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What Even IS Sexual Abuse?

What Even IS Sexual Abuse?

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We need to talk about abuse. 1 in 3 girls might be sexually abused – but what does abuse actually mean?



Sometimes we hear the word abuse and it’s a bit intense so we block it out, or we don’t even have a clear idea of what it means. Knowing what abuse is can help to protect us by helping us to recognise it when we see it happening to ourselves or our friends.

Abuse is hurtful behavior. This doesn’t mean it has to physically hurt, it could be something that hurts our hearts or minds.

Sexual abuse is sometimes hard to recognize because often it comes in disguise.

And we don’t want to think that what happened was that bad, or we think other people won’t think it was a big deal. We think “Am I overreacting to something that’s normal?” so we pretend like it wasn’t a big deal to ourselves. We also get really worried that if we tell someone they won’t believe us. 

We think of sexual abuse as a stranger jumping out in a park, but – 9 out of 10 times, it’s done by someone you know, and it comes in all different forms.

Here are some examples of sexual abuse:

  • Someone making you watch porn when you don’t want to.
  • Sending you sexual photos without asking you if you want them.
  • Someone getting you to send them sexual photos by threatening you, or talking you into it.
  • When someone shares sexual photos of you online or with other people without your consent.
  • Someone looking at your body, or exposing your body when you don’t want them to. 
  • Someone touching you sexually (e.g. your private parts like your breasts, vagina or anus) when you don’t want them to, or in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. That might be touching you with their hands, their penis, pushing an object against you, or into your vagina or anus.

So here’s a way to understand it. Sexual abuse includes at least one of the following:

  • You don’t consent, or agree to it.
  • There’s unequal power between you and the person doing it to you.
  • The other person forces or talks you into doing it.

Let’s break these concepts down.

What does “No consent” mean?

  • Touching you someone sexually when you haven’t agreed to it. This might be in words – saying when you’ve said “no”, your body language shows you don’t want to do anything. 

    But this is where it can get tricky – someone might start being sexual with you and you just freeze – just because you couldn’t fight the person off doesn’t mean that you agreed to it, but the other person might think it is agreement. 

    Or, you might want to go somewhere and kiss, but no further, but the other person thinks that because you went somewhere with them you are saying “yes” to everything.  You aren’t!
  • Making somebody do something you don’t want to do (“all your friends are doing it, if you loved me you would”). This is coercion.
  • Making someone do something you don’t know about ( e.g. touching someone’s body when they are asleep, or having you agree to do something when you don’t really know what it is).

What does Consent look like?

  1. Clearly communicating with each other about what you’d like to do - do you want to do X? Yes!
  2. Doing something freely and willingly – not feeling forced or pressured
  3. Not having your decision-making influenced – i.e. you’re not too drunk or wasted to decide whether or not you do something
  4. A step by step yes – just because you agreed to have your pants off does NOT mean you agreed to have sex

Unequal Power happens when the person is:

  • Older
    • When older guys like us, it’s really flattering! But there’s a big imbalance – older guys have more experience. That might mean that we feel pressured to act more grown up than we feel, which they can take advantage of.
  • Stronger
    • If someone is bigger than you then you can be worried for your own safety – it makes sense it might feel safer to NOT FIGHT something, like do something you aren’t comfortable with to avoid a conflict.
  • Has authority over the other person
    • For example; your teacher, boss, or coach

  Force or coercion is:

  • Using pressure in the form of compliments (e.g. "You are so sexy when you do this")
  • Using threats (e.g. "Do this or else")
  • Using bribes (e.g. "Do this and I will buy you something nice")
  • Physical force (e.g. "I am going to make you do this")
  • Blackmail (e.g. "Do this or I will share what you sent me")

Abuse is not done because someone cares about you.

The person doing it gets off on feeling that they have control over you, and can do what they want to you - even if it hurts you.  This is why it is never your fault.  You have been tricked and hurt, and now you need support and care.

If someone comes to you and tells you they have been abused the best thing you can do is say:

  • “It’s not your fault”
  • “I believe you”
  • “I want to help you find the support you need.”  We have an important guide for how to do this here

To #BeInformed, find out more information about sexual abuse and how you can help support someone you know who may have experienced sexual abuse

Learning about and recognizing abuse can help us #BeInformed and #BeAForce for change, and for a better world.

If you have questions or would like to speak with someone about abuse, there are lots of amazing people out there ready to help. Remember, it's OK to ask for help, here's who you can reach out to. 

Want to speak to someone now? You can call the wonderful women at HELP on their 24 Hour Help Line: 09 623 1700

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