Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any behaviour imposed on a young person or child, usually by a male (93%), taking advantage of his position of power and trust within the family. Less than 11% are abused by strangers (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011).

Sexually abusive behaviours are varied and include acts that make the child or young person feel scared or uncomfortable. This behaviour can range from exhibitionism to penetration.

Whether the abuse occurs once or many times, the traumatic effect is maintained due to fear instilled by threats, fear of further abuse, or promises of rewards for ‘keeping the secret.’

Secrecy and community denial of child sexual abuse gives permission for the abuse to continue. Similarly, the community’s reluctance to interfere in ‘private’ family matters, and the desire to maintain the illusion of family as a ‘safe’ unit, hides and condones the widespread incidence of child sexual abuse.

Laurel House has broadened the definition of child sexual abuse because:

  1. The restriction of incest to mean sexual intercourse between two related persons only accounts for a small proportion of the total range of sexually abusive behaviours.
  2. Sexual abuse of children often involves other people who have the same kind of trust and power for example, parents, step-parents, uncles, family friends, grandparents, siblings and other children.

Child sexual abuse is characterised by the betrayal of trust and abuse of power implicit in relations with children.


What is child sexual abuse?

There are several alternative ‘labels’ or definitions for child sexual abuse. It is important to use a term for the problem that defines it clearly and avoids confusion in the mind of the hearer. For this reason Laurel House has chosen to use the words child sexual abuse with this underlying definition:

Child sexual abuse is a sexual act imposed on a child who lacks emotional, maturational, and cognitive development. The ability to lure a child into a sexual relationship is based upon the all-powerful and dominant position of the adult or older adolescent offender, which is in sharp contrast to the child’s age, dependency and subordinate position. Authority and power enable the offender, implicitly or directly, to coerce the child into sexual compliance. (Susan Sgroi, 1989)

“The different state and territory governments use their own legal definitions, but child sexual assault is commonly considered to be any sexual activity between a child and an adult, or older person. This can include fondling genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism and exposing or involving the child in pornography.

Many definitions of child sexual assault specify the age difference between the perpetrator and the child or young adult, as it is considered that young people are not able to make a free and informed decision (that is, consent) to engage in such sexual activities because of their lack of relative knowledge and power. However, concerns have been raised that definitions that specify age difference between the perpetrator and child or young person fail to take into account non-consensual sexual activity between peers (such as sibling sexual assault, and sexual assault and date-rape perpetrated by adolescents).” (ACSSA Wrap, Adult Victim/Survivors of Child Sexual Assault, . Fergus & M. Keel, 2005)

Usually the form of sexual contact progresses over time.


Myths and facts of child sexual abuse

Myth: Child sexual abuse/incest/child rape only happens in poor families.
Fact: Child sexual abuse/incest/child rape occurs in all racial, cultural and socio-economic groups.

Myth: Child sexual abuse hardly ever happens.
Fact: Approximately 33% of Australian female children will be sexually abused before they reach 18 years of age (Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault CASA forum).

Myth: Child sexual abuse is unacceptable in our society.
Fact: Child sexual abuse is prevalent, talking about it is forbidden. Secrecy makes it easier for men to abuse children.

Myth: In the rare instances where it did happen a child would only have to tell someone for it to be stopped.
Fact: The secrecy that surrounds child sexual abuse ensures:

–          There is enormous pressure on children not to tell

–          They may have to tell several people before they are believed

–          They may never be believed

–          They may be persuaded to change their ‘story’

Myth: Child sexual abuse – ‘incest’ – is an expression of unique love and does not harm the child.
Fact: Child sexual abuse is an expression of power that damages the very basis of a child’s sense of self. It inflicts psychological, emotional and social damage that affects the child/woman’s ability to relate to self and others.

Myth: It is only abuse when a violent physical attack occurs.
Fact: Adult power and authority are such that physical force is unnecessary. Children can be coerced, bribed or threatened to make them comply. Offenders avoid doing anything that will lead to discovery.

Myth: Child sexual abuse only happens in dysfunctional families.
Fact: Offenders are ‘normal’ men who are involved in ‘normal’ relationships and have ‘normal’ vocational/professional and social roles.

Myth: Sexual abuse (when it happens) will only occur as a single, isolated event.
Fact: Most abuse continues over a long period of time – usually for years.

Myth: Most children are sexually abused by strangers.
Fact: According to Australian Crime: Facts and Figures, 2011, only 11% of reported sexual assaults on females aged 0-14 were perpetrated by strangers. 40% of assaults are perpetrated by a family member, 45% by a non-family member (i.e. a friend of the family, neighbour, youth group leader etc…), and in the remaining 4% of cases, it is not reported who the perpetrator is.

Myth: Girls fantasise/make up stories/lie about being sexually abused.
Fact: Sexual abuse is a feminine reality. Claiming otherwise provides social and person protection for the abusers.

Myth: Only adolescent girls are sexually abused.
Fact: Two thirds of respondents in the Personal Safety Survey, 2005, who indicated having a history of experiencing child sexual abuse prior to them turning 15, stated that the abuse occurred before the age of 11.

Myth: Little girls are provocative, seductive and ‘ask for it’
Fact: Little girls are trained to be sweet, appealing and pleasing. Almost anything they do can be framed up as ‘asking for it’; however, they are not responsible for the sexual abuse. The offender is solely responsible for his decision to sexually abuse. Little girls want attention, affection, and acceptance. No one asks to be sexually abused.

Myth: All girls wish to seduce their fathers.
Fact: The adult offender approaches the girl in a variety of ways, such as going into her bedroom while she is asleep, waiting or organising for her to be alone, threatening to kill her or significant family members. Assaults are planned well in advance and will include limiting or removing escape and support systems. The social response is that the girl is blamed and expected to say no or run away, even though there is recognition that a battered child cannot do so.

Myth: Mothers should have protected their children from the abuser.
Fact: Both parents have a responsibility to protect their children, and it is unrealistic to expect mothers to perpetually guard their children for 24-hours of every day, especially from those in their own family or others whom they know and trust.

Myth: Men are forced to turn to their daughters for sex because their wife/partner is either denying them sex or is unable to provide a satisfying sexual relationship.
Fact: Men who sexually abuse their daughters are usually also engaged in a sexual relationship with one or more partners. This myth serves to shift responsibility from the abuser to the mother and implies that sexual abuse concerns issues of sexuality and relationships rather than violence and the abuse of power. This myth also supports the notions that women are responsible for men’s sexual gratification, that men have an unquestionable right to sex, and that women and children are primarily male property.

Myth: All mothers collude with the abuser and know either consciously or unconsciously that abuse occurs.
Fact: This myth is supported by the belief that mothers should have known. However, as offenders are extremely careful that no-one should know, and will go to great lengths to ensure that no-one does know, it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. This is complicated by the fact that many mothers, when they learn of the abuse, are able to look back and recognise instances where abuse could have occurred. It is important to note that they do this with the benefit of hindsight – at the time they did not, and could not know what was happening. If they had known, they would have acted then. Again, it is a way of diverting responsibility from the offender to the mother.

Myth: Abusers are ‘sick’, ‘deviant’, and ‘mad’.
Fact: The realities of sexual abuse involve highly emotive issues – issues that most of us would like to avoid because they are extremely painful. Labelling abusers as being different to the norm intellectualises these issues, externalises the causes, denies responsibility, implies infrequent occurrence, and effectively negates the experience of those women and children who have been abused.

How did we feel as sexually abused children?
(Taken from Facing the Unthinkable, written by Dympna House Editorial/Writers Collective; editing, Annee Lawrence, 1998)


“I lost my father and I lost the sense of being able to go to him as a father. It was later that I felt a sense of grief.”


“I didn’t trust men at all. I was brought up to see brothers as protective and mine were the opposite of everything I had been taught.”


“My innocence was used, I was coerced into doing something I did not want to do and they called it ‘love’. They used to say to me, “You love me, don’t you?” But they had all the control, I had none, and they used to force to take the control. I learnt that if I did everything for them and nothing for me, it was called loving them.”


“I could not talk to anyone about it. I battled with myself because I wanted to talk about it, but I felt I couldn’t. There was something wrong with me, always something not quite right.”




“I was afraid of being alone with the person, I was afraid of knowing the person might visit and I would have to think of how to get out of seeing them or being with them. I was afraid of the ‘games’, that they would go on longer than they would and become something else. I was afraid of strangers. I was afraid of open spaces where there was nowhere to hide. I was afraid of bed.”


“Because of not being able to tell anyone, I felt distanced from other children and distanced from other people. I felt a sense of responsibility older than my years. I had to guard my tongue. I lost my sense of spontaneity. Instead of being protected by him, I was made to feel responsible for him and the secret instead of being childlike.”


“I had to please everyone. I began to hate myself for smiling on the outside when I would have loved to tell him how I hated him and what he was doing. I had to be nice to him. I had to be nice to everyone. I had to pretend everything was alright.”


“Literally, as well as emotionally. When he backed me against the wall to fondly my breasts I began to vomit. When I had to stand for a long time I wanted to vomit. When he ejaculated in my mouth, I did vomit.”


“I did not understand what was happening. The sense of bewilderment stayed for a long time.”


“I never had self-confidence.”


“I always felt on the outside of everything.”

Lost and Alienated

“I always felt that I did not fit in or that I did not belong.”


“I thought it was my fault. I thought I had done something to make it happen. That everyone must know what had happened or that there was something different about me and that everyone must think I was dirty.”


“When the teacher made sexual interpretations I thought they were directed at me. I was particularly aware, I could recognise miles away a sexual advance or approach.  Was frightened of men, I thought all men were after me. I hated men. I still don’t trust men. As children we learnt to endure the situation because we had no escape.”

How sexual abuse affected our lives

Self-hatred and Worthlessness

“No confidence or belief in self. We often experienced feelings of hanging around waiting to be noticed yet were afraid of being noticed. Being afraid of men, strangers, and unfamiliar settings. Feeling helpless and unable to make decisions or change situations.”

Effects on Sexuality

“Feeling cut off and detached from our sexuality. Not wanting to be touched. Not wanting to be sexually touched unless it was absolutely under our control. Not knowing for so long why we were feeling so detached. Knowing that sexuality is a part of loving but unable to believe that, and not knowing why we felt that way. I felt my arms were tied to my sides. I didn’t want any contact except cuddles. I never took the initiative in sexual contact. For a long time the only pleasure I could feel was if I took no participation. Lie absolutely still. I could not handle certain sexual advances or being touched in certain places. The thought of a penis made me feel physically sick. I couldn’t do a thing for others, it felt like a trade-off.”

What people need when seeking support


–          To think and feel at the same time

–          To explore the meanings and connections of their thoughts and feelings

–          To fantasise about how their life could be, what they would like to do and be

–          To regain a sense of control over their lives

–          To be cared for and nurtured

–          To be respected


–          About child/adult sexual abuse (its effects; the social beliefs surrounding it and how they impact on survivors and their families; medical and legal issues and resources; support networks; options)

–          About themselves and other people’s experiences

–          About the sorts of things they can expect to happen while they are in crisis

–          About the ways in which their children’s behaviour may change as a result of being sexually abused

–          About the ways in which their partner and other family members may respond

–          About protective behaviours, decision-making processes, dilemmas

–          About sexual health issues

–          About how to care for themselves


–          Of their feelings

–          Of their rights

–          Of their needs

–          Of their value as a person

–          Of their sanity, ability to cope, and to care for themselves

–          Of their ability to survive and keep themselves safe

–          Of their ability to make decisions for themselves


Expression of Feelings

Express feelings as they arise in ways that are safe. Most people will try to contain their emotions because they have been taught that being emotional is evidence of irrationality and an inability to ‘cope’. Sometimes emotional restraint is important and necessary but, when taken to extremes, will inevitably lead to increased levels of distress in the future, blocking of one’s whole emotional life, increased stress levels, and physical illness.



–          Recognition of one’s own processes

–          Acknowledgement of emotional/psychological effects

–          Acceptance of the changes created by the experience



–          Seek out other people’s practical and emotional support

–          Ask for what you need

–          Talk about your thoughts and feelings with people who are understanding and non-judgemental

–          If possible share with others whose experiences were similar to your own

Reactions to Sexual Abuse

The trauma associated with sexual abuse creates an internal environment that is expressed at both an emotional and behavioural level. Everyone’s response is unique because it is influenced by his or her own particular culture, socio-economic position, family history, age, gender, support network, attitudes, beliefs, values, immediate and past circumstances and experiences. However, given these differences, sexual abuse evokes similar responses in everyone because it is an aggressive and coercive abuse of power that is experienced as humiliating, degrading and destructive. Responses may include any, or all of the following to varying degrees:

Emotional and Psychological Responses

–          Feelings of being damaged and worthless

–          Afraid

–          Sad (sudden and/or prolonged periods of crying)

–          Guilty

–          Angry

–          Humiliated

–          Embarrassed

–          Isolated

–          Irritable

–          Withdrawn

–          Uncertain and indecisive

–          Mistrustful

–          Confused

–          Short or long-term memory loss

–          Intrusive memories and feelings

–          Anxiety/panic

Emotional Unpredictability

–          Extreme and frequent mood swings (with little apparent cause)

–          Depression about this or past events, the present situation or the future

–          Non-specific depression

–          Severe guilt, grief, anger and loneliness

–          A sense of isolation and alienation – social withdrawal

–          Powerlessness, helplessness and hopelessness


Physical Sensations

–          Exhaustion

–          Tremors or palpitations

–          Weakness

–          Breathing difficulties

–          Lowered resistance to infection

–          Impaired memory

–          Disturbed sleep patterns (nightmares/restlessness)

–          Headaches

–          Muscular tension

–          Aches and pains

–          Stomach/bowel upsets – loss of appetite

–          Loss of libido (sexual desire)

Any of these effects can occur immediately or may occur months or even years later if the issues have not been resolved. They are natural responses to stress, particularly when significant threat and/or loss are involved and while normal, are unpleasant and distressing to those experiencing them.

Effects of Sexual Assault

Guilt and Shame

–          Survivors of sexual assault usually feel that they were somehow responsible for, and contributed to, the abuse. This is reinforced by society and is evident in the many myths that surround the area of sexual violence.

–          Survivors often feel that they have somehow betrayed the offender when disclosing the sexual assault. This is made much worse when the offender is openly hostile to the victim for the disclosure.

–          Survivors usually feel responsible for the disruption that follows the disclosure (even if the disclosure is accidental). Disclosure is unsettling for all concerned and the survivor may feel, and be, blamed by significant others. However, regardless of the disruption, disclosure would not be necessary if there had not been a sexually abusive act perpetrated against the survivor. Therefore, it is the offender who is totally responsible for any of the upset that may arise following disclosure.



–          Fear of the offenders whole sex, all men/all women

–          Fear that they will never be ‘normal’ or live a normal life again

–          Fear of being ‘damaged’ forever

–          Fear of other people’s reaction on learning of the secret

–          Fear of bringing up past feelings

–          Fear of remembering the fear felt at the time of the abuse

–          Fear of reprisal

–          Fear of further violence

–          Fear of abandonment


–          May be open (crying, sad, unhappy) or masked (woman says she is tired), or has psychosomatic illness or manifests in self-harm (self-mutilate or attempt suicide)

–          May come from being blamed by others, blamed by self, feeling damaged, turning her anger inward on herself

–          May be depressed about loss of ‘real parents’ and loss of childhood

Diminished Sense of Identity

–          Particularly if adult survivors of child sexual assault were not believed, never experienced unconditional love from parents.

–          Poor body image (often distorted)

–          Family isolated, victim isolated

–          Powerless to stop the abuse, hard for the victim to be assertive, trained to be passive.

–          Survivors often set themselves up to prove they must deserve the worst because they are bad inside (as a result of their training from the abuse experience).

Repressed Anger and Hostility

–          Anger is felt at the offender and at family members who failed to protect and at others who reacted badly to disclosure

–          Repressed anger can be expressed by depression, physical symptoms, aggressive fantasies or behaviour

–          Difficulty in expressing anger can be shown in passive aggression

–          Anger is often repressed because it feels too strong to contain. It is also a double bind to hate someone you love.

Lack of Control and Powerlessness

–          Woman feels she has no right to privacy, to her own body, to make demands or to establish boundaries.

Inability to Trust

–          This is based in reality – earliest experience led to betrayal. May have been rejected by her family, the legal system and the welfare system.


–          The woman feels as though she is the only one it has happened to. A lack of trust increases the isolation.

Sexual Difficulties

–          Sexual relationships are often a reminder of the abuse (cannot bear to be touched in a particular way)

–          Difficulty in achieving orgasm

Reaction to the Offender

–          The survivor may need to sort out and ventilate feelings that are often contradictory and confused.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)

(Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, A Complete Guide, Aphrodite Matsakis, 1994)

PTS has been comprehensively researched for many years and is documented as a ‘natural response to traumatic situations.’ PTS reactions may include:

–          Sleep disturbances: insomnia, fitful sleeping, nightmares, night sweats

–          Flashbacks: unwanted memories of the trauma and related events

–          Anxiety

–          Tendency to react under stress with survival mechanisms appropriate to the trauma, for example, abused children may react with placating or care-taking behaviours. Similarly, incest victims may respond with what is identified as flirtatious or seductive behaviour.

–          Emotional numbness

–          Loss of interest in work or activities

–          Suicidal thoughts and feelings

–          Fantasies of retaliation

–          Feelings of alienation and problems with all forms of relationships

–          Cynicism and distrust of authority figures and public institutions

–          Hypersensitivity to injustice

–          Hyperventilation

–          Over-protectiveness and fear of losing others

–          Social isolation or emotional distance from others

–          Guilt

–          Avoidance of activities/places that arouse memories of trauma

–          All or nothing thinking

–          Fear of the trauma returning

–          Dissociation: trance states, out of body experiences, denial.

–          Organ specific psychosomatic problems

–          Mood swings

–          Difficulty concentrating

Survivors of childhood sexual assault often share many of the same effects as a result of their abusive experience. This can partly be attributed to socially reinforced values surrounding sexual violence. While considering this it is also important to remember that your experience and your responses are unique to you. Whatever you feel is a valid response to your experience. You are the expert on yourself and no other person is able to define your experience for you.

For further information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North-West on 6431 9711 or email