Recognizing the Signs of Sexual Abuse
For a long time, sexual abuse was not a subject that most people talked about. It was a hidden problem that far too many people failed to believe was actually a problem. But now, with the emergence of the #metoo movement, more and more people are coming forward and sharing their stories. Understanding the prevalence of sexual abuse is an important part of bringing change. But it’s only one part.
Far too often, sexual abuse goes unreported, allowing the perpetrator to get away with the crime and leaving the victim to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this is often the case with children. Children have a hard time processing abuse and may not know how to report it. That’s why it’s so important to recognize and be alert of behavioral indicators of sexual abuse. You can make a difference. If you need help or need to connect with local resources, a sex abuse attorney can help.
What Is Sexual Abuse?
It seems like such a simple, straightforward question. But the answer is anything but. There is no simple definition of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a violation of someone’s comfort. It’s an intrusion on someone’s personal space and a betrayal of trust. The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”
According to RAINN, sexual assaults happen every 73 seconds in America. For children, child protective services find or substantiate sexual abuse every nine minutes. More than 57,000 cases of substantiated child sexual abuse take place a year.
This number is far too high. But abuse is not just sex. Sexual abuse includes:
- Unwanted touching
- Exposing a child to inappropriate material
- Sex with a person unable to give consent, including a minor
- Sexually explicit or nude pictures of a minor
- Asking a child to perform a sexual act
The Scary Statistics of Sexual Abuse
Although there is a greater discussion around sexual abuse, it still happens more than most people would like to believe. And the abusers are often people you would least suspect. Understanding common characteristics and statistics won’t stop all sexual abuse, but it can make it easier to recognize.
- According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is the victim of sexual abuse. (NCVC)
- In regards to cases reported to law enforcement, 93 percent of childhood sexual abuse comes at the hands of someone the victim knows. 34 percent of the time, the perpetrator is someone in the family. (RAINN)
- For cases substantiated by CPS, one of the parents is the perpetrator in 80 percent of all cases. 88 percent of the time this person is male. (RAINN)
- 66 percent of victims under the age of 18 are between the ages of 12 and 17. (RAINN)
- Children who are victims of sexual abuse are four times more likely to battle substance abuse problems and four times more likely to have PTSD as an adult. (RAINN)
- 55 percent of sexual abuse happens at or near the victim’s home. An additional 12 percent happen at or near a relative’s home. (RAINN)
- Three out of every four sexual assaults do not get reported to the police. (RAINN)
- American Indians are two times more likely to be the victim of sexual abuse than any other race. (RAINN)
- Children who do not live with both parents or live in a home with domestic violence are more likely to suffer sexual abuse. (NCVC)
Recognizing the Signs of Sexual Abuse
Not all survivors of abuse will report their abuse, so learn to recognize behavioral changes that may indicate abuse.
While physical signs of abuse may be present, this is not always the case. Statistics show that abusers often have more than one victim. By recognizing the signs and saying something, you not only help one victim, you may help other victims who have not come forward.
Behavioral signs of abuse may include:
- Withdrawal: Survivors of sexual abuse may be uncomfortable around other people, even family members. They may be less social or withdraw from relationships. While withdrawal may not be solely indicative of abuse, it needs to be taken seriously if it is combined with other behavioral changes.
- Mood changes: People react to abuse differently. Some people may become sad or depressed. Others may act out, show increasing irritability or anger.
- Inappropriate behavior/talk: It’s not normal for young children to talk about sex or engage in inappropriate behavior. If your child or a child you know is exhibiting unusual sexual behavior, this is a big warning sign and an indication that something is wrong. For older children and adults, they may act out or become promiscuous.
- Bedwetting: Bedwetting is normal for younger children. But when a child begins to wet the bed after they have been fully potty trained, it may be a sign of abuse.
- Anxiety: Anxiety is common with someone who suffers abuse. It may present as nervousness, restlessness, or insomnia. Anxiety may also present with physical symptoms including stomach issues, headaches, and twitching.
- Nightmares: Sexual abuse and subsequent PTSD can cause nightmares. According to a recent study, children are more likely to suffer from nightmares after sexual abuse than adults and people abused by a partner or family member are more likely to suffer from nightmares than persons abused by a stranger.
- Thoughts of low self-worth: Victims of abuse may blame themselves for the abuse. They may have feelings of guilt or shame because they did not or were not able to stop the abuse. This can manifest in low-self esteem, negative comments, or self-harm.
Everyone responds differently to trauma. Some people may not exhibit any behavioral changes, while others may exhibit every symptom listed above. If a person you love shows sudden or unusual behavioral changes, it’s important to monitor the situation and provide support.
The Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse
Sadly, trauma doesn’t always end when the abuse does. People who survive sexual abuse may struggle to understand and process the trauma years after the abuse. Unfortunately, long-term studies show that survivors of abuse are more prone to mental health issues and drug and alcohol issues than those who have not been abused.
Children who have been sexually abused are three times more likely to suffer from depression as an adult. For all survivors of sexual abuse, they are six times more likely to abuse cocaine than people who have not been abused, and 33 percent of women who are raped will contemplate suicide.
In addition to personal health problems, victims of abuse have a higher likelihood to have interpersonal problems. 38 percent of survivors of sexual violence struggle with relationships at work and school. This number increases to 79 percent when the perpetrator is a family member, close friend, or acquaintance and 84 percent if the abuser is an intimate partner.
What to Do if You Suspect Abuse
Victims may feel uncomfortable coming forward after abuse. When the victim is a child, it’s important that you be their advocate and provide support and compassion. How you respond to the abuse can affect how the child will respond to you. The survivor’s safety and comfort is the number one priority.
If you suspect abuse, take action:
- Talk to the person: A victim of sexual abuse may be waiting for you to reach out to them. But it’s important that you or careful with what you say. RAINN suggests choosing the time and place you have the conversation carefully. Be gentle and open to listening. Do not assign any blame or present feelings of shame, guilt, or anger. Ask questions, but don’t be too pushy.
- Offer help: If the victim is an adult, consider offering a place to stay or taking them to get help. If the person being abused is your child, remove them from the situation. If the abuse is happening in the home, this may mean leaving the home and finding a safe place. If you feel unsafe, contact one of the resources below to get help.
- File a report: Sexual abuse is a crime. You don’t need to have evidence to report your suspicions, but you should have a solid basis for these suspicions. The most direct way to report abuse is to the police. If the victim is a child, you can also make a report with child protective services. If you don’t feel safe, talk to a local advocacy group or your doctor about resources available.
- Connect with local resources: Abuse is a painful experience. There are many resources available to help you and your family begin to heal. Counseling or support groups may be helpful. It may take time to figure out what works best for your family.
- Consider legal action: The law allows victims of abuse to pursue criminal and civil recourse. If the victim is a child, an adult can take action on their behalf. An experienced attorney can explain your rights and discuss the benefits of a civil case.
Resources for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Whether you or a loved one is the victim of sexual abuse, it’s important to know that there are resources available. Beyond the resources listed above, there are several state and national organizations dedicated to helping survivors of sexual abuse. This includes:
- RAINN: RAINN is a national survivor’s advocacy group dedicated to victims of sexual assault. The organization provides online resources as well as a 24-hour hotline. If you need help, call 800.656.4673.
- FCASV: The Florida Council Against Sexual Violence supports victims throughout Florida. Their website will connect you with local crisis centers and give you information about your rights, legislative changes, and awareness and prevention campaigns.
- Victim’s Service Center: The Victim’s Service Center of Central Florida provides resources for the greater Orlando area. They have a 24-hour helpline that can be reached at 407-500-HEAL.
- STOP IT NOW!: STOP IT NOW helps you recognize the signs of abuse, guides you through what to do, and dealing with the aftermath. They have resource guides, prevention tools, and support stories. They also have a hotline that can be reached at 1.888.PREVENT.
It may seem unusual to file a civil suit after sexual abuse, but abuse can leave physical and emotional scars. Many times, victims of abuse suffer from long-term mental health issues, and require counseling and medication. Sadly, many victims require medical care when the abuse results in pain, infection, disease, or other physical trauma. Legal action can help survivors get the care they need both today and moving forward.
A civil suit may include costs related to:
- Medical bills: Including doctor visits, medication, and any treatment related to sexually transmitted diseases or an unwanted pregnancy.
- Lost wages: Emotional and physical trauma can interfere with a person’s ability to work. If a person was working before the abuse and is unable to return to work, they may receive lost wages.
- Pain and suffering: Sexual abuse can result in mental health issues like PTSD, drug addiction, or depression. Financial settlements can help victims get treatment including counseling, medication, or other services.
- Punitive damages: The court awards punitive damages in cases where the defendant’s actions are especially egregious. This may include sexual abuse.
Getting the Help You and Your Loved One Need
Sexual abuse is never okay, regardless of a person’s age, gender, sexual orientation, or relationship status. Abuse is abuse, even if it comes from someone we love. If you suspect sexual abuse, it’s important to do something. Recognizing the signs and knowing what to do is the first step in helping someone get help.
There are many reasons why people don’t report abuse. You can help.
Local resources and legal action can help you or your loved one move on. To learn more about your legal rights and how to help, consider contacting an experienced attorney.