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The mental health impact of sexual abuse

The mental health impact of sexual abuse is quite often an afterthought by many people; you might tend to think of the physicality of abuse before considering how it can affect a victim/survivors mental health. That’s because often the wounds and scars caused by any kind of abuse – but in particular sexual abuse – are invisible. You can find out more about the invisibility of sexual abuse by listening to one of our counsellors in the video below, and read on to find out more about the mental health outcomes of sexual abuse.

What is the definition of sexual abuse?

In our previous blog post we defined sexual abuse as “any behaviour thought to be of a sexual nature which is unwanted and takes place without consent”. Notice that this definition states any behaviour. This is because sexual abuse does not just include rape or sexual assault, but can also include behaviour such as threats of rape, forced kissing, sexually degrading verbal abuse and sharing explicit photos or videos without consent.

Sexual abuse crimes are also not exclusively committed by strangers as many people think. In fact, as we mention in our recent post, in Northern Ireland over a third of rapes committed by male perpetrators involve their current or ex-partner as the victim. And this is only those that get reported – through our work and the work of other organisations such as MAP, we know that sexual abuse in intimate partner relationships often goes unreported due to the fear, shame and guilt the victims/survivors feel.

Types of sexual abuse

We disclosed the various types of sexual abuse that can occur in and outside of intimate partner relationships – including marriage – in our Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week blog post, which you can read here. We believe it’s important to raise awareness of the many different forms sexual abuse can take so that you would be able to recognise it in your own relationships and the relationships of family, friends and colleagues if necessary.

We also believe it’s vital that the general public are informed about sexual abuse and what impact it has on the victim/survivor. A few facts that are vital to remember are:

Power

Sexual abuse frequently comes under the umbrella of coercive control – it is often used in relationships by perpetrators to humiliate, manipulate, and exert power over their partner.

Blame

In order to exercise coercive control through sexual abuse, perpetrators will often turn the blame on their partner, saying things such as ‘If you didn’t…I wouldn’t have to…” or “You just make me so angry I can’t help doing…”. This makes it seem as if the abuser holds no blame and the victim/survivor holds it all. This is completely untrue – we must never victim-blame.

Impact

Sexual abuse has a devastating impact on the victim/survivor. It leaves them feeling broken, a shell of their former self, with little to no confidence or self-esteem. It can affect their relationships – intimate or otherwise – for years afterwards. That is why it is so important to treat them with respect, listen to them and believe them, whether you’re a friend, a family member or a professional offering support.

The mental health effects of sexual abuse

As our counsellor Dympna discusses in the video above, sexual abuse impacts a person’s mental health in many different ways, and unfortunately the outcomes can effect survivors for years.

Northern Ireland’s Interim Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill also discussed the mental health impact of sexual abuse a recent conference on sexual abuse and trauma. Professor O’Neill listed multiple lasting effects sexual abuse can have on a person’s mental health, such as:

  • Feeling shame, blame and guilt
  • Suffering from conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and agorophobia (the fear of being in situations where escaping is difficult)
  • Suffering from panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares
  • Having attachment difficulties – often either “too eager” or completely avoiding intimacy
  • Addiction issues

These mental health outcomes can last for years which is why it’s essential that survivors are provided with compassionate, trauma-informed care and support. What is also important to remember is that the support a person needs after sexual abuse will likely differ depending on a range of variables, including their gender and their relationship to the perpetrator.

For example, a person may become trauma-bonded to the perpetrator, especially if they are in an intimate relationship with them. Trauma bonding, as Cardiff Women’s Aid explain here is “a psychological response to abuse…where a victim feels responsible for their abuser’s emotions and actions”; this clearly can have a long-lasting impact on the mental health of the victim/survivor. Trauma bonding within an intimate partner relationship could mean a victim/survivor doesn’t believe their partner is actually abusing them, that they are unwilling to leave the relationship, or that they justify their partner’s abusive behaviour to friends and family.

The presence of trauma bonding clearly makes the support provided to victim/survivors very complex. However, ultimately it is essential to understand that the mental health impact of the trauma of sexual abuse in relationships will always be very complex, whatever the mental health outcomes a victim/survivor is experiencing as a result of being sexually abused by their partner. There is not – and nor should there be – a “one-size fits all” approach.

How Women’s Aid can help

We offer a range of services to women and children who have experienced many forms of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse. We understand the complexity of abuse, trauma, and the mental health impact this has on a person, which is why we offer a variety of support services such as counselling and emergency accommodation. We’re also here just to chat if you need to talk to somebody about what you’re going through; you can call us, send us and email, or web chat with us. It’s all confidential and completely free of charge and obligation – we will never force you to report any abuse, leave your home or do anything you are not comfortable with doing. With Women’s Aid, it’s your support, your way.

We offer support to women in the Belfast and Lisburn areas, but there are Women’s Aid groups across Northern Ireland that can help. Find out more here.

There are also services across NI for specific groups – see below:

Men’s Advisory Project – for men who have experienced domestic abuse

The Rainbow Project – a health organisation that works to improve the physical, mental & emotional health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people in Northern Ireland

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