- Sexual abuse takes different forms and does not necessarily involve penetration or physical harm.
- 30 to 40 percent of victims are abused by family members
- 50 percent have been abused by someone outside the family whom they know and trust.
- over 30 percent of survivors never disclose the abuse to anyone. Of those who do tell someone, approximately 75 percent do so accidentally. Almost 80 percent initially deny it and don’t want to share. More than 20 percent of those who do tell someone, later deny it ever happened.
- Sexual abuse affects every aspect of a person’s life: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. Many suffer long-term from undiagnosed mental health issues or physical problems like stomach cramps or unexplained body pain.
- Spiritually, they may blame God for not being there or rescuing them: especially if any clergy members are implicated. And if the abuser was an older man, this can translate into a negative view of fatherhood and authority.
- Often victims feel unable to go to their families for support: either because they are implicated or because they feel guilty about exposing someone they know, or how they will be judged. However, experts argue that the family response to abuse is as important as the abuse itself, in determining how the person will cope long-term. If the family covers it up or denies it, they may feel doubly betrayed and conflicted about who is to blame.
- Many victims discount their experiences because it “just happened once” or “I wasn’t really hurt.” Older victims, especially teens, tend to assume responsibility for the abuse, particularly when they know the perpetrator, (which is usually the case). This is complicated by the fact that our bodies are programmed to respond positively to sexual stimulation: even when it’s exploitative. In fact, no matter how provocative the child/ adolescent, it is always the adult’s responsibility to maintain proper boundaries.
- Many survivors struggle with long-term feelings of shame and loss of control. They may seek to gain control back: over others or their circumstances, and can be perfectionists: highly demanding of themselves and other people. Understandably, they may find it difficult to trust others and to build relationships. They may also have difficulty managing emotions: either suppressing them in unhealthy ways or overreacting to incidents that might seem trivial.
- It’s common for those who have been sexually abused to struggle with mental health issues such as self-harm and depression, (and for these issues to mask the abuse they don’t want to disclose). They may also have addictions: particularly those relating to the body and self-nurture such as sex and food (for example, mistaking sex for love: promiscuity) or in eating disorders where food is used as a way self-soothing or a way of exercising the control they feel they have lost.
How churches can help:
- Listen to what the person says and reassure them that you believe what they are telling you. Because of the shame involved, victims – especially adults – rarely subject themselves to the potential rejection and scrutiny of being a survivor without reason.
- Be understanding of the ways they are using to cope: even though these may be damaging and may need to be challenged at a later point.
- Allow them to be open and honest about feelings of anger, pain, grief and rejection: including those against God. Don’t give them proof texts or easy answers, but provide a safe space for them to process their emotions.
- Don’t rush them through recovery or try to make them address the issues or forgive the perpetrators before they feel ready. Be aware of the impact that this has had on their relationships: especially with family members or those who have been involved.
- Refer them to outside help if they feel this would be useful. Self-help resources (which are also great for pastors and churches to work through), are things like ‘The Wounded Heart’ by Dan Allender, (available as a book or CD series).
Darkness to Light: d2l.org: offers training and information on preventing child sexual abuse.
Dan Allender centre: Christian resources, conferences and articles on surviving abuse (based in US)
Mind.org: range of resources/help for all kinds of abuse
NSPCC: offers help for adult survivors of childhood abuse too: here
The Survivor’s Trust: national umbrella agency for over 135 specialist rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse support organisations throughout the UK and Ireland.
Survivor’s UK; for male survivors of sex abuse
Victim support: support for women affected by rape or abuse
Open Hearts Ministry (ohmin.org): based in US, they provide training for people to care for and enable those who have been abused to share their stories.