Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Ounce of prevention | Dealing with sexual abuse

Published:Wednesday | February 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Sexual abuse is rampant and widespread in our society. Children and adults who have been sexually abused suffer significant physical, emotional and mental challenges. It is absolutely important that we condemn sexual abuse and it is also vital that we understand how powerfully such acts impact on the victims, sometimes for the rest of their lives.The sad attitude of some is to make light of the sexual molestation and to defend and cover up for the perpetrator.

Perhaps as a society we do not understand the long term impact of these acts. Let me try to shed some light on this dark corner of human life.

Over 90 per cent of child victims know their offender. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse are in positions of trust or are responsible for the child's care: family member, teacher, clergy, security personnel, sports coach or the local don. Interestingly, research reports that the majority of sexual abusers were themselves at one time abused.


Survivors of sexual abuse live with those memories and many keep the abuse a secret for many, many years. Child victims may have tried to tell their story and were disbelieved or told to shut up or just kept silent because they felt there was no one they could trust.

For these reasons and many others, the effects of sexual abuse can continue many years after the abuse has ended. There is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience, but the earlier it is addressed, the less the suffering.

Victims of sexual abuse may face some of the following problems:


Victims often feel guilty about not having been able to prevent or stop the abuse, or even blame themselves, especially if at the time they experienced some physical pleasure.

For the victim, the distinguishing line between abuser and abusee may remain blurred throughout their life. But no matter what, society must remain crystal clear about who is who and what is what. We must remind victims that it is never too late to begin healing from this experience. It is important to understand that it was the person that hurt you that should be held accountable, not you.


When one's earliest sexual experience was abusive, intimate relationships later in life might often be problematic. Some abused have disturbing flashbacks or painful memories in intimate situations or while having sex, even when it is consensual and on their own terms. Victims may also struggle with issues of trust and security in relationships.


Those abused may struggle with low self-esteem, which can result from the negative messages often given by abusers, and from having been violated or ignored. Low self-esteem affects many different areas of life, including relationships, career, and even health.


A long list of physical disorders may result from the psychological trauma of sexual abuse. The list includes high blood pressure, heart beat irregularities, headaches, backache, sleep disorders, digestive disturbances and hormonal imbalance. Mental issues - like personality disorders, depression, anxiety, self abuse and panic disorders - frequently occur.

The underlying cause of these problems usually goes unrecognised for a very long time, as the sufferer will try to forget about and disconnect from those painful memories. They often see many doctors and their symptoms remain very resistant to the usual drug treatments. Once the real problem is recognised, they respond well to psychotherapy or counseling.


When someone tells you that they have been sexually abused, it can be difficult to handle, but our reaction makes all the difference. Encouraging words and phrases can offer vital support for the survivor.

Here are some useful responses you can consider using:

- "I believe you." The best thing you can do is to believe them. It can be extremely difficult for survivors to share their story and may fear that they won't be believed. Leave any "why" questions or investigations to the experts - your main focus is to support this person.

- "I am sorry this happened." Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like "This must be really tough for you," and, "I appreciate you sharing this with me," help to create empathy.

- "You can trust me." When a survivor confides in you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always get their permission before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are usually required to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask how they feel about this.

- "It is not your fault." Survivors of abuse often blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the person who is abused, even more than once, that they are not to blame.

- "You are not alone." Let the abused individual know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people who care and that there are personnel able to support them while they recover from the experience.

- "Are you open to have medical help?" The survivor might need medical and psychological care, even if the event happened a long time ago. It is helpful to ask directly, "Are you willing to have professional help?" You can further aid the victim by offering to arrange appointments and to accompany them.

- "This does not change how I think of you." Some abused persons fear that sharing their story will change the way other people see them. Reassure them that experiencing sexual violence does not change the way you think or feel about them.

While we confront the terrible sin of sexual abuse let us not further victimise the victims. Let us do all we can to love, support and facilitate their healing.

- You may email Dr Vendryes at or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:15 pm. Visit for details on his books and articles