Child sexual abuse, and its consequences, deeply affects survivors throughout their lives. However, every survivor can be affected differently, and it can be difficult to know what you can do to support them. Here we set out some key steps you can take to support survivors and where you can go for further information or advice.
What is child sexual abuse?
There is no one definition of child sexual abuse that all agree on, or is reflected in laws and government guidelines. However, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) proposed the following:
Any act which exposes a child to, or involves a child in, sexual processes beyond his or her understanding, or contrary to accepted community standards.
The Royal Commission also identified ‘sexually abusive behaviours’ as including:
- the fondling of genitals;
- oral sex;
- vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object;
- fondling of breasts;
- voyeurism, exhibitionism, and exposing the child to or involving the child in pornography.
Sexually abusive behaviours also include ‘child grooming’: This refers to any action which is deliberately taken by an adult with the aim of befriending and making an emotional connection with a child, the goal being to lower the child’s inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity.
Where the child sexual abuse occurs in an institution it is often referred to as ‘institutional abuse’. Child sexual abuse may also be accompanied by physical and psychological or emotional abuse.
How does child sexual abuse affect survivors?
The impacts of child sexual abuse are different for each survivor. Many experience deep, complex trauma, which can pervade all aspects of their lives, and cause a range of effects across their lifespans. Other victims do not perceive themselves to be profoundly harmed by the experience. Note, however, that some survivors may have ‘blocked out’ some painful memories.
Various features of the abuse which may have an effect on how it is experienced by survivors include:
- the nature of the abuse (e.g., its type, duration and frequency);
- the relationship between the abuser and the child;
- the social, historical and institutional contexts of the abuse;
- the survivor’s circumstances (such as age and disability). Child sexual abuse can have profound effects on a child’s psychological development if it occurs at a young age.
Child sexual abuse might have an impact on an individual’s:
- Mental health. Survivor’s may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, addictions and suicidal ideation among other mental health issues;
- Relationships with others. Many survivors of child sexual abuse go on to have lifelong trust issues;
- Physical health. Child sexual abuse can have an ongoing physical impact for some survivors;
- Sexual and gender identity;
- Cultural connections. Some survivors find that abuse is a barrier to connecting with their cultural background;
- The individual’s involvement with their religion or spirituality. Many survivors who were abused in a church institution find their attitude to religion is changed for life;
- Societal interactions. Some survivors experience reduced coping mechanisms and emotional controls throughout their life as a result of the abuse which can impact on their day-to-day functioning in society;
- Education, employment and economic circumstances. Survivors often find that their education was seriously affected and go on to experience difficulty with employment and their economic situation.
These different impacts may be complex and inter-dependent. The trauma of child sexual abuse often leads to alcohol and drug addictions, which in turn impact on an individual’s personal relationships, employment and economic circumstances.
For more information on the impact of child sexual abuse on survivors see Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report Volume 3: Impacts.
What actions can you take to support survivors?
If someone you love or care about is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, it can be difficult to know what you can do to support them. Experts have suggested the following might be helpful:
- Validate their experience. Say ‘I believe you’ or ‘that must have taken a lot of courage to talk about’;
- Emphasise that it is not their fault. Many survivors partly blame themselves for what happened;
- Let them know you are there for them;
- Acknowledge the impact this has had on them. For example, you might say ‘I’m sorry that this happened’;
- Avoid judgement;
- Check in with them regularly;
- Point them in the direction of further support.
For more information see RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and their Tips for Talking with Survivors of Sexual Assault.
What further support is available?
You can support adult survivors by directing them to other support that is available. This may include:
- ‘Mainstream’ social and health services, such as mental health, alcohol and drug services, general practitioners (GPs), psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists;
- Community support services, such as the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services;
- Specialist child and adult sexual abuse services.
The National Redress Scheme is also an important form of support available for some survivors of child sexual abuse. If an individual suffered child sexual abuse in an institution that is participating in this scheme (such as a governmental or Catholic Church institution), they may be entitled to a National Redress Payment of up to $150,000 and/or free counselling/psychological support.
In some cases, survivors may seek support in making a complaint to the Police.
In other cases, survivors may be interested in pursuing a civil compensation claim in the courts. In this case advice from a specialist lawyer is recommended.
If someone you love or care about is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse it can be difficult to know how to support them. The impacts of child sexual abuse are often profound and survivors may be at different stages of processing what happened to them.
The most important things you can do are to listen, validate their experience and support them to access professional services that can help them.
For more information, useful resources include:
- The New South Wales Government’s Adult survivors of sexual abuse - getting help and seeking justice;
- Blue Knot Foundation.