Sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic for everyone, survivors and supportive friends and family alike. But it’s important to open up the conversation and understand just how often it occurs, and the devastating toll it can take on the abused person. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says between 12% and 40% of children in the U.S. are sexually abused in some way. And for many, these acts occur from family members or people they trust as opposed to strangers.
How adults deal with a history of childhood sexual abuse
Everyone has a different trauma response, which can make it difficult to detect childhood sexual abuse in someone who’s now an adult. ACOG explains big life events like birth, death, or marriage may trigger a response in the abused person. And many may not even fully recall their abusive past until much later in life.
Think you may know someone who was sexually abused? Here’s the first big sign to look for.
The disturbing sign: Reckless sexual activity as an adult
You may have a promiscuous adult friend who participates in unsafe sexual activity with multiple partners. While this may just make them appear irresponsible, it could actually be a sign of past abuse. Marriage and family therapist Stephen L. Braveman tells Everyday Health, “They typically wind up with splitting behavior, where things become very black and white. Either they are very sexually active, or they shut down sexually.”
As Braveman notes, it can go either way, so take note.
Disassociation or feelings of detachment
There are many psychological signs that someone was sexually abused, and disassociating is one of them, says A Voice For The Innocent. They may have periods of feeling totally detached from reality, especially if they’re reminded of the past abuse in some way. This may seem alarming, but it’s actually a very common experience for trauma survivors. Your abused friend or family member may not really remember what occurred during disassociation, either.
PTSD-like responses to reminders of the assault
PTSD isn’t just something soldiers in war experience — it’s actually a very common response to sexual trauma. RAINN explains survivors may have flashbacks or nightmares about the event. They also may totally avoid any places or people that remind them of the abuse that occurred. This can make it incredibly difficult to maintain relationships, or even function in public.
If you notice these behaviors in a friend or family member, especially when faced with certain people or locations, it may be time to ask them if anything happened.
Misuse of drugs and alcohol
In many cases of substance abuse, the person misusing drugs or alcohol was taken advantage of sexually. GoodTherapy.org explains numerous studies have found direct links between childhood sexual abuse and disorders involving substances. The studies found teens who endured this type of trauma had trouble coping in a healthy way. Thus, they leaned on destructive habits to help them ignore it.
If you suspect you may know someone who was a victim of sexual violence in their teen or childhood years, there’s a good chance it could happen to them again as an adult. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says past abuse could increase the likelihood of repeat victimization up to 13.7 times. This could be because they have a decreased awareness or understanding of danger. Or, they’re trying to cope with emotions that have never been brought to the surface.
What to say to a sexual abuse survivor
It can be extremely difficult for a sexual abuse survivor to talk about what happened. So when they do, ensure you’re using the right language to show your support. RAINN suggests saying phrases like, “I’m sorry this happened,” and, “It’s not your fault.” You should also recommend other resources to them that may be more helpful, like the National Sexual Assault Hotline. And if it’s a minor who tells you of sexual abuse that occurred, you are required to report the crime.