Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is Sexual Abuse or Assault?

Sexual abuse/assault is frighteningly common, and many people misunderstand what it is and what it isn't. This article is intended to help explain sexual abuse and sexual assault so that victims, abusers, and family members can be clear. It is by no means a complete look at the subject, but it might provide a helpful starting place for you.

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:
  1. An adult who is threatened, tricked, or forced to engage in unwanted sexual activity of any kind is a victim of sexual assault/abuse.
  2. 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.)
Many adults who were sexually abused as children find ways to cope with their past experiences. It's very common for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to:
  • 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
All of these reactions to childhood sexual abuse can help keep memories buried -- at least for a time. They can help you raise a family, go to school and work, have fun with your friends, and so on. The problem with these forms of coping is that they will not make the memories go away, and they will not help you actually deal with those memories. And of course they are often damaging to you and your loved ones.

"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/

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