Nicole Walsh on why CSA needs to be treated as more than a 'negative childhood experience'
*Content Warning* - This piece focuses on Child Sexual Abuse and may impact readers in unexpected ways, please take care of yourself when reading.
Dixon and Daughters by Deborah Bruce, was a co-production between Clean Break and National Theatre which ran in 2023. The play shows a group of women who have all been impacted by historical Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) within their family. The characters are all complex and resilient and survive the experiences in their own individual ways.
To give context on the ways CSA can affect people’s behaviours, and how to support people who disclose their experiences of abuse, Nicole Walsh wrote a blog based on her expertise.
Nicole has been working with children and young people for 14+ years in education and community settings. She has been a Young Women’s Advocate and Head of Young Women’s Gender-based Violence Services, overseeing the delivery of Independent Sexual Violence Advocacy for children and young people. Her experience also includes Deputy Director of Youth Services at Hammersmith, Fulham, Ealing and Hounslow Mind, as well as being a Gender-Based Violence Consultant and Wellbeing Coach.
The history of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is deep rooted in our society and continues to have a longstanding impact on communities. This impact is still rarely talked about, despite the number of high-profile cases involving people in positions of power in recent years, exposing what could be described as a pandemic of Violence Against Women and Girls.
CSA, and Sexual Violence more broadly, is a subject which is incredibly complex and nuanced and in this article I begin to explain its impact, and how we can support survivors* from disclosure to healing.
When CSA happens, it is important to remember that there is always an imbalance of power at play. Often this is from someone known to the child – a family member, a family friend, a neighbour, a teacher, a doctor, a respected person within the community. This imbalance is what makes disclosing abuse so challenging. Alongside the threat of not being believed, as it is a child's word against a respected adult, children are often coerced, forced or threatened into silence by the person who is abusing their position of power.
During their experiences, children are often made to feel responsible for the actions of their perpetrator – when it is never their responsibility. They are asked, often by well-meaning people, “why did you not tell anyone?”, “did you say no?”, “are you sure that’s what happened?” These sorts of questions suggest that the child has some accountability and does not create a safe space for disclosure.
Considering their age, level of understanding and limited autonomy, it is a very high expectation that children will have the language to express that what is happening to them is wrong.
There is no universal response to CSA, however there are behaviours and experiences that can be explained as ‘trauma responses’. These responses look different for each survivor and can impact all areas of life for a child, including their emotions, psychology, spirituality, as well as their sense of self.
Examples of trauma responses in children are:
These signs can easily be mistaken as just part of a child or young person's development, particularly during adolescence. However, the focus should be on whether there has been a sudden change that is not reflective of the child's personality or previous behaviour.
One in three adults have experienced or been impacted by sexual violence, and one in four adults have experienced CSA. Although the experience may be historic, CSA still has a drastic impact in adulthood. We can see this in the fact that 53% of women in prison have experienced abuse as a child, with similar statistics in substance use recovery.
Due to the power imbalances explained above, many survivors will have never disclosed their experience of abuse, taking it with them throughout adulthood. For those who have disclosed at some point, many report not receiving any form of justice, and then live with feelings of guilt and shame as a result.
When a disclosure is made and no justice or accountability is delivered, survivors can begin to internalise their experiences and blame themselves, believing that they had done something to deserve this cruelty. This guilt and shame impacts not only their mental health, but the relationships they have with others throughout life.
In adulthood this can result in trauma responses such as:
There are many ways you can support a child, young person or adult who has been affected by sexual violence, being an observer isn’t one of them. Keeping yourself safe is also important, but there are ways to intervene safely and confidentially. Addressing CSA within our own communities can have an impact on our mental health, holding the future of a child and potential life changing interventions is a lot to be responsible for – so always find a way to get support.**
The following principles are used by professionals who work with children or adults who have experienced CSA or any form of sexual violence but are also valuable guidelines for anyone who has had experiences of CSA disclosed to them.
Believe - the most important thing you can do is believe that what a child or adult is telling you is their truth. You may have questions, or things may not make sense to you, but ultimately when you believe someone, you are closer to getting them the support they need and rebuilding their ability to trust others.
Understand - due to the complexity of trauma, many child survivors' behaviour can present in ways that are seen as ‘challenging’. Understanding how trauma presents itself allows you to separate the behaviour from who they are and what they need.
Respect - not all children or adults want to relive their experiences, give survivors space to create their own boundaries of what feels safe to share and what doesn’t. Allow them to be heard, cared for and shown dignity in their story.
Choice - children have very little autonomy in their lives, they are often told what to do by adults and people in authority. When it comes to CSA, their autonomy and agency are further violated. Give children choice in how they navigate their disclosure and recovery, give them a say in where and when things happen, who they talk to, what they want to do, and explain how you will support them.
Pay Attention - children might not always disclose that something is not right by saying something has happened, so look for changes in behaviour. For example, not wanting to be around specific adults or other children, withdrawal from things they used to love, keeping secrets from others. There is a pattern of disclosure that is sometimes missed, pay attention, be alert, be curious and trust your instincts.
When a survivor is ready, speaking to a specialist service is often the best way to start a healing journey. Here are some useful contacts:
Local Authority - reporting abuse of children and vulnerable adults.
Survivors Gateway - for all survivors of sexual violence in London, aged 14+.
Rape Crisis England Wales - a network of local Rape Crisis Centres across England and Wales. Services for children and young people, adult survivors, parents and carers and professional resources.
GALOP - services for LGBTQ+ survivors.
Survivors UK - services for men.
CouRAGEus Project - services for young people from marginalised communities in London, aged 11 – 24.
* Survivor is used in this to describe how people have survived life changing events – not everyone connects to this use of language, so it is important to note that others feel differently about their experiences.