When you go through a traumatizing situation, it can be difficult to label what occurred. You might compare your experiences to the experiences you see on TV or read about online, causing you to question whether or not your experience “counts” as abuse. You also may struggle to remember what happened to you due to the way traumatic memories are stored in the brain, particularly if you were a child and did not have the language to name what was happening to you.
First of all, you are not alone. According to a 2007 Department of Justice survey, 35 percent of sexual abuse survivors didn't report their experience because it was "unclear that it was a crime or that harm was intended." Only you can define your experience, but honor the feelings you are feeling. Sexual abuse can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never your fault.
RAINN, the largest sexual violence organization in the US, defines sexual assault as "sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim." For the definition of rape, RAINN quotes the FBI: "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
If you think you experienced sexual abuse as a child, remember in its simplest form, child sexual abuse is any sexual encounter that occurs between a child and an older person (as children cannot legally consent to sexual acts). This abuse may involve contact, like touching or penetration. It also includes non-contact cases, like "flashing" or child pornography. The age under which one is considered a child varies by state and sometimes an age differential between the perpetrator and the victim is required.
While these are the official definitions, know that all of your feelings and experiences are valid. Trauma does not only consist of the event(s) that occurred, but it also involves how you experience those events as well as the overall effect the event has on you afterwards. If you are not sure if you were abused, but feel impacted by a certain experience, reach out to a professional who can help you process and determine next steps to help you heal.
Labeling your experience is up to you, but for many, putting a name to it allows them to more effectively deal with its aftermath. It is perfectly normal to have a delayed reaction--it may take time to make sense of it. If you need help figuring out if what happened to you is sexual abuse, call RAINN’s hotline at 800.656.HOPE.