Childhood sexual abuse is an extremely sensitive social problem that receives far too little attention.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse is more common than you might think, but in many cases, it is simply hushed up. However, it is the responsibility of every individual and our society as a whole to address child abuse: to raise awareness about the problem and to protect those affected from long-term psychological effects.
As long as victims of abuse are not listened to or given the opportunity to speak up, they will always suffer from the deeply scarring trauma and may not be able to develop in a healthy way. In the worst case they might even end up in prostitution.
SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN AS A SOCIAL TABOO ZONE
Sadly, it happens time and again that adults, in most cases men, assault defenceless children and force them to perform sexual acts. In doing so, they shamelessly exploit their position of power and the vulnerability of the child under protection. Often, sexual abuse by outsiders is equated with rape. Not only oral, anal and vaginal sex should be understood as abuse, but also all other acts of an adult that he or she commits with the intention of sexually stimulating himself or herself in front of the child.
People often react to the subject of abuse with a lack of understanding because they cannot imagine that someone would harm children. So, they just try to avoid the problem or worse, just look away. But it is precisely this attitude that leads to the fact that many abuse victims are still left alone with their problem and have no one to talk to about the abuse. However, the help and support from adults and an understanding of the victims are basic requirements in order to free those affected from the abusive relationship.
Despite the knowledge that most cases occur within the immediate family circle, there are still deniers of this sensitive issue. In nearly 90% of the known cases the abuse is committed by a family member. One quarter of those cases are committed by fathers or stepfathers.
As child sexual abuse often occurs in the family and not all abuse victims report this, there is a high number of unreported cases. A series of surveys conducted with adult women estimates that of all girls under the age of 13 in Austria 2-5% are victims of child abuse, which would correspond to around 10,000 to 25,000 cases per year. In contrast to physical abuse, in which obvious injuries are more common, child sexual abuse is often more difficult to detect. As a result of having suffered sexual abuse for years, young girls do not want to speak about what happened to them because of feelings of shame and guilt or fear that their family will then fall apart. Add to this the psychological pressure from the perpetrator, who keeps telling the child that he or she would be betraying their own family if they spoke about the abuse.
OFTEN TIMES SEXUAL ABUSE IS A LIFE-DEFINING, TRAUMATISING EXPERIENCE
The consequences of child abuse can take different forms. The central element that particularly harms the victims of abuse comprises long-term confusion on an emotional, sexual and cognitive level. Firstly, the child is confused and disoriented by the changing role of authoritative figure and sexual partner. Secondly, by denying sexual acts the perpetrator deprives the victim of the possibility of understanding their emotions and being able to classify them. As the child is also under enormous pressure from the perpetrator to keep the events secret, the child is left alone with his or her fears and remains helpless and vulnerable (especially to the abuser). Thirdly, the child’s trust is shaken enormously. The situation is made even more difficult by the lack of trust in the victims‘ immediate environment. Fourthly, disregarding the child’s will and repeating the hurtful acts confronts the victim with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. Fifthly, child abuse can cause severe damage to one´s self-confidence if the child begins to attribute feelings of shame, worthlessness and guilt to themselves.
According to some experts, the sexual abuse is made even worse by:
- the greater the age difference between victim and perpetrator
- the younger the abuse victim
- the more kinship there is between the two
- the longer the abuse lasts
- the threat or increase of more violence during the act
- the more pronounced the secrecy
- the less trust there is in other protective persons of trust in the child´s environment
Although the knowledge about the abuse during childhood is stuck in the mind forever, one´s consciousness can prevent access to the traumatic experiences by dissociating them (= splitting off). Nonetheless, shreds of memories emerge time and again, which the victims cannot classify timewise or on a personal level. However, if a traumatised person is ‘triggered’ by noises, feelings or similar situations he or she experiences the traumatic experience again, with the same intensity as if it were actually happening in that moment. Further consequences of child sexual abuse can be seen in eating and identity disorders, addiction problems, fears of commitment and the inability to create one’s own boundaries. Aggressive sexual behaviour and prostitution can also be the result of sexual abuse.
PROSTITUTION AS A REPETITION OF EXPERIENCED TRAUMATA
Particularly in the areas of prostitution there are many victims of childhood abuse experiences: as a Hamburg study underlines, 83% of the prostitutes surveyed had trauma experiences in early childhood, of which 48% were cases of sexual abuse. There are many studies that show that having experienced abuse during childhood far more often leads to abusive relationships in adulthood. Many people are probably asking themselves: what causes victims of sexual abuse to expose themselves to newly repeated abuse?
Feelings of worthlessness and enthusiasm for violence
From the point of view of commitment theory, sexual abuse has serious consequences for those affected: victims adapt to the expectations of the adults and imprint them while they push their own desires and feelings completely into the background until they become invisible. Any form of self-protection is gone. Victims simply accept the violence of the perpetrator and as they develop, they can potentially generate an unhealthy idea of violence which makes them feel safe. As is long known and has already been mentioned above, most victims of abuse suffer from severe feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, which prevent them from perceiving themselves positively. Unfortunately, this also encourages following thoughts in the minds of the victims: ‘I’m not worth for anything better’ and ‘Self-humiliation is okay’.
In addition to this, traumatised people fall more quickly into agonising states of hypervigilance, which may lead them to consciously expose themselves to violence, as it can give them temporary relief from the agonising emotional state. It has been shown that an endogenous opioid release can be triggered during traumatic experiences. This release in turn has a calming effect on the victims. This is the reason why biological trauma research takes on the view that addiction-like dependencies for traumatic situations occur.
Self-harm is one of the consequences of sexual abuse and can also manifest itself in the form of prostitution. The re-enactment (repetition) of experienced trauma can supposedly give those affected the feeling that they have the situation under control this time. As they were unable to defend themselves during previous acts of abuse, they found themselves in a traumatic faint at that moment. The conscious repetition of the event later on in life and consent to the violence give the victims the feeling of having regained power. In this context, the splitting off from feelings (dissociation) plays a major role. Dissociations help the victims to cope with situations associated with disgust or fear more easily, for example by losing their ability to smell so that the victims can no longer smell the perpetrator and can consciously perceive it. The strongest manifestation of a dissociation would be the multiple personality disorder, in which a single personality suddenly splits up into different personalities.
In contrast to people who have not had any trauma experience, traumatised people are much more limited in terms of their ability to regulate stress. They slip into an emotional state much faster, also known as freezing, which limits their ability to act enormously. In this state of ‘stepping away’, those affected can no longer perceive the situation properly and are not able to defend themselves properly, which unfortunately makes them easier prey for the perpetrator(s). In general, brain research has been able to show that traumatic experiences lead to organic brain changes.
In an interview with therapist Ingeborg Kraus, a former prostitute (Marie) describes her own experiences with prostitution and shares her experiences within her close environment. She also recounts one of the worst types of prostitution: ‘gang rape’ or torture techniques, such as waterboarding, which a colleague of hers has already experienced. If one now thinks of a traumatised abuse victim, who is faced with a bunch of horny men who have paid for a gangbang party, he or she could become completely paralysed by dissociation. Paralysed or not is not important for the men, who only want to satisfy their own needs anyway. These men may not even realise the paralysis and what to them is ultimately seen as a job done, still feels like repeated rape for the victim.
Translated by Sophie Kitchen