By: Mary Byler and Tara Mitchell
To protect the safety and privacy of our participants we will not be providing all of the individual responses to the question of: If yes, How have you been impacted (by Child Sexual Abuse)?
Instead of presenting individual responses, we have summarized the responses and impacts of Child Sexual Abuse as indicated by participants including examples that do not include personally identifiable information.
The majority of participants (329) answered the question about whether or not they had been impacted by child sexual abuse (whether it happened to them or not). One additional participant did not answer that question, but still provided an impact. Of the 329 participants, 62 said they had not been impacted; 61 of those said they had also not been abused and 1 said they were unsure. An additional 39 said that they were unsure if they had been impacted; of those 39, 3 were unsure if they had been abused, 7 said they had been abused, and 29 said they had not been abused.
The remaining 229 participants (70%) said they had been impacted; 53 of those participants said they had not been abused (but were still impacted), 25 were unsure if they had been abused, and 151 said they had been abused. Although the vast majority (66%) of people who were impacted were impacted by personal experiences of abuse, 23% of people impacted by abuse were impacted by the abuse of someone else (often a parent or sibling).
A follow-up question requested information about the impacts participants had experienced, if they had experienced any. Below are the impacts mentioned by the 214 people who provided qualitative responses about the impact of child sexual abuse on their lives, divided by whether they had personally experienced abuse, had not been abused, or were unsure.
Of those who were not abused, 49 indicated they were still impacted and provided a qualitative description of that impact. Of those 49, 11 were statements about who was abused or an abuser, rather than an impact (e.g., “people I care about were abused” and “he confessed to abusing”). The remaining 38 provided a variety of impacts, including mistrusting others, hypervigilance with children, poor family relationships, the need to protect and hide themselves, avoiding others, focusing on others’ grief and pain at their own expense, feelings of helplessness, and a loss of family and community bonds. One example of the focus on community loss was from a participant who stated they were impacted most “… as an adult, mainly because of the way child abuse is dealt within the Amish churches, deception and cover up is very common, there are no real consequences or accountability for the offenders, no real care, support or justice for the victims, the way it impacts me, is feeling helplessness and anger about the situation”.
Of those who were unsure if they had been sexually abused, 22 described some kind of impact. Four of them listed specific people who had been abused (e.g., “my wife”), but did not describe how they were affected. The remaining 18 provided a variety of impacts, such as anxiety, lack of trust, fear of bringing children into the world, PTSD, physical health problems, and a change in religious and spiritual beliefs. They also included effects in how their parents – the ones abused as children – raised them, such as refusing to discuss sexual health, disdain for others experiencing sexual trauma, and alcoholism. Finally, they also spoke of the community-wide effects of the abuse, particularly the lack of consent and bodily autonomy inherent in child sexual abuse. For example, one said “Consent and the concepts of autonomy are so banned in the Amish Mennonite culture that it leaves many with no idea how to understand what is or isn’t rape later on in sexual interactions. They shame pleasure, shame female bodies and their functions.”
Of those who were abused, 142 provided a qualitative response to the question about how they were impacted. Of those 142, 13 mentioned who had been abused, but not the specific impact (e.g., “I was sexually abused as a child.”). Although a few mentioned hard work and healing, the vast majority mentioned impacts that began in childhood and continue in adulthood. Many mentioned a wide variety of impacts, including emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual, as well as behavioral.
Their views of sex and intimacy were impacted; they reported feeling shame about their own bodies and many mentioned hypersexuality or distaste for sex, even within their marriages. They also reported that it changed how they viewed their own purpose in life; the abuse made them believe that they were there solely for the benefit of their abusers. Several also mentioned that the abuse made them more vulnerable to other predators.
They have anxiety, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, C-PTSD, disassociation, nightmares, BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), self harm, suicidal ideation, difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships and sleeping issues. Several mentioned eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse as well.
They also experience physical problems including gynecological issues, auto-immune disorders, and chronic pain.
Given the nature of our sample, it should not come as a surprise that many also mentioned effects related to their faith: not trusting the church, changing their view of God, and leaving their church communities.
Finally, almost all mentioned some type of trust issue. These trust issues exist even for those in marriages, and the trust issues affect not only their abilities to form relationships, but how they raise their children. As an example of how the lack of trust affects multiple relationships, one participant stated they “Struggle to fully trust and connect with my husband and struggle in allow myself to experience deep connection with God and friendship with peers. Struggle to voice my deep thoughts and personal opinions and believe that I have value and can bring value to others. In beginning years of marriage, the ability to fully enjoy sex and connect mind/body feelings.”
Based on this, child sexual abuse clearly continues to impact abused children into adulthood. Even with access to therapy, the road to healing is long (and the destination may not be reached). The impacts, even after healing, may continue to be felt in chronic pain, PTSD, and lack of trust in others, among other effects. Child sexual abuse also, though, impacts the friends, family, and communities to which those children belong. It creates a lack of trust and loss of security and safety within the whole community, and, among our sample raised in religious homes, it is leading to a loss of faith. Because of the way church leaders are responding to abuse, participants are leaving or being pushed out of their church communities. In order to survive, participants raised in religious homes are having to leave their families, friends and communities. At a time when people need support the most, they reported losing support as well as being blamed and/or shamed for being the victim of a crime.