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Monique Pettiona - Counselling and Therapy - Sexual-abuse

Sexual-abuse Counselling

Sexual abuse is an unspeakable act – yet the most effective path to recovery is talking about it. Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, of any gender, at any age. It is common for sexual abuse survivors to experience a deeply felt sense of shame and humiliation about what happened. This can prevent survivors from accessing the help they need to move on.

Sexual abuse can (and does) happen to anyone – in Australia alone, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will have experienced sexual assault by adulthood. Unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to being the victim of sexual abuse, which is one of the main reasons only 38% of survivors report the abuse, and seek support. This needs to change.

Sexual abuse counselling isn’t about reliving the trauma of what happened – it’s about reclaiming your sense of self in the aftermath of abuse. Counselling can help you inhabit a life of your choosing, instead of being defined by events beyond your control.

Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault, and seeking help after abuse is crucial to recovery. Just accessing this page and reading about specialist sexual abuse services, including trauma recovery counselling, is a huge step in the direction of healing and wellness.

Childhood sexual abuse

The Australian Bureau of Statistic’s Personal Safety Survey showed that nearly 1.3 million Australian women and men report an experience of sexual abuse before the age of 15. In 95% of sexual abuse cases, the offender is known to the child.

Young people’s experiences of sexual abuse and sexual assault often involves perpetration by those close (family members, foster parents), social contacts (family friends) and people in a position of authority (clergy, teachers, sports coaches). The devastating effects of this violation of a child’s trust can stretch well into adulthood – especially as children frequently don’t tell anyone about the abuse when it occurs. The personal Safety Survey reports that 73% of child victims don’t disclose the abuse for at least a year, and 45% of victims don’t tell anyone for at least 5 years. Other victims never disclose the abuse.

As the offender is often well known to the young person and their family, childhood sexual abuse is frequently repeated, sometimes for years. Rather than involving the violence that commonly co-occurs with sexual abuse in adulthood, the perpetrator uses promises, threats and bribes to take advantage of the child’s powerlessness and trust. For those children that do find the courage to disclose the abuse (either immediately or later in life), feelings of being dismissed, not believed or even blamed can result in secondary assault and further traumatisation.

Child sexual abuse victims are amongst the most vulnerable members of our society. We have a collective responsibility to listen to their experiences, protect them from further harm, and ensure they have ongoing access to specialist counselling support.

Impact of childhood sexual abuse in adulthood

Being sexually assaulted as a young person can create long-lasting problems in many areas of adult life. Sexual abuse destroys the basic tenet of trust that it is safe for you to be around other people without fear of violation. Being sexually abused can wreak havoc with our sense of self, ability to function on a daily basis, and capacity to trust other people to look after us.

Common difficulties experienced by adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse include:

  • Feeling like you’re constantly in ‘crisis mode’
  • Negative self-perception
  • Interpersonal and relationship difficulties
  • Avoidance of intimacy; feeling emotionally numb
  • Chronic feelings of isolation and despair
  • Feeling emotionally reactive: anger, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Re-experiencing abusive patterns in adult relationships
  • Intense shame about the abuse
  • Fear of the impact speaking up may have on your relationships

Many survivors feel a misplaced sense of responsibility for the abuse. Counselling can help you come to acknowledge and accept the truth – it’s not your fault. It never was. The blame, shame and sense of responsibility you may be feeling belong only to the person or people who abused you. Specialist sexual abuse counselling is the most effective way to reduce the impact of childhood sexual assault, empowering you to live a life filled with hope, trust and fulfilling relationships.

Recent sexual abuse and assault

If you or someone you know has recently experienced sexual abuse or assault, you may be feeling immense emotional, physical and psychological pain. The NSW Rape Crisis Centre reports that 70% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by family members, friends or work colleagues; 29% of assaults are committed by social acquaintances and dates, and only 1% of sexual assaults are committed by strangers. Given these statistics, the experience of being sexually abused can result in very complex feelings for the victim.

Below are some common reactions to sexual abuse:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Humiliation
  • Mistrust
  • Self-blame
  • Shame
  • Shock
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Worthlessness

These emotions can be detrimental to our lives and relationships well beyond the time of the trauma occurring. One of the most common effects of sexual abuse is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterised by intrusive and obsessive thoughts about the abuse, including unwanted flashbacks. Sexual abuse victims often try to manage their emotions through substance abuse, compulsive behaviours like gambling and disordered eating, and self-harm. These ‘coping mechanisms’ can further exacerbate the hurt and destruction.

Sexual abuse trauma recovery

Sexual abuse is a devastating form of extreme interpersonal trauma. It can have a profoundly damaging effect on an individual’s sense of self, safety and health.

There’s a common misconception that sexual abuse counselling is an intensely harrowing, confronting experience for the survivor. In the 1990s, the most popular model of abuse counselling involved the survivor remembering, and often re-living the sexual abuse experience, accompanied by encouragement to ‘confront’ the perpetrator.

Twenty-five years later, we now have a completely different model of trauma recovery counselling, and it’s effective in reducing the trauma of sexual abuse for 70-90% of victims. Rather than the re-traumatisation of focusing on the abuse, modern trauma recovery counselling is wholly centred on equipping sexual abuse survivors with practical tools and techniques to:

  • Process what has happened
  • Reduce distressing after-effects
  • Strengthen resilience
  • Repair and build self-esteem
  • Improve coping mechanisms
  • Accept that the abuse need not define who they are
  • Enhance health, safety and general wellbeing

Effective recovery counselling techniques

Common counselling techniques include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness activities. Addressing negative thoughts and beliefs, practicing deep breathing and mind/body awareness when experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings associated with sexual abuse can reduce overall impact in the short, medium and long-term.

This revolutionary approach to PTSD and sexual abuse recovery was pioneered by psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk. Dr. Van Der Kolk’s neuroscientific research suggests that traumatic memory doesn’t just include images and narratives, but also intrusive emotions, sensory phenomena, and involuntary physical actions and reactions.

Rather than triggering painful memories associated with sexual abuse, modern sexual abuse recovery counselling focuses survivors on developing feelings of trust, relationship intimacy, safety and wellbeing. Sexual abuse counselling increases resilience by expanding each client’s awareness of their innate strength and courage in overcoming adversity.

Sexual abuse counsellors and psychologists will help you address your experience of sexual abuse, and reduce its ongoing impact. As such, memories that were once powerful cease to trigger intense emotions, and no longer get in the way of living a full and meaningful life.