“Sexual abuse”refers to any unwanted sexual activity that a person is subjected to. It can occur between people who know one another or who are in a relationship, but it can also take place between strangers. “Sexual activity” can refer to inappropriate touching, suggestive words, penetrative sex, exhibitionism, or being shown or sent lewd photos.
Sexual abuse is any sexual activity performed without informed consent. A child cannot give consent, nor can an adult person who is incapacitated in some way– for instance because of alcohol or other judgment-impairing substances, or due to mental illness, dementia, or senility.
In the last few years, we have become more sensitive to the different ways in which consent can be coerced, such as when a manager sexually propositions their subordinate – there may not be any physical force used, but the power dynamics at play may create a coercive environment in which saying “no”doesn’t feel like a viable option.
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, background, level of education, or social status. It can happen within marriages, between a caregiver and their charge, and even to children. Sexual abuse can be a one-time occurrence, but it can also be a pattern of behavior a survivor is subjected to. As pointed out earlier, it can occur through a person using force or the threat of force on the other person, or through coercing consent or using subterfuge to take advantage of those who cannot or who have declined to give consent.
The impact of sexual abuse
Our sense of bodily integrity and safety is something we all highly value. Sexual abuse threatens that, and it is a heavy burden to bear. In the short term, a person may experience shock, disbelief, and fear after they experience sexual abuse. Over the long term, the feelings of shame, powerlessness, fear, isolation, anxiety, and depression that can result from sexual abuse are an added weight to the trauma of sexual abuse.
For both adults and children, experiencing sexual abuse affects their peace of mind and sense of safety. In many cases they may withdraw from others, their productivity at work or school may decline, and their enjoyment of activities may be diminished. It’s important for the person who has experienced sexual abuse to understand that they are not responsible for what happened, that it’s not their fault. Healing begins in different ways for survivors, but this is one important place to start.