How to Overcome Stigmas Associated with Sexual Abuse

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How to Overcome Stigmas Associated with Sexual Abuse

Written by Wendy M. Johnson 

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Have you ever wondered why stigmas are such a destructive influence on a survivor of sexual abuse trying to get help? If so, you are not alone. 

The term ‘stigma’ is used so loosely but do you really understand what it means, where it comes from, and how it is such a powerful force in stopping people from progressing. Sexual abuse is an issue shrouded in stigmas that include both social and self-stigmas. 

Stigmas are barriers to healing

At HEAL, our goal is to research all the areas that stop or hold back a survivor from getting the help they need to better understand how to break down those barriers. Due to the destructive nature of sexual violence, it is important to identify how a survivor can heal after such an experience. 

Have you ever wanted to say something, anything, and stopped yourself because you feared what other people’s responses would be? Maybe you feared being laughed at or rejected. Maybe you didn’t agree with a crude joke that you felt was demeaning and instead of saying something, you awkwardly smiled so you would not be a target of ridicule. Perhaps you didn’t agree with the political issues being talked about but feared being ostracized or ‘canceled.’ If you have experienced any of these types of situations or similar ones, you have experienced stigmatization. Fearing how a person or a group will treat you if you do not agree or follow is an example of being stigmatized. The effects of being stigmatized can be paralyzing to the point a survivor will not ever speak up or look for help for fear of rejection.  

What is a stigma?

There are many barriers to healing that include:

  • avoidance
  • social rejection
  • stigmas
  • emotional readiness
  • concerns
  • fears about treatment 
  • lack of knowledge
  • understanding about services available to them 

Some barriers are more damaging than others and stigmas are at the top of the list.

In a peer-reviewed study on stigmas and mental health, Corrigan and Rao explained that “Stigmas are a societal creation[1] that involves “stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.”[2] They also shared that “Stigma is also a social injustice and an error of society”[3] and how eradicating it is the responsibility of that society.[4]      

Young woman in field

Although I agree with their study, I have found that those doing the stigmatizing to survivors of sexual abuse are well aware of what they are doing and do not plan of changing anytime soon. This leaves the responsibility of this change to occur by survivors themselves. I personally like the idea that by setting boundaries I can play a powerful part in my own life stopping others from stigmatizing me or treating me a certain way because I came forward with my sexual abuse experience. 

Self-Stigmas and Sexual Abuse

Self-stigma is not a term used that often when talking about stigmas. But it is the most important and destructive stigma there is if you do not learn how to control it. Self-stigma is the interpretation and internalization of negative stereotypes, which may cause negative emotional reactions, such as low self-worth, poor self-efficacy, and failure to seek help.[5]

“Self-stigma is comprised of three steps: 

  1. Awareness of the stereotype
  2. Agreement with it
  3. Applying it to oneself.”[6]

Self-stigmas have been shown to be harmful to a survivor’s recovery and “plays a critical role in shaping survivors’ thoughts, feeling, and behaviors”[7] and maybe a direct cause of why a survivor fails to seek help.

Internalizing Self-Stigmas

How does a survivor internalize external messages regarding their sexual abuse? It cannot occur without internalizing messages they learn from society. Stigmas are learned behavior grounded in the society and communities we live in. They are created in our neighborhoods and within our own families. 

How does self-stigma influence a survivor coming forward to disclose or seek help for the trauma? Low self-worth, self-blame, and shame encompass self-stigmas and could be an explanation of a barrier. Kenney, Prock, Corrigan, and Rao argue that social stigma affects a person’s self-stigma through hearing, seeing, and internalizing as well as acting on social stigma. 

Internalizing a self-stigma is a learned behavior and with all learned behaviors, you can unlearn it. They are thought processes that have been embedded due to your life experiences. In time, by creating new life experiences you can create new thought processes replacing your old self-stigmas with more healthy and empowering ones.

Social Stigmas and Sexual Abuse

Stigma and stigmatization refer to the negative undertones, i.e., badness, shame, and guilt that are communicated to you around the abusive experiences that become incorporated into your self-image.[8] Social stigmas are a destructive barrier for survivors to getting help. Social stigmas shame survivors for coming forward and sharing the “dirty laundry” of a family. Family members will go to great lengths to support the social stigma in an effort to ‘pretend’ that their family is fine. Social stigmas include ‘enablers’ that remind a survivor that they cannot talk about their experience because they are the ones who are ‘damaged’ not the family. Social stigmas are where shaming, blaming, and ostracizing survivors of sexual abuse are born from and are powerful barriers to survivors of sexual abuse seeking help or even disclosing.

How to Reject Social Stigmas

What makes survivors reject social stigmas and not internalize them? Many people who have experienced adversity and trauma have grown from the experience and it is important to further explore where the shift is taking place from a survivor who accepts social stigmas and internalizes them to those who reject them. Why do some survivors overcome sexual abuse stigmas and others do not?

Because internalized self-stigmas are learned by societal influences and are a critical barrier for a survivor seeking help, social stigmas can be rejected, and a new self-narrative can be learned.

“Self-stigma is not an inevitable curse.”9

In another study, Patrick W. Corrigan and Deepa Rao researched mental illness and how to reduce self-stigma through self-empowerment by encouraging people to believe they can achieve their life goals and increase social support.[10] Kenney, Prock, Corrigan, and Rao argue that self-empowerment can help them move forward with individually defined goals. They prove that self-stigmas cannot occur without prior knowledge of what is considered taboo and that stigma grows from a person’s prior knowledge from others as well as how lower self-stigma promotes goal attainment.[11]

By not utilizing

  1. Evidence-based treatments or
  2. Treatments that specialize in sexual abuse trauma (i.e., support groups),

people are limiting themselves in their understanding of “healing” because they do not realize that studies show they can overcome the negative effects of the trauma.  

How to Overcome Stigmas associated with Sexual Abuse

Survivors of sexual abuse range from experiencing the abuse by a family member, close family friend, acquaintance, spouse, or a stranger, etc. 

Much research has been done to help identify how an individual can heal from such an experience. 

Healing can encompass learning new skills and tools to protect oneself from future abuse, such as getting educated on the cycle of abuse, setting boundaries, improving relationships, and overcoming shame, guilt, self-blame, or self-destructive behaviors. In fact, a study on defining the healing process after sexual abuse states, “Positive changes occur when survivors take control of the direction of their lives, experience acceptance from others, care for and nurture themselves, and experience a sense of liberation and freedom.”[12]

Healing causes disruption in the survivor’s life. Changing to heal disrupts the past’s hold on a survivor. Healing helps loosen the grip the abuse has on a survivor and that disruption is where taking control of one’s life is born. 

In an effort to heal, survivors have to come forward and ask for help. Many suffer from anxieties, flashbacks, nightmares, and triggers. The question of how people talk about their healing can be influenced by where they talk about it. Their social networks have a big influence on their thought process. 

Survivors can experience negative reactions regarding their abuse from family and their social circles. Social stigmas can have a devastating impact on a survivor. When a child comes forward and reports they were sexually abused and are told to not talk about it or are not believed, self-stigmas can form and be internalized from a young age. 

Even adults who come forward and share they were abused as a child are disbelieved or blamed if they were assaulted as an adult. Social Stigmas can also influence whether a victim comes forward to disclose or seek help. If their social circles, which encompass the social stigmas, cannot offer support or they were demeaned for speaking out-the fear of reaching out and asking for help shrinks. 

The good news is that the stigmas can be overcome. Sexual abuse survivors can reject social stigmas even if they internalized them as self-stigmas. In order to overcome sexual abuse stigmas, it is important for you to get educated on the cycle of abuse and healing principles that will change your internal messaging. Despite the abuse and the dynamics surrounding it, survivors can reject the abusive dynamic and seek healing to overcome it. 

Love and Friends,

Wendy

Ever imagine what it would be like to live a life without shame? Join the HEAL community today. 🎉


[1] Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD; Deepa Rao, PhD, MA. 2012; 57(8): 464-469. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness: Stages, Disclosure, and Strategies for Change. CanJPsychiatry. https://journals-sagepub-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/070674371205700804

[2] Patrick W. Corrigan, Jonathon E. Larson, Nicolas Rusch. 2009; 8:75-81. Self-stigma and the “why try” effect: impact on life goals and evidence-based practices. World Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694098/pdf/wpa020075.pdf

[3] Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD; Deepa Rao, PhE, MA. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness.

[4] Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD; Deepa Rao, PhE, MA. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness.

[5] Patrick W. Corrigan, Deepa Rao. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness. 2012; 57(8): 464-469.

[6] Patrick W. Corrigan, 2009; Self-stigma and the “why try” effect: impact on life goals and evidence-based practices. 2009; 8:75-81.

[7] Angie C. Kennedy and Kristen A. Prock. “I Still Feel Like I am Not Normal” A Review of the Role of Stigma and Stigmatization Among Female Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, and Intimate Partner Violence. Trauma, Violence & Abuse (2018), 19(5) 512-527. SAGE. DOI: 10.1177/1524838016672601 journals.sagepub.com/home/tva. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694098/pdf/wpa020075.pdf

[8] Angie C. Kennedy and Kristen A. Prock. “I Still Feel Like I am Not Normal” A Review of the Role of Stigma and Stigmatization Among Female Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, and Intimate Partner Violence. Trauma, Violence & Abuse (2018), 19(5) 512-527. SAGE. DOI: 10.1177/1524838016672601 journals.sagepub.com/home/tva. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694098/pdf/wpa020075.pdf

[9] Patrick W. Corrigan, Deepa Rao. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness. 2012; 57(8): 464-469

[10] Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD; Deepa Rao, PhE, MA. On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness.

[11] Patrick W. Corrigan, Jonathon E. Larson, Nicolas Rusch

[12] C.B. Draucker, et al. Healing from childhood sexual abuse. (2009) 32(4), 366-378.


HEAL has strict sourcing guidelines and draws only from peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical journals and associations. HEAL also may reference thought leaders, experts in the field, survivors stories, and websites. We link primary sources – including studies, scientific references, and statistics – within each article and also list them in the resources section at the bottom of our articles.

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