Veronica Tonay, Ph.D.

Childhood Sexual Abuse: Resources for Survivors

First of all, it is very important for you to realize that you are not alone: 1 in 3-4 women and 1-6 men in the US were sexually abused as children. Research on the effects of sexual abuse in adulthood is prolific now. Studies have reliably demonstrated that the effects of sexual abuse on adults are identical to the effects of childhood physical abuse and to those of child neglect. One difference is that, with sexual abuse, one often has sexual symptoms as well. Child sexual abuse is also very amenable to treatment. Survivors of childhood abuse can and do work through their symptoms and emerge as stronger and more sensitive adults.

I've found three very effective books for those struggling with healing from abuse: Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal, and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal Workbook and (for partners and friends of survivors), Allies in Healing. These books discuss in a thorough and informative way the effects of child sexual abuse on adults. (Laura Davis also has a new book for survivors who are already well into the healing process; the topic of that book is sexual healing.) The workbook is an excellent resource to use in psychotherapy. It can bring up difficult feelings, and having the support and guidance of a professional can be very helpful. Another useful book, especially good when one feels alone in the experience, is Ellen Bass's I Never Told Anyone, which is a collection of writings on women's experiences of having been sexually abused as children. These books are available nearly everywhere, or you can buy them online.

If you are seeking psychotherapy for help with having been sexually abused, that is a good thing to do for yourself! If you are a college student, your campus probably has a Psychological Services office. Sometimes these have limits as to how many times they can see you, but if necessary, they will then refer you off campus to a psychologist in private practice.

Important things to look for when seeking a psychotherapist are (1) they list their license type and number, and say in their online or other advertising that they specialize in treating abuse survivors; (2) they are psychiatrists (MD), clinical psychologists (doctoral degree--PhD+license), clinical social workers (master's degree & LCSW license), or experienced marriage and family therapists (master's degree & LMFT/LMFCC license)--interns (LMFTI, PSYI, LCSWI), who are working on their licenses but not licensed yet may not be experienced enough to work effectively with survivors; (3) they are (as are most licensed psychotherapists) ethical. In particular, a psychotherapist treating survivors must have excellent boundaries: set limits for time sessions last and hold to it; no overfamiliarity with clients; little talking on the phone before you meet them; very little talking about themselves during sessions, if any; initiating no physical contact with you whatsoever, and so on. (4) In addition, during the first few sessions, psychotherapists will answer questions you have about the process, discuss and set goals, discuss the fee, discuss cancellation policy, discuss the limits of confidentiality, discuss their availability, and will describe the likely nature and course of your psychotherapy (including approximate length of therapy and risks and benefits associated with therapy as well as its alternatives). Only after they have done so can you give true 'informed consent' for psychotherapy. All of this is an ethical and legal requirement for psychotherapists.

If money is an issue, many towns have low-cost psychotherapy or counseling services for survivors. For example, in Santa Cruz, the Survivor's Healing Center on Walnut Street (part of Family Services in Santa Cruz), which was started by Ellen Bass, has all kinds of workshops, events, and groups for male and female survivors, LGBTQ individuals, and their friends. Monarch Services (domestic violence) has a hotline you can call 24 hours a day, as does Suicide Prevention Service. You can also call 211 for information about resources in any town, and 988 to reach the free, nationwide mental health line, staffed by kind people trained to help you. Most cities have a Family Services Association. They offer low-cost psychotherapy, and you can request a licensed psychotherapist rather than an intern.

Remember that you are not damaged, only wounded. Wounds heal with time, tending, and patience!

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