Sexual abuse and the resulting trauma is something that only a small percentage of affected people find courage to openly talk about.
Most keep their experiences and the connected feelings (mostly of shame and guilt) to themselves, fearing negative consequences and reactions from others or just feeling too ashamed to talk about it.
Sexual abuse refers to any kind of sexual activity that takes place without the consent of the person involved. If sexual intercourse is performed without consent or even physically forced onto someone this is called rape.
Most victims are young girls or boys and the perpetrators are mostly men. In most cases, the offender isn’t a stranger, but known to the victim. It is often a close relative, a friend of the family, a trusted or respected person such as a sports trainer, camp leader or as media is revealing more and more, even the local priest.
When the offender is known, it is even more difficult to talk about it, as the young victims often fear that nobody will believe them or that they themselves have done something “wrong” to have made this happen.
They will often suffer in silence, feeling ashamed and also guilty about what has happened or might still be happening.
Sexual abuse in adulthood very often takes place within relationships or marriages, which can go unrecognised and unreported for many years. In cases where women are attacked and raped by a stranger, violence and physical harm are another big issue and result in further traumatisation.
In any case, the psychological and emotional consequences are various and can affect the victims throughout their whole life. It is very common that victims become depressive, anxious, develop body or self consciousness problems, sometimes including self harming behaviour (such as excessive drinking) and suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
It is very important, that victims receive professional help as soon as possible to deal with the trauma and find ways of coping with what happened. But sadly, this is more the exception than the rule.
For many victims, it takes years until they find courage to confide in someone, if they do at all.
Recently, the courage of some people openly speaking about the abuse they suffered in Irish institutions run by the catholic church has led to a government funded investigation into clerical abuse in Ireland with dramatic and scandalous results which have found worldwide media attention. Since then, more and more people who have suffered sexual abuse of any form have started to speak about it, seeked professional help or even filed cases against their offenders.
This is a breakthrough, as the vicious cycle of taboo and secrecy, which has protected the offenders for such a long time, is thereby finally broken.
Because talking about the sexual abuse is very intimate, personal and shameful experience, it is important that it takes place in a very safe and protected space. A trusted friend or a counsellor or psychotherapist can be the right person to be approached first.
There are many cost-free helplines, organisations and foundations that offer their help to people with this kind of experience (www.oneinfour.org, www.irish-survivors.com, www.cari.ie) and can be approached anonymously. People who have suffered clerical sexual abuse are entitled to funded psychotherapy.
The more society is aware of sexual abuse, openly discusses and persecutes offenders, the easier it is for victims to feel encouraged to speak out about it.
It is estimated, that in Ireland 1 in 5 women and 1 in six men will have experienced sexual abuse at some point in their life. This is an outrageously high number, meaning that every one of us has at least one person in our circle of friends or family who have experienced this kind of traumatisation.
One way of decreasing the number over time is by persecuting offenders and making them responsible for their actions. Another far more important way is by empowering our children
to actively speak up if anyone does anything with or to their bodies they don’t want to happen. The more kids are openly taught about sexuality and sexual abuse, the more they will be able to judge if certain actions are inappropriate and find courage to speak up if it happens or at least confide in someone about it afterwards.
Being silent about sexual abuse only helps the offenders, as it gives them more freedom, space and security for their actions. This needs to change.