Sexual Abuse And Recovery

Sexual abuse is very much in the headlines with the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into sexual abuse of children by institutions such as the Catholic Church.   For the many victims whose trust was betrayed when they were young and vulnerable, the road to recovery can be long and painful.

What is not generally realised is that most sexual abuse takes place not in institutions or at the hands of strangers, but in the home, where children are among their families and thought to be safe.
And the largest group of offenders is siblings, which makes disclosure difficult and protection a hit and miss matter, even when parents are informed and well resourced.
Many children who experience sexual abuse at the hands of other family members or close family friends do not disclose in childhood but wait until there is a compelling reason to speak, or until the offender dies, for instance.

In Australia, adult survivors of sexual abuse may feel they have little reason to come forward and good reason to keep the peace in their families.  By comparison, in British Columbia, the most western province of Canada, there is a program to encourage reporting of sexual abuse and assault to police, so that prosecutions can be
mounted and gradual cultural change can be achieved.

The program has resulted in a big increase in reporting but has also produced some challenges, in that victims don’t always want to cooperate in a prosecution, often preferring to know that their offender is on record and to simply receive counselling and compensation for themselves.

Prosecutions are possible in only a tiny number of reported cases and these depend on former child victims to have accurate memories of events, times and dates.  Our evidence based system relies on the kinds of feats of memory that most victims cannot deliver.

In addition, if a report to police turns into a prosecution, it is unusual for family members to remain on the sidelines or support the victim.  In fact, victims who are seen to be putting family members or the family reputation at risk are quite likely to be strongly discouraged by the family.  This can take the form of the silent
treatment from some, angry encounters, punishing behaviour and threats.

A family seeking to protect itself from reputational damage or prosecution can be capable of orchestrated protective behaviour of the offender, not so much the victim.

In this context, therapeutic support for victims must be aimed at safety for the victim while addressing the challenges he or she might have – socially, sexually, in terms of mental and physical health and also in terms of career and their own family.

Adult survivors of sexual abuse who find that they have difficulty in any of these areas may find it helpful to work with a psychologist who understands sexual abuse dynamics within families and also something of the legal landscape.

Recovery is possible without confronting anyone, though it may naturally lead the survivor to new ways of dealing with family business, for instance family gatherings, new boundaries and communication pathways.

Some survivors find they want to and have good reason to name a perpetrator and such a process is best done after thorough preparation with your psychologist.

Many an adult survivor has dreamed of reconciliation, believing that the offender would also want closure.  And in some cases that does happen, usually when it is clear that the approach is not about involving the law or publicly shaming the offender, who was usually a child themselves at the time.

Here are some behaviours that fall into the category of sexual abuse, from Pandora’s Project:

  • Sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed;
  • Penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth;
  • Encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including
  • Intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child;
  • Showing children pornography, or using children to create pornography;
  • Encouraging a child to engage in prostitution.

According to Australian National Crime Statistics, 93 per cent of sexual abuses are committed by males but males can also be victims of childhood sexual abuse and assault.  Centres against Sexual Assault quotes a 1999 survey in which an estimated one in three girls and one in six boys is victimised before the age of 16.
This figure has not changed substantially in two decades, despite the growing intolerance in the community for sexualised behaviour against children.

Survivors might encounter a range of difficulties in adulthood that might be linked to their childhood experiences.  Bravehearts lists the issues as including self-injury and suicide,  risk taking behaviours, alcohol and drug misuse, depressive and other disorders, higher body mass index, criminal behaviour, prostitution, schooling and vocational difficulties and higher costs borne by the survivor and by the community in terms of health care and other factors.

Survivors can lead productive lives and be good parents to their own children, with a little help and support at the right time.  What happened to you as a child need not define who you are today.



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Psychology, Counselling & Mediation Sunshine Coast Ph 0424 002 640

  Rosalin Primrose Horse Therapy
Rosalin Primrose Psychology Services

Rosalin Primrose

MA , Reg Psych, (FDRP)
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