Adult survivors of child sexual abuse can overcome the trauma with help.

A ll over the world, November 19 is commemorated as World Child Sexual Abuse Day. In our country, since we engage in a remarkable defense mechanism called denial, whereby we simply deny to ourselves the existence of some social evils, this day is seen as pretty much any other day, for, we don't think of Child Sexual Abuse as an ‘Indian problem'. However, owing to concerted efforts on the part of writers, activists, mental health professionals and non-governmental organisations who have espoused the cause and bellowed about it from whatever rooftop they could find, and owing to the best-selling book, Bitter Chocolate by Pinki Virani, we have at least started talking about it in recent times.

Many people think that child sexual abuse in our country is a recent phenomenon. More denial. Let me assure you that child sexual abuse has been around in our country for many, many years. And if you still don't believe it's as much of a serious problem I am making it out to be, kindly get yourself a copy of the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India's report of the ‘National Study on Child Abuse: India 2007', that dropped a bombshell by noting that “53.22 per cent of children all over the country reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse” (when I last checked, it was available online at http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf ).

Unwanted memories

People who have been sexually abused as children, do survive into adulthood, and do end up leading normal lives, going to work, getting married and having relationships with family and friends. Since the abuse was such a traumatic event and since it took place when they were very young children, its memory is buried deep in the corner of their minds, and gets re-activated only later in life, usually when they engage in intimate relationships of their own. In some situations, for instance, if the abuse happened when they were slightly older children, the survivor may recall the horrors of the event well, and may even share it with family members, friends or partners, even though this is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things in life for them to share. If you are at the receiving end of the sharing, please remember you are being honoured.

Insensitive responses

Adult survivors of child sexual abuse not only have to deal with the trauma of the abuse, but also the often insensitive responses of people around them. When they need understanding and empathy, they are not always fortunate to receive it. If ever you find that your family member, friend or partner is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, please be sensitive and understanding. With love and support they can overcome their trauma and lead perfectly normal lives. Seeing a mental health professional may help in speeding up the recovery process. It is worth noting that, although less commonly than girls, young boys are also victims of child sexual abuse. Their abusers are usually older males in their environment — family members, friends, older boys and so on. However, in some situations, they can also be sexually abused by older, sexually frustrated women.

Typically, adult survivors of child sexual abuse tend to have issues related to emotional intimacy and sexual functioning. They may find it extremely difficult to experience and express intimacy in their personal relationships. The other big issues in the minds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse are trust and guilt. Invariably, their abuser in childhood is an older person they instinctively trusted and perhaps, even, looked up to. So when their trust was betrayed, they find it difficult to establish trust in their adult relationships. Also, their parents may have stayed in denial about the abuse and may not have done anything about the abuse even when they found out about it. This leads to a difficulty in trusting and respecting their ‘ protectors', which may spill over into adult relationships as well. Sadly, many experience guilt because they have this baseless feeling that somehow, they brought the abuse on themselves or that they didn't do enough to stop it. It may take them ages to realise that they are in no way responsible for the abuse. Some may find it distasteful to engage in sex. Sometimes, the opposite may happen and since they have been sexualised very early, they may display non-discerning forms of sexual behaviour in adulthood, for, they may feel that it is only through sex that they can relate to the world around them.

Traumatic

Whatever the individual variation, adult survivors of child sexual abuse need to be handled with compassion and dignity. Remember that one out every two of us has been a victim of unwanted sexual attentions from a loved, trusted and respected adult when we were young and had no idea what sex was. Try and imagine how traumatising it must have been. You can help by reading about the subject and talking to a mental health professional about it. I have known many people who have nurtured their sexually abused partners and helped them recover trust and the capacity for intimacy completely, thereby enabling them to make happy lives for themselves. Hopefully, with sensitive people in their environment, adult survivors of sexual abuse may find that the chocolate is not as bitter any more.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at :

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com