Sexual abuse or assault is defined as “any behaviour of a sexual nature that makes someone feel uncomfortable, frightened, intimidated or threatened”. Sexual assault is referred to as “an abuse of power”.
Among 3,466 victims of sexual assault 86% of those were female. 24% of sexual assault victims were victimised by a family member, including 7% who were victimised by a partner; 18% were victimised by a stranger.
Cameron Boyd, a Research Officer with the Institute’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, found that a victim of sexual abuse will suffer both physical and emotional effects as a result of the offence. Emotional responses often include fear, nightmares, mood swings, feelings of helplessness, anxiety and personal shame. Victims of sexual abuse also often isolate themselves in order to avoid confronting the issue. Additionally they tend to avoid anything that is associated with or remind them of the trauma.
Boyd also acknowledged a number of factors influence the impact of this crime on the victim. Such factors are found to often include the victim’s relationship to the perpetrator, the severity of the abuse, the length of time it occurred over, the personal history of the victim etc. Responses to abuse can range from immediate to long-term impacts. Examples of immediate responses include fear of death and anxiety. Long-term impacts are more so associated with low self-esteem and isolation.
The study by Boyd also asserted that post –traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also result from sexual abuse. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can include nightmares, depression, avoidance behaviours and distressing recollections of the violence. In the Calhoun & Resnick study it was found that woman who experience sexual abuse are the largest group of people affected by PTSD.
Boyd also suggest that in order for a victim to recover from the effects of sexual abuse a healing process promoting resilience should be utilised. Harvey refers to survivors of sexual abuse as both “suffering and surviving”. In order to aid the recovery process strong support from families is recommended, in addition to social acknowledgment of the impacts.
Child sexual abuse is an issue of concern as a result of its difficulty to detect, often as a result of the secrecy that surrounds it. Children often remain silent as a result of fear of the consequences of disclosing the abuse. There are various behavioral indicators such as sudden changes in mood, nightmares and withdrawn activity may suggest abuse.