'Me Too': How adult survivors of child sexual abuse are vulnerable to re-victimisation

Several studies have shown that those who have been sexually abused as children are twice as likely to be abused sexually and/or raped as adults.
'Me Too': How adult survivors of child sexual abuse are vulnerable to re-victimisation
'Me Too': How adult survivors of child sexual abuse are vulnerable to re-victimisation
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The raging #Metoo movement in India has surprised people with the sheer number of women who have come out to speak up about the sexual harassment and abuse they faced in their workplace or academic institutions by powerful men, many of whom were in positions of authority which they misused.

Daily more cases of sexual abuse are being reported from various parts of India and from various sectors. This has forced me to think about my own #Metoo account and also my own story of long-term child sexual abuse. The connection between child sexual abuse and subsequent sexual abuse, molestation or rape has not yet been made in the stories that we have been reading in the media in the wake of India’s #Metoo movement but there is a direct connection and it needs to be recognised so that survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) do not keep falling victims repeatedly to sexual abuse in their adulthood also.

Studies on CSA and re-victimisation

Several studies over a long period of time in different countries have shown that those who have been sexually abused as children are twice as likely to be abused sexually and/or raped as adults. They have boundary issues and are vulnerable to being sexually abused by people they trust or those who are in authority over them.

A research paper on ‘Child Sexual Abuse, links to later Sexual Exploitation/High Risk Sexual Behavior, and Prevention/Treatment Programs, Trauma, Violence, and Abuse’ by K Lalor, and R McElvaney in 2010 studied key findings of research literature on the incidence of CSA with emphasis on the relations between CSA and later sexual exploitation. It found that numerous studies suggest that sexual victimisation in childhood and adolescence significantly increases the likelihood of sexual victimisation in adulthood.

Studies suggest that sexual victimisation in childhood or adolescence increases the likelihood of sexual victimisation in adulthood between 2 and 13.7 times. Several researchers speculate that mediating factors caused by CSA contribute to higher risk of sexual re-victimisation.

Another study by S Desai, I Arias, M P Thompson and K C Basile in 2002 on ‘Childhood victimisation and subsequent re-victimisation assessed in a nationally representative sample of women and men’ found that women who experienced CSA were twice as likely to report adult sexual victimisation as women who did not experience CSA.

Well-known personalities reveal CSA and re-victimsation in their lives

If you look at several accounts of victims who have chosen to speak up, you can see that many survivors of CSA have faced re-victimisation. Well-known Hollywood actor Ashley Judd has revealed that she was molested at the age of seven and that when she told adults, they didn’t believe her. Later she was raped when she was 15 years old and at that time she didn’t tell anyone except her diary. She made these revelations in her memoir All that is Bitter and Sweet.

Similarly, in our own country, well-known journalist Barkha Dutt revealed that she was molested at age nine and that she was again sexually assaulted by someone she knew, her boyfriend, when she was pursuing her postgraduation in Jamia Milia Islamia. She did tell her family and friends about it but did not file a complaint against him in a police station.

Many other famous figures have faced sexual abuse as children and they have also faced sexual abuse as adolescent or adults. Well-know media personality Oprah Winfrey and highly acclaimed poet Maya Angelou both faced CSA and then again sexual abuse as adults.

Expert views

A psychiatrist based in Chennai Jamila Koshy, with over two decades of experience, explained the reasons why re-victimisation of CSA survivors is more likely than others.

She said, “CSA victims are likely to experience re-victimisation as adults. Some studies in the West report re-victimisation rates of about 30%, but this is an area which needs more study. What keeps some victims safe? The environment they grow up in and response to the abuse is important. If they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are neglected, their stories of abuse are never told, or never believed or handled well, and they suffer from self-blame, PTSD, precocious sexuality, substance abuse and other maladaptive responses to the trauma. Then they are more prone to re-victimisation.”

Jamila further said, “Abused and neglected children should receive some form of intervention and help to prevent this.”

My own experience

In my own life I know this to be true. I am a survivor of long-term sexual abuse by my uncle as a child and then was re-victmisated as an adult repeatedly. Many of these incidences I never reported but I did complain against the director of my academic institute, Centre for Development Communications, Gujarat University after 27 years along with another student, my junior in 2015. Nothing came of it. This was before the #Metoo movement in the USA and also in India.

When Raya Sarkar came up with a list of academicians who had abused students sexually in 2017, I decided to get the name of my director Dhiren Avashia included in that list. That was the best I could do but it was decades later and as usual we were both questioned about our silence for decades and the reasons for speaking up when we did decide to speak up.

Again when the #Metoo movement took off in India and so many brave women decided to speak up, I also wrote about my own abuse at the hands of a former minister though I decided not to name him because, at present, I am not equipped to face a defamation suit where a powerful person can easily employ a big lawyer and I would be hard pressed to hire even a novice. Most people anyway know who I am referring to with all the hints I have given, so for now, shaming him will have to be enough. Will he stop? I am not sure he will. For too long men have been able to get away with sexual abuse and harassment with impunity to the extent that it’s normally the women who are being questioned while most people are standing in support of the abuser.

Among the women who have revealed stories of their abuse is Delhi based journalist Adrija Bose, who on her Facebook page, wrote on October 9 about the sexual abuse that she faced by her colleague who abused her in her own house. He is now an assistant editor in Indian Express, she states. She was allegedly twice assaulted by him but she didn’t report the incident nor take any action against him.

In that same post on Facebook, Adrija mentioned that a distant uncle abused her when she was four years old, which means she is also a victim of CSA and later re-victimisation. She also mentioned another colleague in her post who forced her to give him oral sex. She was disgusted with herself but she did it and didn’t report it either but distanced herself from him. He is now a deputy editor at Time of India.

The thing is that both men and women in our society are brought up in a patriarchal system and try as they might, the effects of patriarchy remains with us. It has taken women so much courage to speak out about their abuse, about giving in to harassers, about not reporting the crimes and about suffering the shame while the men have merrily gone about their jobs getting promotions, growing more powerful professionally and having no regret whatsoever about the number of times they have forced themselves on a woman or sexually assaulted her. Society has just not taught these men that they cannot force themselves on anyone, that there is a thing called consent and one needs to get it before making any moves on someone.

Studies have shown that 70 percent of CSA victims never report their abuse to anyone so naturally they have not received any intervention in this area. The chances of their re-victimisation in the absence of any counseling are very high. Both women and even men who are survivors of CSA are much more likely to get sexually abused, raped and assaulted than others but since most CSA victims remain quiet about their childhood sexual abuse in the first place, it becomes hard to know how many of the victims who are speaking up now are survivors of CSA.

CSA victims who have never spoken up about their childhood abuse don’t have confidence in being able to ward off predators when they make unwanted advances. They have what is called as boundary issues with them, not being able to stand up against a person in authority or in a position of power. Most women, in any case, are more likely to move away or avoid a person than say a firm no to a man who is her senior or boss or teacher. Predators take advantage of this reluctance.

Commenting on this, World Vision India Head of Anti-Child Trafficking Program Joseph Wesley said, “There is a growing realisation that the victims of CSA carry the consequences of their negative experiences well into their adulthood. So much so that it even determines the choices they make in their adulthood. The breach of trust which they have suffered hampers forever their relationships / engagement with significant others in future. In addition to this, it’s a proven fact that victims of CSA grow up with low self-esteem and negative perception of themselves.  This puts them in a position of vulnerability throughout their lives and seems to be making them an easy target for predators.” 

He said, “Also there is a marked reluctance among CSA victims in breaking relationships, however exploitative they may appear and are instead inclined to take on themselves the blame. “

For CSA victims, long-term and sustained counseling is imperative to ensure healing so that they can live a holistic life without being abused again. 

Note: This article is part of a World Vision India fellowship on Child Sexual Abuse in India. Sonal's website which offers a safe online space for CSA survivors can be accessed here.

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