The trauma of childhood sexual abuse is significantly devastating for all survivors. When child sexual abuse occurs in institutional contexts, it has a profoundly complex and wide-ranging influence on their childhood and throughout their adult lives.

While all children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, some aspects of the abuse may be determined by their gender. And not only are the forms of mistreatment often distinctively gender-specific, but studies have shown that the impacts can also be different for males and females.

To better understand and provide support for female survivors, let’s discuss the facts regarding child sexual abuse claims. Aspects we will cover include:

  • The definition of child sexual abuse;
  • How child sexual abuse can impact survivors;
  • Common barriers for female survivors of child sexual abuse;
  • Available support for female child sexual abuse survivors;
  • And Financial reparation via the National Redress Scheme or a civil claim.

Understanding Child Sexual Abuse

There’s no simple definition of child sexual abuse claims because they can take on many different forms, and each survivor’s experience will have been unique. For the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, they implemented the below victim-centred definition of child abuse laws in Australia.

Institutional child sexual abuse describes any act where someone uses their position of power or authority to involve a minor in any kind of sexual activity, sexual exploitation, or expose them to sexually inappropriate material.

This includes all kinds of violations of privacy and penetrative and non-penetrative abuse, including:

  • Touching or fondling
  • Masturbation
  • Oral-genital stimulation
  • Any penetration
  • Voyeurism
  • Exhibitionism
  • Witnessing sexual abuse of others
  • Exposure to pornography
  • Involvement in child sexual exploitation material production
  • Grooming

Child grooming refers to a wide range of strategies used by perpetrators to establish an emotional connection with a victim. Adult perpetrators use these subtle grooming techniques both in-person and online to lower a child’s inhibitions in anticipation and preparation for their planned sexual abuse.

Not all child sexual abuse involves child grooming. Perpetrators may use physical violence as a tactic instead to overcome any initial resistance when facilitating the abuse, and then to silence the victim afterwards. This physical abuse can include:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical force
  • Violence
  • Manipulation
  • Neglect
  • Entrapment
  • Threats
  • Coercion
  • Punishment

Female survivors have reported their sexual abuse included elements of emotional abuse accompanied by some form of physical mistreatment or violence. Many females also reported that the sexual abuse was repeated more than once, with some experiencing consistent abuse over many years.

Using these forms of physical and emotional abuse, a child can be manipulated to believe the abuse is normal behaviour, or that the child is responsible for the abuse. Obviously, no child is ever to blame for being a victim of sexual abuse, as it’s the adult perpetrator who is always responsible for their actions.

The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is unique for each victim, and the impacts can also manifest in different ways. Survivors of child sexual abuse often experience deeply complex emotional childhood trauma in adults which impacts many aspects of their life and their overall well-being. Childhood trauma in adults can include issues with:

  • mental health
  • relationships
  • physical health
  • sexual identity
  • sexual behaviour
  • interactions with society
  • Dissociation
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Self-mutilation

Some of the more immediate impacts may be temporary, but many will continue throughout childhood and into adulthood. While some may subside as time goes on, they often re-emerge later in life. Some impacts will also stay hidden until they are manifested in response to certain triggers as an adult.

While there’s no single indicator that can accurately predict how victims will be impacted, the type, severity, and duration of the abuse is often a factor. That being said, mental health problems are by far the most common impacts of sexual abuse, which usually occur simultaneously rather than as isolated issues.

Females who were sexually abused have higher rates of mental health issues than males, specifically with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Women are also more likely to have difficulties with trust, intimacy, and low self-esteem, which makes it challenging to create and maintain healthy relationships. 

One of the more disturbing impacts of child sexual abuse is the increased risk of revictimization, especially for female survivors. In fact, the risk of sexual violence as an adult is double for females who were sexually abused as a child. Some will develop addictions after using alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-manage all of the psychological trauma that was caused by the abuse.

Survivors can experience a wide variety of emotions such as feelings of guilt, shame, and anger, as well as having difficulty sleeping and experiencing nightmares. Therefore some struggle to complete their education or maintain employment.

When an adult in a position of power at an institution like a church or school betrays a child’s trust, the trauma experienced can become deeply complex. Therefore, some impacts are specific to the context of institutional child sexual abuse, which can affect:

  • Spirituality
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Community access
  • Distrust of institutions
  • Fear of authority
  • Economic security
  • Connection to culture
  • Employment

Barriers to Females Coming Forward After Child Sexual Abuse

Because child sexual abuse is such a secretive act, disclosure is usually the only way for other people to become aware of it. And when children have been sexually abused, they must overcome enormous emotional and psychological obstacles to disclose the abuse to an appropriate adult.

Some brave children do disclose their abuse, but most don’t reveal anything until they’re well into adulthood. In fact, research has suggested that most children never disclose sexual abuse to authorities. Ultimately, this is why most child sexual abuse remains unknown to anyone but the child and their abuser.

Research has shown that the most common reasons survivors delayed disclosure of the sexual abuse as a child is a combination of shame, embarrassment, self-blame, or they were scared of not being believed. For females in particular, the longer the duration of abuse, the longer they will usually delay disclosure. Other key factors for females not disclosing their abuse are confusion about responsibility, guilt, and blame, as well as fears of not being believed.

There are also institutional barriers that can prevent detection as well as disclosure of child sexual abuse. Some of these barriers include protecting the perpetrator and fear of upsetting adults such as family, teachers, and institution authorities. These feelings and fears can be extremely confusing and overwhelming for victims, causing a silencing effect that can last years or decades.

Counselling & Support for Female Survivors

Survivors of child sexual abuse have resilience, strength, and courage, but sometimes we all need a little help moving forward with your life. There are plenty of organisations, charities, and support groups available who provide a variety of services to survivors of sexual abuse. Here’s who can help you:

Children, teens, and young adults can get help and support by calling Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800 or visit their website.

Adults who experienced child sexual abuse can call Blue Knot Helpline – 1300 657 380 or visit their website.

Anyone older than 13 who have experienced unwanted sexual advances, contact, or behaviour can contact the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) – 1800 199 888

For information on mental health for sufferers, carers, and professionals, call Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636

If you know an adult who has survived child sexual abuse, here is some more information on how you can support them.

Redress Scheme & Other Compensation Options

Acknowledging, understanding, and coming to terms with the emotional impacts of child sexual abuse is often an incredibly difficult process. The first step for many would be to speak to the Police to discuss what options are available to you.  

If you are a survivor of institutional child sexual abuse, you may be able to apply for compensation from the National Redress Scheme. The NRS was established by the Commonwealth Government of Australia in response to the Royal Commission Sexual Abuse. It is a support scheme designed to provide financial reparation, acknowledgement, and support to adult survivors who experienced institutional sexual abuse as a child.

Accessing the NRS may provide you with:

  • counselling
  • psychological services
  • A direct institutional response
  • and/or a redress payment of $10,000 to $150,000

Obviously, no amount of money could ever reverse the impact of the abuse. The psychological and emotional impact of institutional sexual abuse can have a negative effect on each survivor’s life. That being said, compensation via National Redress Scheme payments would allow you to access any additional care and support services you might need.

Some survivors may also be able to bring a civil claim against an institution in court for negligence or personal injury. It’s important to be aware that accepting national redress scheme payments limits legal abilities to bring civil claims against institutions in court. It’s a good idea to talk about everything first with a lawyer for a child abuse case.

The Future

So whether you’re considering applying for the NRS, or you’re seeking possibly higher compensation from the institution through the Courts, discuss all of your options first with a specialist in abuse law.

Understanding institutional sexual abuse is a critical step in providing support to survivors, protecting children from potential abuse, and holding perpetrators to account. By working together for each other, we can help transform the lives of survivors.