sexual & emotional abuse
Sexual abuse, or sexual violence, describes any type of sexual activity that is unwanted. There are many different types of abuse, including those we’re more familiar with (such as rape and child sexual abuse) and those we may be less aware of (like female genital mutilation and sexual exploitation).
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, at any stage of their lives. No one ever deserves it or ‘asks for it’. On this page we will look at how being abused in this way can make you feel, the power of talking and how to look after your mental health.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse happens when someone is forced or pressured into taking part in any type of sexual activity. This includes being forced to have sex (rape), being sent sexual messages/images against your will (sexting) or being touched in a sexual way without your permission (sexual assault).
This type of abuse can also involve being forced to have sex with someone in return for money (sexual exploitation), being bullied in a sexual way (sexual harassment) or being forced to take part in ritual abuse (female genital mutilation).
If you’ve experienced sexual violence, you may feel very alone. But in reality, this is not the case. There are thousands of people who have gone through similar experiences and there is a huge amount of support out there.
The most important thing is to speak up and not to suffer in silence.
Giving consent means giving permission to someone. Sexual abuse takes place when consent is not given. According to the law, a person consents to sexual activity if they:
agree by choice
have the capacity to make that choice
What you were doing, how you were dressed and whether or not you were under the influence of drugs/alcohol does not matter - if you did not give consent, or did not have the capacity to, you were abused. And this is not your fault.
If you said yes because you were scared for your safety (or someone else’s safety), it wasn’t your fault. If you didn’t say the word ‘no’ or couldn’t speak through shock, it wasn’t your fault. If you were unconscious through alcohol/drugs, it wasn’t your fault.
You're a survivor because every day you make a choice not to be governed by their harsh words or actions. No one has the right to take away your happiness.
How being abused can make you feel
Experiencing sexual violence can lead to a number of different emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may experience some (or all) of the following:
Numb - The shock and trauma of sexual abuse can make you feel numb to it. You may find yourself feeling strangely calm, or simply unable to process what has happened.
Guilty - You may be telling yourself that it was your fault, even though it wasn’t.
Angry - Feeling anger is common, you may feel anger at the person who did this to you, or even at yourself.
Ashamed - You may feel embarrassed and ashamed about what happened, even though it was not your fault and totally out of your control.
Depressed - You may lose your enjoyment of life, feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to anymore.
Anxious - Activities you used to do without a second thought may now make you feel anxious, like going out alone.
Additionally, sexual abuse or violence can have a profound effect on a survivor’s attitude towards sex. You may find that you have become very conflicted after the event. It is normal for your attitude towards sexual encounters to turn one of two ways:
becoming hyper-sexual or
suffering from sexual anorexia (avoidance)
It’s important to recognise that your attitude towards sex, following abuse, is not bad or immoral. You may have a lot of inner hurt and pain that is implicating your thoughts and behaviours towards sex. But recovery and healing is possible, and you won’t feel this way forever.
Sexual abuse and motherhood
Pregnancy and birth can be a particularly tricky time for sexual assault and abuse survivors. This is a time when women are usually expected to be full of joy and anticipation, however, survivors can find they experience painful and difficult feelings related to the assaults and abuse.
The power of talking
Many people find rape and other forms of sexual abuse difficult to talk about. It’s a dark subject that we, as a society, can shy away from. Shying away from subjects like this however only contributes to myths and misinformation about sex abuse. It can also make survivors of sex abuse worried about speaking up.
The more we talk about what’s happening, and the more we spread messages of support and awareness, the more we can fight against this. By doing this we can also encourage survivors to talk about what happened to them.
Looking after your mental health
It’s normal for your mental health to be affected if you are the victim of sexual abuse. It is a traumatising experience that often requires support to come to terms with. Looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health.
For many, speaking to a counsellor helps. Counsellors who help survivors are trained to help with the psychological effects of sexual violence. This may include low confidence levels, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You can speak to a counsellor at any time - even if you experienced sexual abuse many years ago. Some people live with the effects of an event that happened in their childhood, especially if they didn’t (or couldn’t) seek support when it happened. Talking about these effects with a professional can help you process past emotions.
Just remember, whatever your situation is - you are not alone.
Sexual abuse in men
While it’s not as common (or perhaps, as commonly reported), sexual abuse happens to men too. Unfortunately, many men find it difficult to talk about, especially if they have been abused by a woman. They may worry that they aren’t going to be believed or that they don’t deserve support. This is not true.
Everyone’s experience is so unique, but I would encourage all boys and men to talk more. Don’t man up – speak up.
If you’ve been abused, reach out. If you’re not ready to talk to someone, you know you can speak to a counsellor. There are also resources and support groups online that are set up specifically to help male survivors of sex abuse, including:
Child sex abuse
When sexual abuse happens in childhood, it is known as child sex abuse. Under this umbrella, there are two types of abuse, contact abuse (when an abuser makes physical contact with a child) and non-contact abuse (when non-touching activities take place like exploitation or being shown pornography).
In the UK, one in 20 children has been sexually abused. Understandably, this can have a huge impact on the child’s mental health and well-being. To find out more about child sex abuse, including keeping your child safe and getting support, we recommend visiting dedicated support networks like the NSPCC and Childline.
What to do if you’ve just been abused
If you’ve just been sexually abused, try to remember that it is not your fault and that you are not alone. The Rape Crisis website has some advice about what to do immediately after being abused, including how to report it to the police.
Emotional abuse, sometimes referred to as psychological abuse, describes any type of behaviour that allows one person to gain power and control over another. There are many different types of emotional abuse, all which gradually undermine the other person’s self-respect.
This can occur in any kind of relationship - be it within a couple, a friendship or amongst family members or colleagues - and at any stage in a person’s life.
On this page we will look at how being abused in this way can make you feel and dispel some common myths about emotional abuse. We will also look at how counselling can help you to look after your mental health.
What is emotional abuse?
Most people know what physical or sexual abuse is, but when it comes to emotional abuse, some people think of it more of a ‘grey area’. They might know it has something to do with treating someone else badly but not be clear on what’s actually classed as emotional abuse.
The problem is, unlike with other types of abuse there are no scars or marks, so emotional abuse can be difficult to identify. But, these behaviours can be incredibly damaging to our mental health and if not dealt with, the torment can continue indefinitely.
There are many different types of abuse and although emotional abuse may occur on its own, you may also face physical or sexual abuse alongside it.
Types of emotional abuse
There are a variety of types of behaviour that could be classed as emotional abuse, which include:
Intimidation or threats. This is often done to make a person feel small and to stop them from standing up for themselves. This could be things like shouting, acting aggressively or making you feel scared.
Criticism. This could be things like name-calling or making unpleasant, belittling comments. This can heavily affect your self-esteem and self-confidence.
Undermining. This might include things like dismissing your opinion or disputing your version of events, so that you begin to doubt yourself. They might tell you that you're being oversensitive if you get upset.
Making you feel guilty. This can range from emotional blackmail to ignoring you, by way of manipulation. Or they may suddenly act really nice towards you after being cruel - making you feel sorry for them.
As seen in the above examples, emotional abuse is generally about control. Sometimes this is explicit; if you are told when and where you can go out, or whether you can see certain people. Other times, however, it might be more implicit; neglection or withholding affection may seem less abusive than more outwardly aggressive behaviours, but this can be just as hurtful.
Another type of emotional abuse is economic or financial abuse. This can include withholding money, not involving you in finances or even preventing you from having a job. This could be done as a way of limiting your financial freedom, stopping you from feeling independent.
How do I know if it’s emotional abuse?
Conflict, arguments and criticism are all healthy ways of interacting with others - but there is a clear difference between this and emotional abuse: the way we feel.
If you’re on the receiving end, it can be extremely damaging and upsetting - and this is reflected in the law; The Serious Crime Act 2015. This makes behaviour that is ‘controlling or coercive’, in an intimate or family relationship, punishable by a prison sentence.
There can be many reasons why a person acts abusively towards another. There may be issues that stem from their childhood, such as if they grew up in a household that was abusive, or have been in previous relationships where this was the case. Abusers often find it difficult to handle their feelings and blame their problems on others instead.
Regardless of the reasons, this does not excuse the behaviour. No one has the right to make you feel frightened or worthless and you do not deserve to feel this way.
Misconceptions of emotional abuse
There are a number of myths and misconceptions that surround emotional abuse. For instance, some people believe that emotional abuse is merely another term for ‘verbal abuse’. It is true that emotional abuse does often include verbal abuse, but it can involve non-verbal and other non-physical forms of abuse. For example, being ignored.
When we think of emotional abuse, many people will picture a couple or a parent and child scenario. Whilst emotional abuse is commonly a part of domestic violence and child abuse, there are many other relationships that be affected by emotional abuse. These can include friendships and working relationships, too.
Additionally, while the majority of abuse victims (particularly in a domestic setting) are women, abuse of men happens far more often than you might expect.
At the time, I didn’t think Mike was treating me badly. He was giving me everything I’d ever wanted and that I’d never had before – love, acceptance, happiness, support, understanding. The problem was that I didn’t get any of that without emotional blackmail, mind games and pressure that resulted in sexual abuse.
People with a disability can also be vulnerable to emotional abuse. Sadly, in some cases, a person’s caregiver and abuser are one and the same. These situations are especially risky, since the person with the disability may be dependent on their caregiver for basic needs.
How does emotional abuse make you feel?
Experiencing abuse of any kind can lead to a number of different emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may experience some (or all) of the following:
Depression or anxiety
Increased isolation from friends and family
Fearful or agitated behaviour
Lower self-esteem and self-confidence
Addiction to alcohol or drugs
Emotional abuse can damage a person's confidence so that they feel worthless and find it hard to make or keep other relationships. Secrecy and shame usually maintain the abuse.
But you mustn’t lose trust in yourself. Your feelings may have been frequently invalidated or dismissed and you may have suppressed your feelings for believing that they are wrong. But you must remember that the person who has taken control of your emotions has done so wrongly.
You are not worth less than other people and you can be happy and confident again.
When is the right time to seek help?
If your behaviour starts to change and you are no longer able to find satisfaction in your work or social life, it is time to consider seeking help.
If people you trust express concern about you or your relationship, one of the best things you can do is talk to them about what’s going on. Talking to someone outside of the situation can help give you a little perspective. They can help you to assess whether this relationship is abusive and whether you would be better without this person in your life.
Emotional abuse can have a damaging effect on you, so it is important to seek help and support to prevent it from becoming entrenched. Learning to care for your own needs and to feel entitled to be confident and respected is a good start to being able to claim your own self-esteem.
I began meditating again, I prayed and I surrounded myself with personal development resources that I knew would help me reconnect with my true self. Even though I was still living with him, I gradually detached emotionally and mentally. I began seeing everything more clearly.
- Holly shares how she moved forward from an emotionally abusive relationship.
How can counselling help?
It can be helpful to seek help from a counsellor or therapist in order to help you see a way out and escape from a cycle of powerlessness.
You may not feel comfortable speaking to loved ones about what is going on, or maybe you have, yet they aren't sure of how to help you further. Counselling offers you a safe space to talk, without fear and without judgement. They can listen to you, and help you come to terms with what has happened, and understand your options for moving forward.
If you are no longer in an abusive relationship, but still feel the effects from what the other person put you through, a counsellor can help you come to terms with what has happened and move forward with your life. Trusting new people might feel especially difficult right now - but it will get easier. Finding a counsellor you trust and connect with is particularly important in helping you do this.
Counselling, psychotherapy and CBT all have their place and for many people, it is the beginning of a long, but rewarding journey to a better and more fulfilling way of living by breaking old, unhealthy patterns.