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Sexual abuse—know the signs

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Very often during peer counselling, I come across sexual abuse survivors. In fact, it has been a common occurrence of my suspicions being almost always proven correct among those presenting with mental illnesses.

The insidiousness of mental illness was the subject of a feature here before because it remains that “shame and secrecy are the dreadful hallmarks of sexual abuse.

Worst yet, because of our attitude toward sexual crimes, victims are cowed into enabling silence since the lack of openness creates a fertile field for the criminals who perpetrate such evils on the vulnerable.”

Shame and secrecy continue to impact the underreporting of this criminal activity because too many victims never find their voice or courage to unmask the perpetrators.

Very often these children—usually girls, but boys are not exempt—grow up feeling guilty. Processing such a violation at an early age means that many feel complicit even though everyone tries to reinforce it was not their fault.

The principal long-term effect of childhood sexual abuse for many people is not in sexual adjustment but on their self-esteem.

CAROLINE C RAVELLO is a strategic communications and media professional and a public health practitioner. She holds an MA with Merit in Mass Communications (University of Leicester) and is a Master of Public Health With Distinction (The UWI). Write to: [email protected]

Sexual abuse warning signs

“Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice” ( The following is an excerpt from Parents Protect on signs of sexual abuse.
What to watch out for in children:
• Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
• Nightmares, sleeping problems
• Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
• Becoming unusually secretive
• Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure
• Regressing to younger behaviours, eg bedwetting
• Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
• Outburst of anger
• Changes in eating habits
• New adult words for body parts and no obvious source
• Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
• Self-harm (cutting, burning or other harmful activities)
• Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals or mouth, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy
• Running away
• Not wanting to be alone with a particular child or young person
Any one sign doesn’t mean that a child was or is being sexually abused, but the presence of several warning signs suggests that you should begin to ask questions and consider seeking help. Keep in mind that some of these signs can emerge at other times of stress such as:
• During a divorce
• Death of a family member or pet
• Problems at school or with friends
• Other anxiety-inducing or traumatic events
Physical warning signs
Physical signs of sexual abuse are rare; however, if you see these signs, take your child to a doctor. Your doctor can help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted diseases.
• Pain, discoloration, bleeding or discharges in genitals, anus or mouth
• Persistent or recurring pain during urination and bowel movements
• Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
Signs that an adult may be
using their relationship with
a child for sexual reasons
The signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons may not be obvious. We may feel uncomfortable about the way they play with the child, or seem always to be favouring them and creating reasons for them to be alone. There may be cause for concern about the behaviour of an adult or young person if they:
• Refuse to allow a child sufficient privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters.
• Insist on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it.
• Are overly interested in the sexual development of a child or teenager.
• Insist on time alone with a child with no interruptions.
• Spend most of their spare time with children and have little interest in spending time with people their own age.
• Regularly offer to baby-sit children for free or take children on overnight outings alone.
• Buy children expensive gifts or give them money for no apparent reason.
• Frequently walk in on children/teenagers in the bathroom.
• Treat a particular child as a favourite, making them feel ‘special’ compared with others in the family.
• Pick on a particular child.


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