Santa Clara University

Wellness Center

Adult Survivors of Incest


Sexual Abuse & Incest

Sexual abuse and incest can be extrememly painful and difficult topics to discuss.  can be defined as any experience during childhood or adolescence which involves inappropriate sexual attention by another person, usually an adult, but sometimes an older child, teenager, or even a same-aged playmate. This attention might involve sexualized language, sexual touching, being forced to perform manual or oral sex on another person, oral, vaginal, or anal penetration, exposure to sexual behavior or to pornography. The behavior may be forced, coerced, or even willingly engaged in by the survivor, but is understood as abusive because a child cannot truly give free consent. Any activity that a person feels violates her or his boundaries may fall within the realm of sexual abuse. An estimated 17% to 22% of children experience some kind of sexual abuse.


Most people sexually abused as children experience some difficulties, as adults, related to the abuse. Problems can range from the absence of memories for a period of childhood, disinterest or excessive interest in sexual feeling or activities, fear of dating or close relationships, feelings of shame about the self, as though there is something inherently wrong or defective in the self, low self-esteem, body image distortions, dissociative experiences, depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, engagement in self-inflicted violence, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, agitation, and severe trouble sleeping. A person may keep her or his experience of being sexually abused a secret, often ashamed and afraid to share this part of the self and the past with others.


Problems and symptoms associated with sexual abuse are responsive to many kinds of treatment, including individual and group counseling, and sometimes may be augmented by psychotropic medications to provide relief from intrusive symptoms. A central part of the healing for many survivors is found in a support group of other survivors where there is strength, comfort, and hope in hearing the stories of others who share this pain, and in being heard by those who empathize from their own personal experiences. Therapy is most often long-term, though short-term counseling can be a place to start to prepare for further therapy, to shore up coping resources to get through a difficult time, or in the brief transition phase of a referral process. These psychotherapeutic resources are available through the Counseling Center.


What might I experience as a survivor of sexual abuse?

  • low self esteem
  • inability to trust others
  • exaggerated willingness to remain in dysfunctional or abusive relationships
  • sexual dysfunction
  • drug/alcohol abuse
  • eating disorders
  • distorted body image
  • flashbacks of the abuse
  • frequent nightmares
  • intruding thoughts
  • frozen or numbed emotions
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • self-abuse, self-destructive behavior and self-deprivation
  • difficulty experiencing pleasure


Myth VS. Fact

Myth:  Child sexual abuse is a rare occurrence.

Fact:  Unfortunately, incest and child sexual abuse are very common. One out of four females and one out of seven to one out of ten males will be sexually abused by the time they are 18.


Myth:  Most children are attacked by a stranger.

Fact:  Eighty percent of children will be abused by someone they know. The most common perpetrator is the father or stepfather, followed in frequency by other male relatives.


Myth:  Child sexual abuse perpetrators look suspicious.

Fact:  Most child sexual abusers cannot be distinguished from other people by appearance. They are often seen as upstanding citizens by others. As many as 80% were abused as children themselves.


Myth:  Women sexually abuse children as frequently as men.

Fact:  Although a woman's role as primary caretaker for children offers her more opportunity to abuse, men make up 97% of reported sexual crimes against women and children.


Myth:  Incest occurs only in poor families.

Fact:  Incest and child sexual abuse happens in all families, regardless of ethnicity, income or religion. The middle and upper classes are able to hide it more easily due to their access to resources.


Myth:  Most children who are sexually abused do something to cause it to occur.

Fact:  Children never want to be sexually abused! They may want affection from the adults in their life, but they are unable to differentiate between physical affection and sexual exploitation. Submitting to abuse is not the same as consent. It is never their fault!


Texas Woman’s University


Other Sexual Abuse & Incest Resources 

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)

Survivors of Incest Anonymous

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

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