The process of sexual abuse


Regardless of the circumstances in which a child is sexually abused, it is important to remember that it is the offender who is solely responsible for the abuse. Child sexual abuse often occurs over a period of time, ranging from weeks to years. The type of abuse the child is subjected to tends to change over time, typically worsening.

Child sexual abuse victims are often conditioned from an early age to accept the abusive sexual behaviour of their offender(s). This conditioning may begin with gentle non-threatening behaviour such as massaging and cuddling, and continue over a varying period of time along a continuum that can lead to such acts as kissing, fondling, genital stimulation, and may progress to oral sex or intercourse.

Children, because of their age and lack of awareness of sexual matters, are unable to give informed consent to sexual activity with an adult, despite many adult abusers rationalizing that the child has given consent.

Child sexual abuse is not necessarily violent, involving physical force. Indeed it can be pleasurable. Verbal means of coercion can be used including demanding, bribing, threatening and pleading with the child. Some sexual abusers explain to the victim the activity is a form of sex education, or a punishment, and, that it is acceptable behaviour. Gifts, privileges, love and acceptance can be given or withheld to obtain the child’s co-operation. The victim’s age, innocence, emotional needs and possible dependence on the offender, are factors contributing to their exploitation.

For some children the offender may be the primary or only nurturing, caring adult in their life. The result is an emotional dependency that can cause the child victim to be extremely protective towards the offender, even if the abuse becomes public.

Abuse victims are often reluctant to disclose because they are scared they will not be believed, or unsure of how the person will react. Feelings of low self esteem, fear, and hopelessness, may also hold victims back from disclosing their abuse. It is difficult for the child to identify a safe person to trust, and having gathered the courage to disclose, they many fear being rejected. Many victims blame themselves, believing that it was something they deserved or caused or should have stopped. Many victims simply hope that it will not happen again, or try to avoid situations that may lead to the abuse.

Silence allows child sexual abuse to continue. The victim may not have the understanding or the language to describe what is happening to them. They may be afraid of getting into or causing trouble. Some victims are threatened with retaliation if they tell, such as they will be removed from the family or others will be angry with them. Consequently the vast majority of victims remain silent for many years.

Disclosure for many can bring about family upheaval, huge stress, along with feelings of relief, uncertainty, guilt and fear. The turmoil children may experience at the time may lead them to deny or minimise their sexual abuse, and possibly retract earlier statements.

Sometimes disclosure is met with shrugged shoulders, disbelief blame or punishment, even continued abuse.

Child sexual abuse victims develop a range of strategies that enable them to avoid or survive their abuse. Some are amazing in their ingenuity. Children can take a long time to talk about what has happened to them and it may take months or even years for them to tell their story. Some may not experience any significant trauma as a result of their abuse until they reach puberty or their adolescent years, or have children of their own. Indeed for some it may not be until they are in their 40’s that the full trauma is recognised, and they begin to cope with the implications if their childhood abuse.