Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
If you’re an adult who experienced sexual abuse as a child, know that you are not alone. Every nine minutes, a child is sexually assaulted in the U.S.1, and 93 percent know the perpetrator2. Many perpetrators of sexual abuse are in a position of trust or responsible for the child’s care, such as a family member, teacher, clergy member, coach, or other children such as older siblings.
No matter what, the abuse was not your fault. It’s never too late to start healing from this experience.
What are the effects of child sexual abuse for adults?
If you experienced sexual abuse as a child, you may encounter a range of short- and long-term effects that many survivors face. Adult survivors of child sexual abuse may have some of the following concerns that are specific to their experience:
Guilt, shame, and blame. You might feel guilty about not having been able to stop the abuse, or even blame yourself if you experienced physical pleasure. It is important for you to understand that it was the person that hurt you that should be held accountable—not you.
Intimacy and relationships. It’s possible that your first experiences with sex came as a result of sexual abuse. As an adult, intimacy might be a struggle at times. Some survivors experience flashbacks or painful memories while engaging in sexual activity, even though it is consensual and on their own terms. Survivors may also struggle to set boundaries that help them feel safe in relationships.
Self-esteem. You may struggle with low self-esteem, which can be a result of the negative messages you received from your abuser(s), and from having your personal safety violated or ignored. Low self-esteem can affect many different areas of your life such as your relationships, your career, and even your health.
Why do I still feel this way?
As an adult survivor, you have been living with these memories for a long time. Some survivors keep the abuse a secret for many years. They may have tried to tell an adult and met with resistance or felt there was no one they could trust. For these reasons and many others, the effects of sexual abuse can occur many years after the abuse has ended. Remember that there is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience.
How should I react when someone tells me they were sexually abused?
It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially if they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.
Sometimes support means providing resources, such as how to reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, seek medical attention, or report the crime to the police. But often listening is the best way to support a survivor.
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.
Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org, y en español a rainn.org/es.
It’s often helpful to contact your local sexual assault service provider for advice on medical care and laws surrounding sexual assault. If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.
If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.TALK (8255) any time, day or night.
Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.
To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) .