develop several critical misconceptions about themselves and their value as human beings.

  • “I’m damaged goods now.” Many survivors feel that the abuse has made them sexually inadequate or inferior to other people. They often feel as if they can never get their adequacy back.
  • “I’m a sexual object.” Many survivors have lost their sexual identity due to the abuse and believe
  • that they must either please others, or see themselves as easily controlled by others.
  • “Bad things happen to bad people. I must be bad.” Many survivors believe this about themselves and think they deserved this abuse. This is not true. Bad things sometimes happen to good people.
  • “I am dirty.” Many survivors cannot push the feeling of being dirty out of their mind and/or body.
  • “I’m a bad person.” “I deserved it.” “No one will ever want or love me.” “I should have known.”

Many survivors experience feelings of guilt and shame. Consequently, they feel like they are worthless and unlovable. Although all of these conclusions are not true, they can cause tremendous mental, emotional, and physical damage. They represent a negative self-concept and can be extremely demeaning to the survivor. If these notions continue, survivors need to see a mental health and/or medical professional.

Common Reactions of Adults Who have Been Abused

As sexual abuse becomes a bigger problem for people on all levels of society, it is important to make note of the specific symptoms people may be experiencing or exhibiting. Because many of the symptoms tend to stay with survivors throughout their lives, it is important to acknowledge these symptoms as survivors work to recover and heal. People who have been abused may exhibit many of the following symptoms:

AngerHatred of bodySexual addiction
Boundary issuesHelplessnessShame
ConfusionInability to control feelingsSuicidal thoughts
DepressionIsolation from PeopleTrust issues
Detachment while having sexLack of interrest in sexUnable to enjoy sex
Disturbing sexual thoughtsLow self-esteemUnrealistic expectations of self
Eating disorderNegative view of sexUnusual response when being touched
EmbarrassmentPanic attacksVictim thinking
Empty feelingPoor self-acceptance
FearProblems with rage and anger
Fear of a physical examRelationship issues
Feeling worthless or “dirty”Sadness

In order to heal and thrive after being sexually abused, people need support, trust, and understanding as they begin their healing journey.

Special Safety Considerations When Working with Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Your professional skills and familiarity with your participants is crucial. Emphasize that participants are survivors. Skills that helped in the past may help now, in addition to new strategies. They are already working toward recovery by attending this session. Reassure participants about their safety, their control, and their empowerment.

Emphasize the following:

  • They decide what to disclose, when, and how, (through writing, drawing, etc.).
  • Their privacy is respected: sharing is voluntary, and what is said in session stays in session.
  • No one must stay in the room or be forced to participate.
  • They may stop, take a break, or request a different activity, etc., if they feel overwhelmed.

Discuss and legitimize concerns. Telling too much too soon can be overwhelming. A slower pace may be safer. People may have told them “It’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. Explain that emotional reactions are unique to each person, and reactions may range from numbness to panic. Discuss that cultural factors affect responses to abuse and to attitudes toward seeking help. Alternate between coping skills activities and trauma-related work. Plan to end each session with deep breathing, guided imagery, or another relaxation technique. Allow people to select their seats (some may want to be near an exit, etc.). Opt for the maximum distance between seats for privacy and personal space preferences. Prepare participants for exposure to others’ emotions, disclosures and sexual content. Tell people to share if they feel uncomfortable or need a time-out from an intense situation. Ask whether the majority of participants prefer brighter or dimmer lighting.

Safety Plans

Encourage group participants to request private sessions as needed. Emphasize the importance of telling the facilitator if anyone has thoughts of violence or self-harm. Create a climate of collaboration. Demonstrate that facilitators are partners in the recovery process, not authority figures.

Encourage peers to support each other by engaging in these ways:

  • Sharing thoughts and feelings within their comfort zone.
  • Modeling coping skills.
  • Asking for help.
  • Demonstrating self-care and assertiveness.
  • Setting boundaries, e.g., what one will and won’t disclose to the group.
  • Reinforce resiliency by assisting participants to achieve these goals:
  • Develop a support system of people, places, and resources that promote recovery.
  • Help others.
  • Focus on strengths.
  • Recall positive experiences.
  • Gain perspective through spirituality, religion, higher power, peace in nature, etc.
  • Nurture hope for a healthy future.

These worksheets will help your clients begin to verbalize and explore their experiences. Click here for printable versions.

The information above was excerpted from Coping with Sexual Abuse by Ester R.A. Leutenberg and John J. Liptak, EdD.

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