Discovering that someone you care about survived sexual abuse is overwhelming. It’s hard to process. Your emotions might run the gamut from sad to enraged. Most of all, you want them to heal. There are crucial ways to help survivors of sexual abuse.
Imagine a product proven to harm users decades later. It would be pulled from the shelves, its manufacturers sued. Yet despite injuring untold millions, sexual abuse often remains hidden. Only in the 21st century have large organizations faced litigation over their involvement with covering up sexual abuse. While many cases are ongoing, most abusers escape punishment.
Experts suggest that at least one in three women and one in four men are survivors of sexual abuse. However, males are even less likely to report abuse or discuss it as adults. Men face societal stigma. If the abuser is male, the victim often questions their own sexual identity. If the abuser is female, then men are conditioned to view themselves less as a victim and more as a “stud.”
Survivors can endure what the World Health Organization identifies as complex post-traumatic stress disorder. While PTSD manifests as flashbacks or nightmares about a single traumatizing event, complex PTSD is the result of prolonged exposure to trauma, usually as a younger person. Survivors with this condition often display an unbreakable, negative self image along with strong feelings of inadequacy, shame, and the inability to trust others. This often leads to school or work issues. They may be triggered by certain events, locations, or news stories. If they are a partner, they may seem to dissociate during intimate moments. If a friend or loved one consistently displays these behaviors, it could indicate they are a sexual abuse survivor.
Children who have been sexually abused manifest complex symptoms. There are physical signs like STDs, bruising, or bleeding around the genitals. There are also emotional signs from acting out sexually to being anxious around certain adults.
Whether the victim is young or old, they need to be listened to without judgment. Sometimes a child may say they don’t like an activity they once enjoyed. An adult might mention a period they have a hard time remembering or an uncomfortable experience. The key is to give them the time and space to speak. Let them get angry or sad but don’t let your own feelings intrude. Even expressing anger at the abuser may not help –– it can cause them to shut down. Unless they ask, don’t attempt to hug or hold them as this can be triggering. Thank them for sharing and tell them how much you love them. Most importantly, let them know you believe them.
Many times a child will say they no longer want to take ballet or go to gymnastics, for example. The reasons could be benign. However, forcing them to engage in the activity could be forcing them to return to their abuser. Instead, give them the option to stop while you investigate the activity. Trust your instincts. If your child has been molested, you need to involve law enforcement. If a friend comes to you immediately after a sexual assault, be present as they consider their options. If they press charges, it’s important that they don’t shower or change clothes as this can destroy potential evidence.
For years, the statute of limitations often prevented sexual abuse survivors from taking action. Today many states, like Illinois, have eliminated them completely. That means that if you or a loved one are a survivor, then you should know that sex abuse victims can sue. Listening is a critical first step. When they are ready, you can also suggest they speak to a therapist who has experience treating survivors.