Physical and sexual abuse of children is far more common than most people realize. If it has not happened to you, it most likely has happened to someone you know—whether they have told this to you or not.
The Children’s Assessment Center (CAC) estimates that 1 in every 4 women and 1 in every 6 men were sexually abused before age 18 in the United States. This number may be higher as many people never report the abuse they suffered.
Children are more likely to endure sexual assault and abuse than adults are, and it happens to every gender, race, class, religion, and ethnic group. Most often it is by someone that the child knows; a family member, friend of the family, teacher, babysitter, religious leader, or another person in a position of authority over the child.
When the child knows their abuser, they are less likely to disclose the abuse. This may because they care about their abuser, the abuser threatened them or their loved ones, they fear they will not be believed, or do not want to get in trouble.
Many children, and adults as well, feel guilty about or at fault for being abused. But abuse, sexual assault, rape and molestation are never the victim’s fault and solely the fault of the abuser.
If you or someone you know has been abused as a child and need help coping, please visit local counseling services. There are also resources online for adult survivors of child abuse at National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA), the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), or the Adult Survivor section of ChildHelp.
Life after abuse:
After being abused as children, adults decide for themselves whether they are victims, survivors, or if they give themselves a label at all.
There are many reactions to childhood abuse. In fact, each person reacts differently to trauma, and there is no right or wrong way to react.
Some survivors are able to move past abuse without counseling, however many are not and some who thought they were okay without counseling later realize that they need it after all.
There is no shame in seeking help from a trained professional after a traumatic experience. It does not make one weak, helpless or a victim. It is part of helping oneself heal. Similar to visiting doctor when one is sick, it is a logical and healthy thing to do.
One cannot just ‘get over’ childhood abuse, but with therapy, support from family and friends, religious support if one is a believer, and time, one can heal from trauma.
Life in general is often difficult after abuse, and so dating is no different. It may be even more difficult for someone who has been abused, especially if that abuse was sexual.
Unfortunately, some who have been abused as children seek out partners that behave similarly to their childhood abusers. They may want to relive the situation so they can correct it this time by preventing the abuse, or they may think that abuse is normal since it is all that they knew growing up and so feel more comfortable in the kind of abusive situation they are used to.
Others recoil away from all contact; romantic, sexual, and even platonic physical comforts, such as hugging friends or family members. They fear touch because it reminds them of their abuse, or they believe themselves unworthy of real affection because they never received it as children.
This is untrue. Victims and survivors of abuse are worthy and deserving of love, romance, consensual sex and physical affection.
Some who have been abused repress their trauma, forgetting sometimes even for years until something triggers the memory. Others may smile for the public, while suffering silently inside. Some may self-harm or self-medicate with drug and alcohol. Some many even use sex to harm or medicate themselves.
Self-medication or self-harm using sex is a dangerous thing to do, especially if it involves casual sex with multiple partners, unprotected sex, and sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In addition to the greater risk of STIs, violence and sexual assault that comes with those choices, there is also a risk of further traumatization as sex in these situations may remind them of or make them relive the abuse they experienced as a child, trigger PTSD, or cause further psychological pain.
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a common result of childhood abuse. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, nightmares, eating disorders, and many others. PTSD manifests differently in each person, and not all who experience child abuse have PTSD from it.
Though, self-harming or self-medicating with sex is not a proper treatment for PTSD and moving past abuse, victims and survivors of childhood abuse can have healthy and fulfilling sex lives, romantic relationships, and families.
There are most important things for someone who has been abused as a child to do before dating.
Abuse is never the fault of the abused. You did not deserve or cause your abuse. You did not let it happen. It was not your fault. You may have to hear that a lot, and repeat it to yourself even more, to truly accept that it was not your fault.
Pleasurable, consensual sex is completely different than rape, molestation, and sexual abuse. Keep sex separate from abuse in your mind so you can enjoy sex without it reminding you of the trauma or causing more trauma.
This is not easy but it is doable. It will take time and possibly professional help from a counselor.
Learn to enjoy yourself first, allow yourself to be completely in control of your own body and pleasure, before being intimate with a partner.
When you do feel ready for sex with a partner, make sure it is someone who you trust completely. Someone who understands what you are going through, will respect your limits, and go at your pace.
If you are not comfortable discussing what you enjoy and want out of intimacy or are not comfortable mentioning that you experienced abuse as a child, then you may not have the level of comfort necessary to be intimate with that person.
Whether you give yourself the label of victim, survivor, or do not give yourself a label at all, and whether you move past the trauma or not, the abuse you suffered as a child does not define you as a child, as an adult, or as a person. A trauma like that majorly affects your life and is a part of who you are, but it is not your whole life and not all you are.
You are not damaged or broken, you are a complete person worthy of love.
Those who have experienced abuse may keep that private, so you may be dating a victim or survivor without even realizing it. So if you are dating a survivor or victim of abuse—or suspect that you are—there are actions you can take in order to have a healthy relationship and help your partner cope.
Even if they are not victims or survivors of abuse, your date may not like being touched. A simple, no-pressure request like “can I have a kiss?” is very important, especially at first.
Eventually, you and your date may reach a point in your relationship when this is no longer necessary. That point might be when your date becomes your long term partner, or when they starts initiating physical contact first, but it may not be. It is safest to wait until they tell you they are comfortable with you touching them.
It may take longer for someone who has been abused to be comfortable with you, or any knew person. Open up to them, first, to show that you are trustworthy.
Be warm, friendly and encouraging, even if they seem distant, fearful and cold. This unconditional affection towards them will help them trust you.
Let your partner tell you when they feel ready to tell you—they may never feel comfortable talking in detail about it. If they do tell you, listen and provide comfort, but do not pry or give pity.
Never tell anyone else what they have disclosed to you—not even the authorities. Though you may be angered about what your partner suffered, and want the perpetrator to be punished (if he/she has not already been brought to justice), it would be a huge betrayal of the trust your partner placed in you to tell anybody about their abuse, and might hurt them as much as their abuser did.
Only your partner has the right to decide who knows about their abuse.
Learn what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is, what causes it and what its symptoms are. Notice if your partner is experiencing PTSD. Also, they may or may not realize that they have PTSD.
Your partner might explicitly tell you what their triggers are are, or you might have to figure them out based on their reactions to certain touches, sounds, sights, words or other things. When you know what their triggers are, do your best to avoid them.
Grounding techniques, such as telling the person where and when they are or asking them to describe the room around them, might help keep your partner in the present so that they do not relive past abuse through a flashback.
Give your partner space if triggered, but do not leave them alone. It is frightening to be triggered, and while your partner may not want to be touched at the moment, staying nearby while still providing them their personal space, can be soothing.
There is no single or correct way to be intimate. You and your partner can figure out together what works for both of you. Do not pressure or coerce your partner into doing anything they are not comfortable with.
If you are truly incompatible and unsatisfied, you may have to end the relationship.
Consent is not only sexy, it is mandatory. But with victims and survivors of abuse, consent can sometimes be harder to determine.
Survivors and victims that are triggered may regress to a childlike state, be unable to vocalize a “no” or otherwise incapable of indicating that they do not give consent in the moment. So pay careful attention to their body language and facial expressions, making sure they are still enjoying your touch, and keep asking if it is okay.
Checking for consent will not ‘ruin the mood’ if you truly care about each other and are comfortable with each other.
Communication is very important, talk inside and outside of the bedroom about what is okay and what is not okay, what they do and do not enjoy, and what you want and do not want, as well. Keep this an ongoing dialogue because it may change as they get more comfortable with you, themselves and their bodies, and move past the abuse they experienced.
Be there for them if they need to cry, need to talk about what happened, or just need to be held. Knowing that you are there for them, that they can trust you and rely on you, can make an abuse victim or survivor feel safe and help heal their trauma.
Still, you are not a trained professional so you should also politely encourage them to seek counseling if they need it, and offer to go with them if they do not want to go alone. They may or may not go, and they may or may not want you there with them if you go. Regardless, you must respect their decision.
You see that your partner is in pain, and that drugs, alcohol, or cutting, may temporarily relieve their pain, but do your best to prevent this self-medication and self-harm. It will only deepen their pain.Instead, steer them towards healthier means of relief, such as counseling, hobbies and activities they enjoy, and spending time together.
If this seems like a lot of work to you, then you are right. Dating someone who has endured childhood sexual or physical is hard work, but it is worth it because they are worth it.