Sexual Abuse FAQs

There are a lot of questions surrounding sexual abuse.  Here are some answers to the most common questions we get asked.  If you find that you have more questions after reading this, please contact us.   We’re here to help.

What is rape?

Rape is an act of violence where the perpetrator uses sex to dehumanise and hurt another person. There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ rape or a ‘typical’ rape victim. Rape is NOT the same as making love or having sex. Although most rapes involve some form of sexual contact, in rape this occurs when a woman is in a state of emotional terror. Most women consider the sexual nature of the rape secondary compared with the violence, fear, terror and threats to her life that are involved.

Women are not responsible for rape. They do not enjoy the experience or ask for it to happen. People often mistakenly assume that women can prevent rape by avoiding places, dressing differently or fighting more. In fact, virtually no one can guarantee their safety, as rapes occur at all hours of the day, between all manner of people, of all ages and backgrounds. It is a mistake to assume a woman is responsible for the actions of the rapist. This is NEVER true. No matter what she was doing before the rape, it is the rapist who is completely responsible for the crime. The fact that a woman has survived a sexual assault means that she did the right things at the time to stay alive.

Rape occurs all the time and has done for many thousands of years. It persists because of all the myths, misinterpretations, jokes and clichés that still exist about this crime.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is when one person uses another for their own sexual purpose without that person’s consent, or when the other person can’t give consent because they are under 16 years old or disabled in some way which makes communication difficult. Often there is some kind of power differential used to coerce someone into the abuse or convince them not to disclose it – this might be age, employment or just gender.

There are many types of sexual abuse and not all is violent or involves penetrative sex. HELP considers all of the following to be sexually abusive behaviours:

  • Using a child to meet sexual desires
  • Pressured sex – like hassling someone into it, or saying they will lose their job or friends or something if they don’t
  • Making explicit sexual threats
  • Viewing or distributing abusive material
  • Peeping, exposing and obscene phonecalls
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual innuendo
  • Sexual touch that is unwanted or uncomfortable
  • Being forced to watch or participate in pornography
  • Rape in all its forms: acquaintance rape, stranger rape, drug rape, partner rape, date rape, gang rape or child rape
  • Unwanted sex

What are the other definitions of sexual crimes?

  • Rape: Any sexual intercourse (genital penetration) that happens without consent.
  • Unlawful sexual contact: Any sexual contact that happens without consent.
  • Sexual abuse: any sexual contact or exposure to pornography that has not been consented to or is done to someone under 16 years old.
  • Incest: Any sexual contact from close family members i.e. parents, siblings, grandparents.
  • Statutory rape: Sexual intercourse with a person under 16 years old.
  • Indecent assault: Any touching of a sexual nature that has not been consented to.
  • Sexual harassment: Words, or behaviour directed towards a particular person that are sexual in nature and cause emotional harm.

Why does HELP prioritise women and children in the provision of their services?

Our prioritising of women and children occurs for a number of reasons:

  • While it is increasingly recognised that men also experience sexual violence, women and children remain the biggest group seeking support services.
  • Differential resource distribution means that women and children are those with the least access to resources in this society, therefore, the provision of a community based service with some capacity to subsidise costs is important for assisting women and children as a group.
  • Gender socialisation in our society means that the effects of sexual violence vary between males and females.  We regard ourselves as having specialist knowledge in working with women and children and believe that men are also entitled to services with specialist knowledge about their needs.
  • In the first stages of recovery, many women and children need to be in an environment that they perceive to be as safe as possible.  The nature of our building and men’s voices means that we could not provide such an environment for women if men were being encouraged to express all of their emotions in the room next door.

What sort of people sexually offend against children and young people?

Both men and women sexually offend against children, although the majority of offenders are male and heterosexual. Most are known to their victim, in fact, nearly half are relatives of the person they abuse. Approximately ¼ are fathers or stepfathers, although stepfathers are up to ten times more likely to sexually abuse than fathers. In terms of age, approximately ¼ are teenagers and ½ are under 25 years old.

What happens to people to make them sexually offend?  Why would someone do this?

Different people sexually offend for different reasons. Some were victims of abuse or neglect as children, however most victims of sexual abuse live their lives without becoming offenders themselves. Many have sexual relationships with other adults, but approach children when they are under a lot of stress. Some people sexually abuse children so that they can feel the power and control they don’t feel in their relationships with other adults.

None of these reasons excuse this awful act and offenders will find ways to give themselves permission or justify something that they know is wrong. They find opportunities to get access to victims and stop them from telling, manipulating things to hide the abuse from others.

Why don’t offenders care about how this affects other people?

Some sexual offenders seem to have no regard for others and use people selfishly to fulfill their own needs and desires, but this is the minority. Most do have regard for others, but can switch this off when it comes to their victims and override their consciences. Lack of regard for other people, or lack of empathy, is often thought to be the result of bad treatment or neglect as a child; when young children are not shown empathy, they grow up without an awareness or understanding of other people’s feelings. This lack of regard is part of what offenders tell themselves to give themselves permission for the offence; they often go on thinking that they are good, caring people who are doing no harm.

Why don’t they always admit to what they’ve done?

Treatment providers refer to this common outcome as denial or minimisation and most do it to avoid punishment and preserve their own sense of self-worth. Like most of us, offenders don’t like to think of themselves as bad people. A big step to overcoming sexually abusive behaviour is for offenders to admit to themselves (and others) the full extent of their actions and the harm it has caused.

How come they find it hard to be remorseful about what they’ve done, but expect to be excused for their actions?

Not all offenders find it hard to be sorry, or expect to be forgiven. Those who do will likely be the ones with little regard for others or responsibility for their own actions. Their sense of entitlement means they consider only their own needs while ignoring the needs of others and they often view themselves as victims, in other areas of their lives too. This might be a result of earlier problems and a sense of other people being bad and themselves being helpless and victims of injustice.

Why do they try and convince survivors that it’s their fault or that they wanted it to happen?

This behaviour is referred to as ‘grooming’, a trick that lots of offenders use to make sure their victims don’t tell on them. It makes the victims believe that they have done something wrong to and will get in trouble if they tell, so it keeps them silent.

How is sexual abuse different to having sex?

Good, healthy sexual relationships are consensual, respectful and happen between two people who have equal amounts of power in the relationship. Sexual offending has none of these qualities. One is a loving act between two people who care about each other, while the other is a selfish and abusive act of disregard to the victim.

I never thought it would happen to me.  Why did they pick me?

Sex offenders choose their victims for a number of reasons… they may just fit the description that the offender is attracted to, they may be vulnerable for one reason or another, or they may just have been available. Often they will choose a victim who they know might need some adult attention, is a bit unhappy, or is unlikely to tell because they’ve already been getting into trouble about other things. Some people who have been abused think there was something about them, or something they did that caused the abuse to happen but this is just not true – it is the offenders choices alone that lead to the abuse.

How often does this happen and who else does it happen to?

Studies in New Zealand and overseas show that around 1 in every 3 or 4 women have had unwanted sexual experiences before the age of 16. It can happen to children of all ages, cultures, appearances and abilities and can occur as one incident on one occasion, or many times over a long period. It’s not unusual for a child to be sexually abused on more than one occasion, by more than one person – it can be by older children, teenagers or adults and both males or female.

Can they change?  Can they be helped?

Yes. Research shows that many people who sexually abuse will stop their behaviour if they get specialist help. About 20% will be convicted of another offence, but if they get specialist help, that rate is halved. Treatment provides people with the awareness and skills to prevent further offending if they choose to. A recent New Zealand study showed that 2% of adolescents and 5% of adults who completed one of our sexual offender treatment programmes was reported to have reoffended. Some will continue to sexually abuse in the future, while others go on to lead constructive, abuse-free lives if they get help and use it wisely.