What Constitutes Sexual Abuse?
Abuse can constitute many things, but in general, it is categorized by the cruel and or violent treatment of a person, and in many cases, this abuse occurs repeatedly. In most sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is a person of power (either perceived or actual) who takes advantage of this power in order to inflict harm of sexual nature. These power dynamics often present in sexual abuse cases tend to lead to physical and mental or psychological abuse as well.
While many sexual abuse cases hold similarities, no two are the same, and thus, treatment for sexual abuse may look different from person to person.
How to Handle Sexual Abuse.
The first step for sexual abuse victims is to cut ties with the abuser. While this is often the most difficult step, it is necessary in order to begin to heal from the abuse. Not being completed cut off physically from the abuser can often be detrimental to the therapy, or other forms of treatment a victim may seek. Of course, cutting contact is not always easy, and in some situations, it may not be possible (not fully in the victim’s control to cut off contact). In these cases, it is essential a victim seek outside support, whether from a trusted family member, friend, or the authorities.
The abuser can often make it difficult to cut ties, through using threats of violence or manipulating the victim into believing they caused the abuse in the first place (victim-blaming). Victim blaming is common in sexual abuse cases, and victims may find various ways in which they could be to blame (drinking, dressing a certain way, etc.). This is also part of the power play that often occurs in sexual abuse situations.
Effects of Sexual Abuse
Any form of sexual abuse will have emotional, psychological, and physical effects on the victim. Although sexual abuse affects everyone differently, these effects are almost always a challenge to deal with.
Children who have been sexually abused often experience emotional or developmental problems that impact socialization, focus, and/or impulse control. In addition, children who experience sexual abuse tend to have reduced school and extracurricular performance. If not adequately dealt with, those who have been victims of sexual abuse in childhood often develop mental health issues in adulthood.
For those who experience sexual abuse as adults, a wide variety of issues can arise as a result.
Sexual abuse has been linked to anxiety, anger issues, disassociation, mood and behavioral disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame, guilt, self-destructive behaviors, trust issues, and even tendencies toward self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts.
Methods Typically used in Therapy for Sexual Abuse.
Because no two sexual abuse cases are exactly the same, treatment for sexual abuse can look quite different from person to person. For example, a therapist would not treat a college-aged date rape victim the same way they would approach treating a child that suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.
Common treatments for abuse are:
Psychotherapy — or talk therapy — is often successful at treating victims of sexual abuse. The therapy revolves around the one on one relationship with the victim and the therapist. In the early stages of therapy, the therapist is more inclined to just listen which ensures that the victim moves at a pace in which they are comfortable with while developing trust in the process, and the therapist himself. This trust leads to the victim being more open and vocal about the situation so that the therapist can assess and determine the best course of treatment.
Medication – such as anti-depressants – are often used in accordance with therapy for victims of sexual abuse and/or assault. While these are rarely prescribed without on-going psychotherapy, the medication often helps to reduce thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the most extreme cases.
On-going support — such as group therapy — is typically the next step in the process. As the patient begins to heal the mental and physical wounds brought on by sexual misconduct, the therapist will often suggest group therapy as a supplemental therapy to their one-on-one sessions. Hearing the stories of other sexual abuse survivors as well as being able to provide support in a safe setting often helps the victim to put the pieces of their life back together and form new relationships.
Reasons for Hiring a Therapist.
It is often difficult for the victim to regain emotional balance and a sense of normality after experiencing such a trauma. And although the process can be difficult, sexual abuse traumas (and the residual symptoms) are treatable.
Working with a therapist can help a victim recognize the abuse was not their fault, and become aware of the actual patterns of abuse. Through understanding and awareness, victims can begin to let go of some of the shame and blame that often results after a sexual abuse trauma. Alleviating themselves of shame and blame can help create space for learning tools and coping skills for dealing with any residual triggers, symptoms, memories, etc.
Working with a therapist can also help victims learn about healthy relationships, and regain the confidence to engage in new relationships.
What to Look for in a Sexual Abuse Therapist.
In most cases, identifying a therapist specialized in sexual abuse treatment will provide the best possible outcome for victims. These therapists are well versed in these sorts of cases and have years of experience in dealing with the victims of sexual crimes or misconduct. If you can’t find a therapist that specializes in sexual abuse, it’s often best to contact a general therapy expert and ask for recommendations or start attending group therapy sessions in your local area. In situations where none of the above is an option, trauma therapists and relational therapists are also often qualified to treat these types of cases.
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Zijlstra, E., LoFoWong, S., Hutschemaekers, G., & Lagro-Janssen, A. (2016). Improving care for victims: A study protocol of the evaluation of a centre for sexual and family violence. BMJ open, 6(9).