What is sexual abuse?

There are lots of formal definitions of sexual abuse including,

‘Sexual abuse is a violation of power by someone with more power over a person who is vulnerable.

This violation takes a sexual form and involves a breach of trust, a breaking of boundaries and a profound violation of the survivor’s sense of self.

The most important thing to remember is that it is the ‘experience’ of the child. As a child, you are not able to consent in any way, shape or form.’

At Stepping Stones we recognise all sorts of experiences and behaviours as sexual abuse;

  • If you have been made to feel uncomfortable when someone was talking sexually or been shown sexual materials.
  • If you have been touched sexually inappropriately by an adult or by an older child. This touch could be fleeting, could be through clothing, and could on the face of things seem innocent or accidental but made you feel uncomfortable.
  • If you have been exposed to the sight of adults engaging in sexual activities.
  • If you have been spoken to in an explicitly sexual way.
  • If you have been coerced to behave in a sexual way with or towards others, adults or children.
  • If you have had to do anything that felt sexual or inappropriate, to another person. This is the case whether you believed you were doing it of your own free will or not.

It is impossible for a child to make these sorts of decisions for themselves even when they feel that they can.

There are more explicit forms of sexual abuse too including but not limited to penetration.

This list does not cover everything but gives an idea of the broad range of what can constitute sexual abuse.

ALL of these and more are experiences that we in Stepping Stones know can have an adverse impact on lives, often for a very long time.

The abuse may have happened once or many times, the frequency does not dictate whether it was sexual abuse. Something that happens once can have a significant impact too.

Finally, there are times when abusers may gain children and young people’s trust by building a positive, affectionate relationship in which it can feel very difficult if not impossible not to do what they ask.  This is formally called grooming and it can take many forms. This can often lead people who have been abused to feel that they are in part to blame for what has happened.  That is never the case, but we understand that it can sometimes feel like it is.

The ‘formal definitions’ are important in formal settings. Stepping Stones is not one of those formal settings, it is a place where we understand that a huge range of experiences make up what sexual abuse is. Each person and each situation is unique.  We are specialists in working with people who have been through experiences like these, and in helping them move forwards in their lives, and living well.

Who is involved?

Sexual abuse happens in all social classes, regardless of gender or age.

Most sexual abuse happens with someone the person knows well, and the abuser may be a member of the family or someone in a position of trust.

Sexual abuse can happen once, a few times or go on for many years and people can be abused by more than one person.

The abuser may be of any gender.

How can sexual abuse affect people?

Sexual abuse can affect all areas of adult life.

It could be that there is no obvious day-to-day impact, however, something can happen to trigger feelings, memories, or even unexplained responses.

The impact can be more significant than that and can affect day-to-day life and relationships, including intimate and sexual relationships.

The impact can also be more far-reaching, including serious mental health issues.

There is more and more evidence to show that sexual abuse, as well as other forms of abuse and neglect, can also affect physical health.

Once again, the impact is unique to the individual, and no one has the right to judge the way abuse has affected someone’s life.