Friends and Relatives of Survivors Self Help Guide
Supporting Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse – Section for partners, friends and relatives
Sexual abuse can be such a difficult subject to discuss; especially when the focus is on children. A child is someone 16 years and under. When someone we care about discloses that they have been abused in this way it can be very hard to hear and accept. Finding out someone close to us was abused in childhood is distressing and everyone will react in their own way ranging from shock; disbelief; denial; sadness; anger etc. Culturally sexual abuse is a taboo subject; and denial of sexual abuse (by the survivor and their family members; partners and friends) is more prevalent than denial of physical abuse.
It is very difficult to know what to do to support the person you care about. You may believe the way you are approaching the issue is appropriate; however, over the years survivors of childhood abuse have informed us that the way in which people around them have responded has added to their distress; although the intention has been to help.
Below is some general information which you may find helpful when supporting someone you know who has been sexually abused; and may also help the person who has been abused to feel like they have some control over the way forward and their healing process.
Our helpline service can also be accessed should you wish to talk to one of our support workers on 01484 450040
Any form of abuse whether it is bullying; domestic violence; psychological abuse; financial abuse; social abuse or sexual abuse is an abuse of power; where a person takes control over another person by using the power they have in the relationship.
Sexual abuse is a form of control; therefore, the survivor of the abuse had no control; choice or power at the time of the abuse. Sexual abuse is an abuse of power and trust; and often perpetrated by someone known. Sexual abuse refers to any unwanted actions (including being made to witness) that are of a sexual nature that leads to the survivor feel frightened or hurt in any way.
Types of sexual abuse
• Part of body being touched
• Being kissed inappropriately
• Being told to touch you own body
• Being made to touch someone else’s body
• Being made to watch someone masturbate; touch their body in a sexual way; or watch pornography
• Being coerced psychologically or physically to act or model for pornography.
• Being watched whilst changing or showering
• Putting objects (including fingers; penis) in the anus; mouth or vagina
• Making you have sex; or do sexual things with other people
• Making sexual comments and suggestions (even the form of jokes)
• Sending sexual comments or suggestions via email or SMS
• Making threats or offering gifts to get you to engage in sexual acts
A person under the age of 18 does not have the knowledge; understanding; emotional maturity or life experience to know what defines healthy and unhealthy touch and what constitutes sexual abuse.
What stops a survivor of sexual abuse from telling what has happened to them?
The majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor; which may be a friend; father; brother; cousin; family friend; neighbour; stepdad; granddad; aunty; etc. This known relationship where the trust is betrayed and where there may be an emotional attachment to the perpetrator; understandably creates confusion and internal conflict for the survivor.
The survivor may blame them self as they may believe that they did something to entice the known person into sexually abusing them.
Culturally sexual abuse is a taboo subject; and denial of sexual abuse (by the victim and their family members; partners and friends) is more prevalent than denial of physical abuse.
Perpetrators of sexual abuse use manipulation and tactics which can be subtle or obvious to keep the sexual abuse hidden.
This may include:
• Convincing the survivor, the abuse was their fault
• Treating the survivor in a nice way at all other times to confuse them.
• Making threats or making the survivor feel scared of them or the consequences of speaking out.
• Making friends with your family and friends
• Being part of your family
• The abuser may say things like; you deserved it; no one will believe you. If you tell I will hurt someone you care about. You didn’t stop me so I thought I was ok.
The survivor may believe: –
• They will be judged
• They will not believed
• No one will care or do anything to help
• The abuse was their fault
• They are confused and that the sexual abuse was a dream and didn’t really happen
• They will be punished or sent away
• They will be responsible for hurting the perpetrator if they care about the abuser as well as hating what the abuser has done.
• No one will love them as they are “damaged”.
• The abuse is “normal”
• May be separated from their family; or that the family will break up
• A family member or pet will be hurt
Not telling anyone about the sexual abuse does not mean that the survivor wanted the abuse or was weak; or that they could have stopped it.
Not speaking up was the safest option at the time and the only way that they could cope; with the understanding and knowledge that they had at the time.
Remember! – Perpetrators of abuse choose vulnerable individuals who are less likely to speak out; and increase the likelihood that they can get away with abusing.
Children and young people are vulnerable because they have less knowledge; power; control & choices.
When someone who has been sexually abused in childhood feels safe enough to talk about the sexual abuse they have experienced; it is important that they feel in control of this process. Knowing that they have choices in terms of how they cope and deal with what has happened to them; whether it is a recent event of something in the past is very important.
If the person who is telling you that they have been sexually abused is under the age of 18 you will need to tell them that you can not keep this information to yourself due to safeguarding issues. If the perpetrator of the abuse is around children or a young person under the age of 18 – you will also need to talk to someone from the safeguarding team.
• Kirklees children & young people duty and assessment service – 01924 326097/01924 481429
• Emergency duty service – 01484 414933
• NSPCC helpline – 0800800 5000
Asking someone who has been abused specific questions can be a way for family members; partners and friends to try and come to terms with; and make sense of what has happened. Questions can be very uncomfortable; unhelpful and imply blame for the person who experienced the abuse; and can add to their distress.
What you hear may seem unbelievable at first and very hard to take in and accept. Often family members; partners and friends of the person who has been sexually abused; care and want to help; but are not sure how to do this!
“What exactly did he do to you?” (This is more about the person who is asking the question than helping the person who has been abused) What would you like to tell me? Is more helpful and enables the person to decide and be in control of what is shared.
“Why didn’t you tell me before? How could you keep it quiet for so long if it was so bad?”
Many questions are more about the person who is asking the question; rather than helping the person who has been abused; and may come from a place of guilt and failure to protect the person who has been abused. It implies that the person who was abused “should” have told someone earlier; and suggests some form of responsibility for the abuse.
Acknowledging how difficult it may be for the person to talk about the abuse will be more supportive.
“Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” The survivor had no control; choice or power in relation to the abuse. This question implies blame and that the responsibility for stopping the abuse was with the survivor; when the only person responsible for stopping the sexual abuse was the perpetrator!
Telling the survivor that you care and that they are not to blame in any way will be more helpful.
“You were never left alone with this person so they didn’t have a chance to abuse you” This may be an indication of denial; guilt or lack of awareness of how manipulative perpetrators can be. It also implies that the person who was abused is lying! Abusers can abuse a young person or child in a matter of seconds or minutes. Sexual abuse can occur when a parent has gone to the shop; visited a neighbour; gone to work etc.
A child/young person can be abused by an adult when another person is in the same room or in another part of the house.
“But you seemed to get on well with them; you loved each other.” Loving relationships and getting on well with the perpetrator does not mean that the abuse did not happen.
“You didn’t have any injuries on that part of your body!” Sexual abuse does not always involve penetration or cause injury to the victim; and some gynaecological injuries do not surface for many years).
SEXUAL ABUSE IS NEVER THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE PERSON WHO EXPERIENCED THE ABUSE. IT IS ALWAYS- THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE PERSON WHO COMMITTED THE ABUSE. THE NATURE OF SEXUAL ABUSE IN CHILDHOOD IS ONE OF SECRECY; WHEREBY THE PERPETRATOR MANIPULATES THE SITUATION TO THEIR OWN ADVANTAGE; TAKING ALL OF THE CONTROL; POWER AND CHOICES!
What is helpful if someone discloses abuse?
• Believe the person.
• Listen and let them talk without interrupting and asking too many questions. Remember that you may be the first and only person after so many years that the survivor has talked to about the sexual abuse.
• Try not to make any assumptions or ask about any details. The person you care about will only tell you what they feel comfortable saying.
• Ask what they need from you. It may be that you don’t agree however it is essential that you enable the person to be in control of the way they cope and the support that they receive; as long as this is safe; and will not cause any harm to them self or anyone else.
• Ask what they want that will help. Sometimes the person you care about may not know what they want; which is ok. This may change over time; however, it is really important not to rush or pressure anyone into making any decisions.
• Enable the person you care about to make decisions in their own time; when they feel ready.
• Try not to expect too much from yourself and fix “everything”. This is unrealistic.
• The person you care about may prefer to find support from someone else or specialist support.
• Let the person you care about know that the sexual abuse was not their fault
• Let them know that sexual abuse is wrong
• It can be very distressing listening to a disclosure of sexual abuse; particularly when it is someone you care about. You may not know how to react; what to say or do. You may feel angry; uncomfortable; sad; scared; betrayed; shocked; and you may even want to avoid the person you care about because you feel so overwhelmed. All of these feelings are understandable and you may wish to seek support for yourself.
You can contact our helpline for support for yourself on 01484 450040 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Effects of sexual abuse
The effects of sexual abuse can vary from person to person; and can last a lifetime. Making statements like: –
• It happened many years ago
• Its time to leave the past behind
• When are you going to get over what happened it was 20 years ago
Are not helpful; and trivialise the long term impact that sexual abuse can have for some people.
Below are some of the effects of sexual abuse; however, this is not an exhaustive list.
Negative thinking, critical thinking; overthinking; not being able to stop thinking; Confused; unfocused; flashbacks; nightmares; blanking out; negative self perception; low self value/worth, lack of confidence; self hatred; self disgust; a range of mental health issues (depression; anxiety; post traumatic stress disorder etc.)
Sadness, angry; rage; overwhelmed; fearful; disc connected; mood swings; guilt, distant; numbed;
Change in eating or sleeping patterns.
Withdrawn; self harm, isolating self,
Self destructive behaviours (drug or alcohol use)
Unhealthy/unsafe sexual behaviour/ lack of sexual boundaries.
Acting out sexually
Inability or desire to engage in relationships; struggle to be around people
Lack of personal hygiene
Change of appearance (hair; cloths; tattoos etc.)
Unable to trust people.
Unable to feel safe in relationships;
Struggle with sexual intimacy
Want to live in isolation or hide from life and other people
Become people pleasers
Put other peoples needs before their own
Feeling sensitive to comments
Feeling defensive and attacked
Unexplained aches and pains
Stress related illness
Sexually transmitted diseases
There is a myth that if someone has experienced sexual abuse then it is likely that this person will go on to sexually abuse someone else. THIS IS NOT TRUE! – And there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.
To sexually abuse someone else is a choice that someone consciously makes.
Below are some organisations that support partners, friends and relatives of survivors of abuse;
Mosaicc 11 – Bradford 01274 734561
KRASACC helpline – 01484 450040