How to Recognize Sexual Abuse

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There are several types of abuse:

But first, let’s define what “abuse” actually means.

The word comes from Latin and Old French words that mean “misused” and “to use wrongly.” Basically, something’s happening that shouldn’t be happening! It’s wrong.

If nothing else, the one thing you should always remember is that abuse is NOT your fault. 

Sexual Abuse

For a lot of people, this is the hardest one to talk about or even think about. What’s difficult for many people to grasp is that it’s not just women who experience sexual abuse. Men do too, but they’re far less likely to speak up about it because of societal pressure and stigma.

When it happens during childhood, it can affect the entire course of your life. It’s psychologically traumatic. And sometimes the victims blame themselves instead of their abusers.

The American Psychological Association has this to say about sexual abuse: “Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

And if you try to squash these feelings deep inside, not telling anyone about them, not admitting to yourself that you’ve been abused—you only suffer more. After all, how could something like that happen to you? It happens to other people—you hear about it in the news, but it’s not part of your life… Until now.

Eventually, it will eat away at your soul like acid eats away at anything. For many, it destroys any trust they once had in the sex of the person who abused them. It turns into “all men are pigs” or “all women are bitches” mantra across the internet.

What Is It?

Sexual abuse is very, very serious, and a problem we need to shine a big-ass spotlight on. The key is making sure we understand exactly what counts—and what doesn’t.

What Counts

Sexual abuse is, just like it sounds, abuse relating to sex. Call it by its other names: sexual assault, rape, harassment, unwanted physical contact after an explicit “no.”

In a nutshell: “Any sexual activity that you do not agree to.” (WebMD, emphasis mine)

What Doesn’t Count

Sexual abuse is not someone waking up after a consensual one-night-stand and deciding they didn’t like it, so they’re going to call it rape. That’s just called ruining someone’s life.

It’s not being catcalled as you walk down the streets. It’s not someone asking you to smile, or holding the door open for you, or even someone giving you a once-over.

All of those things might make you feel uncomfortable, but they are not cause to ruin someone’s life just because you didn’t like it or regret it afterward.

How to Recognize It

Sexual abuse is tied intimately with domestic abuse, psychological or mental abuse, and emotional abuse. So what’s included in “any sexual activity that you do not agree to”? Probably more than you think.

  • Rape
  • Marital rape—yes, it’s a thing
  • Attempted rape
  • Reproductive coercion
  • Inappropriate touching (by anyone, including strangers, bosses, coworkers, friends, family members, you name it)
  • Partners using sex as a bargaining chip
    • “I won’t sleep with you unless you do [thing that you don’t want to do]
    • “Sleep with me or I’ll do [thing you don’t want me to do]
  • Incest
  • Voyeurism
  • Exhibitionism
  • Child abuse
  • Statutory rape

Most sexual abuse occurs between people who know each other, such as partners, friends, and family members. This complicates matters quite a lot, which is why it ties in with many other forms of abuse.

Reproductive Coercion

This one gives me the creeps because I’m childfree. This one is a form of power, control, and manipulation over one’s reproductive system. Some of the most common forms of reproductive coercion involve refusing to wear condoms or take birth control, removing a condom during sex without consent or informing the partner, sabotaging birth control, and the list continues.

Another phrase for this is “baby trapping.”

It happens when women tell you they’re on the pill and then miraculously become pregnant when you didn’t want to be a father. It happens when a partner pressures you into having a child whether you wanted one or not. And sometimes they’ll refuse to help pay for it.

Do you know someone who seems to always be pregnant, whether she’s happy about it or not? That might be a form of reproductive coercion—keeping you pregnant constantly without giving your body a break.

For childfree people, reproductive coercion is a huge, huge warning sign and a red flag to get out of the relationship. It doesn’t matter what your feelings for that person are—if they’re trying to control your reproductive system that is NOT okay.

What to Do About It

There are several preventative measures you can take.

  • Never leave your drinks unattended. Date rape drugs are easy to slip in unnoticed.
  • Remain vigilant—your safety is your responsibility, regardless of how you happen to dress.
  • Exercise your Second Amendment right to carry a firearm—get a concealed pistol license if your state allows, and carry whenever you can.
  • Keep pepper spray or mace in your purse, pocket, or backpack.   
  • Learn a martial art such as jiu-jitsu—or, at the very least, know how to throw a punch.
  • Remain physically fit. It’s either fight or flight, and regardless of which one occurs, you’re going to need to have endurance and strength.

Steps to Take

But what should you do if the sexual abuse, specifically rape, has already occurred?

  1. Act fast. Get away from your abuser and call 911.
  2. Call a trusted friend or family member or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
  3. DO NOT wash, clean, bathe, or remove anything from your body. It’s all evidence, and as much as you want to burn your clothes, don’t.
  4. Go to a hospital or emergency room. Get a rape kit done, get checked out by the doctors for STDs and other things. Hospitals can also recommend support groups.
  5. Go to therapy. Counseling is key—it will help you come to terms with what has happened to you. Bottling it up inside is the perfect way to make you feel worse. When you talk about it, either with a therapist or trusted friends and family members, it lets the poison out.

Please always remember that abuse is not your fault. You are not to blame for what happened to you, and no one should tell you or try to convince you that it’s your fault.

Another way to cope and process what has happened is to write about it. Even if you only write it for yourself, in a journal or on a piece of paper that you later burn, getting the thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto the page or the screen helps bleed off the negative energy that will otherwise build up to a bursting point.

Resources & Helplines

You are not alone. Others have gone through what you’ve gone through, but no one has had your exact experience, because it’s yours. But that doesn’t mean that others don’t understand. Some women have made it their life’s mission to bring awareness to the issue of sexual abuse and assault, and provide structured support groups to other victims.

Rachel Thompson is one of those women. She is a sexual abuse survivor who has generated an awareness movement online and written a book about her own experiences.

If you’ve been sexually abused, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

Please check out DrugRecovery.com’s Domestic Violence resource page, where you can find even more helpful information. Recovery Village also has a good article on Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse.

Call to Action

Are you a sexual abuse survivor? Do you know someone who has experienced it? What do you wish you’d done differently, or what do you wish others would know? Join the discussion below.

Want a PDF version of all installments of this Abuse Series packaged together for easy reference?

Download your copy now!

4 thoughts on “How to Recognize Sexual Abuse”

  1. Good that you are speaking about sexual abuse. Yes there are many forms of abuse sexual abuse isn’t something talked about.

  2. It is so hard to be a bystander when you know someone who is being abused but they won’t admit it to the people who could help them. And they are an adult. Tough topic and tough situation all the way around!

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