Sexual abuse can be defined as any experience during childhood or adolescence which involved inappropriate sexual attention by another person, usually an adult, but sometimes an older child, teenager, or even a same-aged playmate.
This attention might involve sexualized language; sexual touching; being forced to perform manual or oral sex on another person; oral, vaginal, or anal penetration; exposure to sexual behavior or to pornography. The behavior may be forced, coerced, or even willingly engaged in by the survivor but is understood as abusive because a child cannot truly give free consent. Any activity that a person feels violates their boundaries may fall within the realm of sexual abuse.
An estimated 17 percent to 22 percent of children experience some kind of sexual abuse.
Most people sexually abused as children experience some difficulties, as adults, related to the abuse. Problems may involve the absence of memories for a period of childhood; disinterest or excessive interest in sexual feeling or activities; fear of dating or close relationships; feelings of shame about the self, as though there is something inherently wrong or defective with self; low self-esteem; body image distortions; dissociative experiences; depression; eating disorders; anxiety disorders; engagement in self-inflicted violence; and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, agitation, and severe trouble sleeping.
A person may keep their experience of being sexually abused a secret, often ashamed and afraid to share this part of their self and the past with others.
Problems and symptoms associated with sexual abuse are responsive to many kinds of treatment, including individual and group counseling, and sometimes may be augmented by psychotropic medications to provide relief from intrusive symptoms.
A central part of the healing for many survivors is found in a support group of other survivors where there is strength, comfort, and hope in hearing the stories of others who share this pain, and in being heard by those who empathize from their own personal experiences. Therapy is most often long-term, though short-term counseling may be a place to start to prepare for further therapy, to shore up coping resources to get through a difficult time, or in the brief transition phase of a referral process. These psychotherapeutic resources are available through Counseling and Psychological Services.