QA - Child Sexual Abuse, Dec '18
RAHI Foundation continues to answer your queries on incest and child sexual abuse
What can be the long term effects of incest and child sexual abuse? Is recovery possible from these effects?
K. Kumar, Kolkata
Dear K. Kumar
These are both very important questions and deserve separate answers.
Sexual abuse in childhood has a range of long term effects. Though different people get affected differently as the impact depends on several factors, the effects can be categorised as follows:
Emotional reactions: Predominantly shame, guilt and a sense of loss and betrayal. People who face sexual abuse blame themselves for being abused and not being able to stop it. Anger around abuse gets directed at themselves or elsewhere, rather than at the abuser. Feelings could also be numbed out. The effects may show up in anxiety and panic attacks, depression, phobias, body aches and other ailments. Severe abuse can lead to personality disorders.
Self-perceptions: Some victims of sexual abuse often believe they’re worthless, and have very low self-esteem. They’re unable to take compliments, feel undeserving of care and attention. They may appear to be confident on the surface but perceive themselves as not good enough. They need to constantly prove themselves. All this can often lead to further victimisation.
Self-harm: Some individuals get into self-destructive behaviours in order to cope. Some of these behaviours are overeating, depriving themselves of food, bingeing, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and alcohol and drug abuse.
Powerlessness: There may be a feeling of being powerless and not in control over one’s surroundings. Therefore some people may use a variety of ways to be in charge. They could be super organised, super alert, creating crises, late coming, hyper active and ever vigilant.
Physical effects: These could include stomach disturbances, frequent illnesses, gynaecological problems in women, and aches and pain.
Sexual effects: Sex may often get associated with feelings of pain, shame and humiliation. This can lead to avoidance of sex, difficulties in getting aroused or reaching an orgasm. Some individuals may experience flashbacks of the abuse during sex. They can get into indiscriminate sexual activity and also use their bodies as a way to get power, love and attention.
Relationship problems: Those abused often feel threatened, withdraw from or are uncomfortable in close relationships. They may be unable to form intimate relationships or become extremely dependent and clingy. They can have difficulty in judging how trustworthy other people are, they can trust too little or too much. This makes them vulnerable to further exploitation of themselves and their children.
Now coming to the question of recovery – yes, it’s absolutely possible to recover from the effect of incest and child sexual abuse. The effects of abuse can be damaging but they don’t have to be permanent. Recovery begins with the survivor acknowledging that they were abused, that their life is affected by what happened, and deciding to do something about it.
The survivor then goes through several stages such as remembering, breaking the silence, mourning, dealing with feelings, forgiving and trusting oneself, understanding and using one’s strengths, and forming new relationships. These stages may overlap. Often the survivor is likely to move through these stages again and again but in doing so they will reach a point where they can make deep, lasting changes in their life.
Though the memories of abuse don’t go away, they lose their debilitating quality and the survivor is able to put the abuse behind them and move on to a more fulfilling life.
To what extent is child sexual abuse prevalent in India?
PD, West Bengal
Well, it’s possibly more prevalent than you think! In fact, child sexual abuse is considered to be a silent epidemic in India. According to a 2007 national study with children and young people conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, 53.3 percent of the respondents were sexually abused. This means one in two children. RAHI Foundation's own study done in 1999 titled Voices from the Silent Zone with 600 women from different parts of the country showed 79 percent of sexual abuse in childhood. These are very high numbers that should concern us all.
In the previous edition of this column, it was mentioned that the sexual orientation of the abuser has no link with their abusive behaviour. But I’ve heard that facing sexual abuse in childhood makes a person gay or lesbian or even transgender. Is this false?Concerned teacher, Kolkata
Dear Concerned Teacher
This is indeed false and a myth that only serves to perpetuate homophobia and transphobia. Nature and nurture both may have a role to play with regard to one’s sexual orientation and gender identity, but there’s no conclusive evidence that child sexual abuse ‘makes’ a person gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Sometimes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people themselves believe that they’ve 'become' so because they were sexually abused in childhood by someone of the same sex. They feel this is what 'drove' them towards same sex desire or a transgender identity. But this comes more from their own discomfort around their gender or sexuality, or rather from what society keeps telling them. Moreover, studies show that having a ‘different’ gender or sexuality actually makes children more vulnerable to abuse!
Read this nuanced argument by PFLAG Atlanta on why there is a problem with the belief that child sexual abuse ‘causes’ homosexuality or bisexuality. Though this article is written in the context of USA, its logic is likely to hold in any culture or country – Editor. For more information on the issues dealt here, RAHI Foundation’s booklet titled The Basics can be a good reference. Please write to the email contact provided below for a copy of the booklet. For the previous issue of this Q&A column on incest and child sexual abuse, please click here – Editor.