Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that is unwanted, where a perpetrator uses force or coercion and the victim does not or is not able to give consent. The fall-out from sexual abuse can be so severe and the physical and psychological effects so disturbing, that many people have trouble making any sense of the incident at all.
Because there are often very strong feelings of anger, shame, humiliation and sadness, the victim may put off reporting the incident, or simply never mention it again. Unfortunately, our culture is rife with misconceptions about sexual abuse, and these make it even more difficult for victims to speak out, get treatment, and move on with their lives.
Myth #1: Sexual Abuse is committed by strangers
We can blame the media for perpetrating the idea that rape and sexual assault only occur between unlucky victims and deranged criminals. While this does occur, the vast majority of those who experience sexual abuse do so within the context of their own homes, with people they know and sadly, trust.
In addition, sexual abusers are not psychotic or crazed in some way – rather abusers are “regular” people using power and control to dominate another person.
Myth #2: Marital sexual abuse is none of our business
Many countries still consider marital rape a bit of an oxymoron. Unfortunately, even law enforcement and mental health practitioners can view marital sexual abuse as somehow less serious than other crimes.
The truth is that an assault from someone we love (and continue to live with) can contain very complex layers of physical and emotional abuse too, making it a truly devastating phenomenon.
Myth #3 : Sometimes, the victim has encouraged the abuse
Actually a collection of myths, the idea is essentially that the victim asked for or caused their own assault.
To believe that a victim asks for sexual abuse through style of dress or behavior, for instance, is to misunderstand what sexual abuse is about. And this leads to the next and perhaps most damaging myth.
Myth #4: Sexual abuse is about sex
Sexual abuse is abuse. It constitutes someone’s desire to overpower and dominate another, just as with physical and emotional abuse.
In sexual abuse, however, the act is sexualised. But make no mistake: rapists and sexual abusers do not act from insatiable desire or attraction to their victims. They are often in regular relationships where sex is available anyway, and their victims are not necessarily attractive or viable as sexual partners (i.e. the elderly or children).
Myth #5: Consent is hard to define
Undermining someone’s right to consent is a tool used by sexual abusers. This myth can be seen when people explain situations where consent was given and then retracted, where alcohol or substances were involved, or when the people involved were in a relationship.
The fact is that consent should always be obvious, and a person who is unsure of their partner’s feelings in a situation is obliged to simply ask. Characterising sexual abuse as a miscommunication or just regular sex gone too far minimises the fact that it is a crime committed by a perfectly aware assailant.
The above myths are sadly not a comprehensive list. For the person who has experienced sexual abuse, the realisation that they live in a culture that blames the victim and encourages their silence can be very distressing. However, if you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse, the most important thing you can do is speak out.
Sexual abusers and rapist are part of a systemised, cultural problem of normalised violence against women and the invisibility of sexual abuse against men. Unfortunately, rehabilitating a sexual offender is not always successful. However, victims of abuse can and do heal from the trauma and go on to lead full and meaningful lives, despite what has been done to them.
The first part of healing from sexual abuse is regaining the power that has been forcibly taken from you. This includes addressing some of the dysfunctional beliefs we have about sexual abuse. For perpetrators, maintaining a shroud of shame and secrecy over sexual abuse allows it to carry on. Speaking candidly and honestly about your sexual abuse is the first step on your road to recovery.
If you want help with dealing with sex abuse or have experienced sexual abuse, Australia Counselling links you with professional counsellors and psychologists in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and regional areas of Australia. Just visit our Abuse- emotional, physical, sexual page to see counsellors and psychologists listed in your local area who work with these issues.