To begin with, "sexual abuse" is the term that is often used when referring to child victims or others who experience unwanted and repeated or long-term sexual behaviour. The term "sexual assault" generally refers to the particular act of unwanted sexual behaviour. For general purposes, either term may be used to name what has happened to you or someone you know.
Sexual abuse/assault happens to boys. It happens to girls. It happens to teens, women, and men. It happens to babies, elderly people, and to those who are handicapped. Sexual abuse/assault happens in every possible gender combination -- male to female, male to male, female to female, and female to male. Sexual abuse/assault occurs in isolation, one person abusing one person, and it also occurs in groups -- more than one person abusing one or more other people. It can happen once or over and over again.
In all cases, no matter what the circumstances, sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual act. Some examples of its many forms are: showing pornography to a child; making a threat about forced sex; unwanted touching (whether it hurts or not); forcing someone to touch another person (or animal) sexually; rape. Two key concepts are important:
- An adult who is threatened, tricked, or forced to engage in unwanted sexual activity of any kind is a victim of sexual assault/abuse.
- A child cannot ever be considered to give consent to any sexual act with an older or more powerful child, teen, or adult. (Although it might be difficult to pinpoint or define, and not everyone would agree, young children can quite healthily "play doctor" or be curious about another young child's sexual organs. The key is whether or not both young children were comfortable and agreed to their investigations.)
- forget the abuse or the abuser (this is a "surface" form of forgetting; the memories are still there)
- drink alcohol, do drugs, work, overeat, under-eat, gamble, or over-exercise to bury the images, feelings, and memories
- cut or burn themselves or physically harm themselves in other ways
- attempt or succeed at suicide
- engage in risky sexual activity
- have sex with many people
- have trouble, or make trouble, at home, work, or school
"I thought I'd dealt with it." So many adults I've worked with have said these words! But drowning or temporarily forgetting painful memories is not the same as actually dealing with them -- and healing from them.
You can do so much to help yourself. You can tell someone, even if you've never told anyone before. You can learn tools to help you work through the terror and rage. You can learn that you are not to blame for being abused.
In future articles I will offer suggestions and information about childhood sexual abuse and what it can be like to heal from it. In the meantime, call your local women's shelter, crisis phone line, or counselling centre to find help. And here are some Internet resources that also might be helpful:
Ontario Women's Directorate -- Sexual assault: What every girl and woman should know
American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress -- http://www.aaets.org/article31.htm
Learning and Violence -- http://www.learningandviolence.net/
Rape Victim Advocacy Program -- http://www.rvap.org/pages/adult_survivors_of_childhood_sexual_abuse/