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CSA Survivor Symptoms, Support & Stories


The word "survivor" is highlighted in pink in a dictionary. CSA not included.

As a Child Sexual Abuse or CSA Survivor, I thank you for your interest in this subject. If you're a survivor yourself, please know how sorry I am that your community did not protect you from this horrific form of harm. If you're a professional, parent, caregiver, or supporter of the anti-CSA movement, thank you for further equipping yourself with the competencies and compassion necessary to prevent this crime as well as support CSA survivors while they heal.


 

If you or your organization is seeking more direct support for CSA survivor recovery, please review my services page and reach out to me. I would love to get to know you and your team.



 

What is a CSA Survivor?

CSA survivors are those who experienced childhood sexual abuse, or CSA. CSA refers to any illegal or non-consensual sexual acts against someone under the age of 18 including:


  • Rape or attempted rape

  • Sodomy

  • Oral sex

  • Groping

  • Indecent exposure

  • Insertion of body parts or objects

  • Child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), pictures, or pornography 


Statistics vary on how many CSA survivors exist due to outdated studies and/or the fact that the issue remains widely underreported. However, Darkness to Light estimates that one in every 10 children is a CSA survivor in the United States. Other social challenges can intersect that make many CSA survivors experience poly-victimizations — or a number of sources of harm simultaneously — like racism, ableism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. These compounding challenges create additional barriers to safe disclosure, intervention, recovery, and justice for CSA survivors.


Who harms CSA Survivors?

Child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by a person the child knows, even though the “stranger danger myth” remains prevalent in social discourse. In fact, the CDC estimates that 91% of childhood sexual abuse happens at the hands of a trusted person or family member. People who harm include both adults and other children representing the entire gender spectrum. However, research suggests that statistically cisgendered men harm at higher rates than other genders. CSA is not an isolated issue, instead it’s exacerbated by community reaction and response such as lack of awareness, complacency, and the uncomfortable and taboo nature of the topic.


What contributes to the high rates of CSA survivors?

A number of social beliefs and behaviors contribute to inaction and denial when abuse is suspected or when children do disclose. Social stigma keeps families and communities from addressing and educating each other about appropriate methods of prevention and intervention. Lack of sexual safety education promotes child-on-child sexual abuse. Patriarchal attitudes assume that cisgendered men have more authority than others, so their testimonies have held more power historically in social settings and courts. Equally, accepted adultist beliefs also protect parents or adults over the words and experiences of children. 


Many CSA protective and prevention methods direct the responsibility to protect children on their parents. These teachings incorrectly expect the person who harms to exist outside the family and the home, assuming that the parents and adults within the family support the best interests of the child. In the case of childhood incest abuse or ICSA, however, the parents, children, or other adult family members actively harm the victim. In instances of incest, CSA generally begins younger, occurs more frequently, and extends over longer periods of time because the person who harms has more access. Additionally, family systems where incest occurs often isolate victims from resources that can support their safety and healing.


Sexual abuse against children directly violates Children’s Rights and Responsibilities to safety, health, and a fulfilling future. Experiencing childhood sexual abuse or molestation is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and has a number of lifelong negative consequences on a child.


What are the symptoms of CSA for children?

Children who are experiencing CSA are unlikely to disclose to an adult for a number of reasons. Often threats by the person who harmed or the lack of language and understanding of children’s own bodies and sexual violence keep children silent. Also when some children disclose, they are met with disbelief by one person. This initial shutdown response can cause reluctance to disclose again. Therefore, adults must accept and exercise the responsibility to identify victims of CSA and intervene in appropriate ways. Sometimes the presence of signs makes identification more obvious, while other times no immediate or visible symptoms exist. Some signs that may arise in a child after sexual abuse include:


Physical Signs for CSA Survivors

  • A child may complain about pain while urinating or passing bowel movements.

  • After potty training, your child may experience accidents or bed wetting. 

  • A child may present with a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI).

  • Children may communicate frequent complaints of stomach distress or headaches.


Psychological and Emotional Signs for CSA Survivors

  • Your child may experience outbursts of emotional energy, especially anger.

  • A child may suffer mental health challenges like depression and/or anxiety.

  • Children may experience body image challenges. 

  • CSA survivors may present with Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Children experiencing CSA may also try to be overachievers or perfectionistic.


Behavioral Signs for CSA Survivors

  • Children may suffer from an increase in the prevalence of insomnia and night terrors.

  • A child may present with more isolated behavior than usual.

  • A child may communicate that they may not want to be alone with certain individual/s.

  • An adult may witness a child processing traumatic incidents through play.

  • Other children may show advanced sexual competency, interests, or engagement with others that exceed their age or maturity.


Symptoms of childhood sexual abuse are best avoided through prevention. However, once abuse has occurred, the faster an adult intervenes in the child’s life, stops the behavior, and gets the child appropriate treatment, the less symptoms the child will carry into adulthood. Some prevention education organizations include:



What are common harmful coping methods for CSA survivors?

Children will begin coping with the abuse in ways that may not be best for their bodies or futures. Common adaptive responses for CSA survivors include overuse of drugs and alcohol, eating less or more than necessary for optimal health, and self-harm like cutting or picking at their skin. Others may explore advanced sexual practices with a person or people who may not be the safest partners due to lack of knowledge of sexual safety.


Suicidal ideation also occurs at increased rates for CSA survivors. Others may seek to be perfect and become high achieving to compensate for the harm at home, attempt to placate the people harming them, as well as receive love and attention outside of the home in ways that may be unsafe.


What are the symptoms of CSA for adults?

CSA survivors often carry the consequences of trauma into adulthood. There are a number of signs and symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood that include various forms of harm like sexual violence. Some include:


Mental Health Signs for CSA Survivors


  • Complex-(P)TSD: Recurrent traumatic incidents of violence cause the consequences to be integrated into the body, brain, and identity of victims making treatment much more challenging. I put parentheses around the (P) because for many the trauma never stops, it just shifts.

  • Negative identity formation

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Eating challenges

  • Substance use challenges

  • Causing sexual harm against others

  • Sexual avoidance or strong sexual boundaries

  • Normalization of abuse and revictimization from others

  • Dissociation and depersonalization

  • Suicidality

  • Relationship challenges


Physical Health Signs for CSA Survivors


  • Muscle tension and discomfort

  • Heart disease

  • Cancer

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases

  • Unwanted pregnancy

  • Dental issues

  • Sexual pain and discomfort


Economic Signs for CSA Survivors


Darkness to Light estimates that the average lifetime cost per victim of child abuse is $210,012, costing the U.S. billions annually due to costs related to healthcare, criminal justice courts, child welfare, education, and losses due to lack of productivity at work that burden both the survivor and employers or clients.


What are the unique consequences for CSA survivors of incest abuse?


Incest abuse is a type of child sexual abuse or ICSA. It occurs when the person who harmed the child was family or considered someone as close as family like a friend or nanny. Although incest is a type of childhood sexual abuse, incest survivors suffer unique consequences. For everyone, safety is learned not intrinsically understood. If the home remains an unsafe place during childhood, then the victim never learns to understand what safety is. Without an internal or external sense of safety, the body and brain begin to attack itself. Over long periods of time, this can change the structure of the brain and flood the body with stress hormones from repetitive fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses, which can cause neurological, psychological, relational, and physical consequences. 


Children who disclose incest abuse are frequently removed from their homes and placed in foster care where they are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in the foster care system. Some who run away sometimes end up homeless and are kidnapped into sex trafficking. Often when adults do not intervene and the abuse continues long-term, many CSA survivors of incest experience Dissociative Amnesia — they forget that the abuse even happened in the first place. Some will remember much later in life through flashbacks, while others will suffer the signs of childhood trauma in adults like self-harm, self-blame, and self-loathing, but not understand the source of their symptoms. The average age of disclosure for CSA survivors is in their early 50s.


The management of these childhood trauma symptoms in adults can feel like a full time job and limit a CSA survivors’ ability to build wealth and safety outside of their family systems. Many CSA survivors of incest never leave their abusive family systems due to the frequency of behavior making the problem seem normal, or because they do not have a support outside of their family systems. Others will seek resources from systems that are supposed to help them while they are managing debilitating symptoms like the criminal punishment system, disability benefits, and other welfare programs that either deny them access or keep them under the poverty line. 


What are support options for CSA survivors?

For child CSA survivors


Adults who are caring for children who are CSA survivors can reach out to local child advocacy centers and other children and family support organizations for support. There are also national organizations like: 



For adult CSA survivors


Adult CSA survivors can reach out to the vast anti-rape crisis support network using search tools and/or hotlines on the following websites:



You can also learn more about incest abuse specifically and find support information for ICSA survivors at:



A variety of one-on-one treatment options exist for adult CSA survivors. From talk therapy to EMDR, Complex-(P)TSD can be treated through culturally-affirming and empathetic care. Therapists who are trauma-informed can be searched on the Psychology Today website. However, group support may also be beneficial for survivors to create a network of others who can foster understanding and solidarity.


Who runs support groups for CSA survivors?


Support groups for CSA survivors are often run through local anti-rape crisis centers. Incest abuse specific groups can be found through:



Where can CSA survivors’ stories be found?


If you want to read or share stories of CSA survivors, you can do so with many organizations that focus on sexual violence. For sibling sexual trauma, you can share your story on #SiblingsToo podcast. All incest abuse stories can also be shared on the Incest Story Blog run by incest AWARE.


What are activism opportunities for CSA survivors?


With the right resources and competent community support, CSA survivors can find healing and make meaning out of their histories in ways that make sense to them. Some survivors want to release or forgive the instances of harm in their past and not be more involved, while others may desire to get involved in activism and advocacy efforts to prevent the next generation of children from sexual harm and ensure survivors are better supported. All of the organizations listed may be seeking to hire employees or gathering volunteers for various projects. Reach out to learn more about how CSA impacts others and how you can support these programs in ending CSA or promoting better support systems for CSA survivors. 


Remember to get involved in advocacy at your own time and pace. High burnout rates in survivor-centered advocacy efforts occur because passionate people do not have the emotional, psychological, or financial resources to sustain the work long term. So get involved slowly and commit to the efforts in ways that you are passionate about. This will make the work more enjoyable and sustainable. 



 

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