The damage that is done to individuals who are sexually assaulted cannot be underestimated. There are a number of variables, and some people will find that they are affected in certain ways and not in others. No one, however, is only ‘mildly’ affected by sexual assault. There is research to suggest that the longer the abuse goes on for, the more the person will be affected; that intra-familial abuse (abuse by a member of the abused person’s family), and child sexual abuse affect a person to a greater degree than ‘just’ a one-off assault or an assault that takes place when a person is an adult.
It has been suggested that this is because an adult already has a sense of self; they already know themselves as a valuable person and a person of worth. They know to be outraged at the gross violation they have been subjected to. They know they did nothing wrong (even though we live in a society that loves to victim-blame and tell victims they are the root cause of their own victimisation).
What all victims and survivors of sexual assault have in common, however, is an attack on their sense of being safe. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from PTSD. Some of us suffer poor self-image, low self-esteem, and a myriad mental, psychological and emotional difficulties. We’re at a greater risk of self-harm, too. My own breasts are still scarred from attempts to try to hack them off when I was a teenager; sure that being born female was the root of all my problems and that if I could perform a double mastectomy on myself with a carving knife, men would stop sexually assaulting me.
There is often physical damage, too. Apart altogether from the immediate and obvious damage done to abused flesh, and the damage done by self-harming, girls who are abused often find (like I did) that there is damage done to their reproductive organs, which impacts on their ability to have children of their own.
Forming and keeping intimate relationships is an area fraught with difficulty for those of us who were abused. Particularly if the abuse started in childhood – because we are primed to almost expect to be abused. I wrote a bit about that in my book, Gullible Travels:
‘My family spent years and years teaching me that I was less than nothing – I was useless, worthless, good-for-nothing, lazy, ugly, stupid, fat, ridiculous, disgusting, full of notions, a waste of space. Touch was abuse. My family spent my entire childhood teaching me to hate myself. I was a model student.
As an abused child, I had a job. My job was to save myself. By saving myself, I don’t mean stopping the abuse – I just mean getting through it alive. My job was to get out of there in one piece – physically at least. My job was to stay alive. When that is your job description, knowing what’s expected of you is not difficult: You do what the person in charge tells you to do. You stop questioning. You stop listening to your own instinct because to do so could be detrimental to your health. Then, you stop recognising your own instinct. That’s when you really get in to trouble. Your instinct is there to protect you – to stop you from doing dangerous things. If you can’t even recognise your instinct in order to pay attention to it, you are in real trouble.
Your brain takes sides against itself and against you. One half tries to understand how the people upon whom you depend for everything are untrustworthy. You cannot trust the only people in the world that you are supposed to trust. But you have to. Otherwise, what will happen to you? Where will you live? What will you eat? If you run away (which you try, unsuccessfully, to do) what will happen to you then? Will you run away to something that is worse than what you’re running from? You don’t know – so you stop fighting.
The other half of your brain decides it’s better to stop trying to figure out what’s going on. Autopilot is a better option, this half thinks. It thinks that is the way to get you through safely; stop asking questions, stop fighting. Take a deep breath. And hold it. Both sides of your brain just want to get you through the horror safely. Their definitions of ‘safe’ don’t match. But if you get through this alive, you can sort that out later. Or try to. Or you can avoid it. If you get through this alive, you will have choices. If you get through this alive, you can address all the horror later. Or not.’
Of course, a huge problem with not hearing your instinct as a child is that you continue to be unable to hear it as an adult. This, then, leads to the phenomenon of revictimisation; where people who were sexually abused as children or teenagers are vulnerable to further abuse when they are adults. This, then, compounds the damage already done to them.
The damage that sexual abuse does to the victim and their family is all too often underestimated. It is long-lasting and far-reaching, a fact that is often over-looked by people who haven’t lived through abuse.
It make me marvel, as a woman living in Ireland, how Irish people bang on about the famine and post-colonialism and the damage it has done, and continues to do Irish people and the Irish psyche. This year, the Rising of 1916 is being commemorated and there is much discussion about the effect it has had on the Irish and the Irish psyche. Yet, there isn’t a single person alive who remembers either the famine or the 1916 Rising and it’s accepted as legitimate to discuss at length how they have effected Irish people; while people who were sexually abused during their own lifetimes and are profoundly effected by it, are told to be quiet and ‘get over it’. Which, of course, just adds to the damage.