Child Sexual Abuse And Self-Esteem

The effects of child sexual abuse are far-reaching. Child abuse doesn’t stop once you reach adulthood. It doesn’t go away and stop bothering you when you blow out the candles on your 18th birthday cake.

Yesterday, Lorraine Mulvey refused to be anonymous and spoke out about how being sexually abused by her father for most of her childhood had affected her. You can read her victim impact report here.

What struck me most – apart from Lorraine’s obvious bravery – is how similar her experiences were to my own. I, too, remember looking at other girls in school and wondering how often a week they were ‘visited’ in their beds. It never occurred to me that they might not be. It never occurred to me – until I was a teenager – that what was happening to me was not ‘normal’.

As I mentioned in an interview with Sean Moncrieff last week, my first memory is of being sexually abused. My first recollection of myself is of being a few weeks past my third birthday and being picked up by someone more than 30 years my senior; someone I should have been able to trust, and brought up to his bed. There, he stripped me from the waist down and proceeded to fiddle around with my vulva and my vagina before forcing his penis into my mouth. I tried to resist. That earned me a slapped face. I vividly remember the chubby roundness of my little cheek being lost inside the palm of his hand as he lost patience with me.

The worst part of this memory is that I have an awareness that I knew – when he picked me up – what was going to happen. I can still feel the dread, quickly followed by numbness, which indicates to me that this was not the first time I’d been abused. Just the first recollection I have of it.

Remember, I was three.  This is (part of) my first memory. No memory precedes it. No memories of hugs, or kisses or bed-time stories, or of bed being a safe, warm place to be. No memories of laughter or sun. My first memory is of not even belonging to myself.

I didn’t like what was happening – but I didn’t know any different. I didn’t know that things could be different. I didn’t like it, but I knew I had to put up with it. The same way I didn’t like potatoes, but I still had to eat them. They made me gag, too.

The people who sexually abused me told me that I was ‘a dirty girl’, ‘a bold girl’ ‘disgusting’ and ‘ugly’. I believed them. How could I not? I had never heard anything good about myself. For years and years, if anyone paid me a compliment, I couldn’t accept it. How could anyone say anything remotely good about me? Often, I’d assume that the person paying me the compliment was being particularly unkind – saying something that couldn’t possibly be true as a way of pointing out how awful I was. Or I’d feel guilty for having – somehow, unwittingly – duped them into thinking something good about me. Even now, accepting a compliment – no matter how genuine – causes me difficulty.

Shame was my constant companion. I was ashamed that I had this body that made people hurt me. I was ashamed of how ugly I was. I was ashamed of the fact that this was happening to me. I wished I was invisible.

Guilt and fear jostled for pride of place in my psyche for years.  Sexual abuse hurts your sexual organs. It is natural for a child to place a hand on the sore parts of their bodies. Putting a hand – even subconsciously – on the part of me that was sore and stinging (a part I didn’t have a name for until years after the abuse had started) would earn me looks of disgust and words of admonishment ‘Stop that, ye dirty girl, ye!’

More guilt.

I felt that what was happening to me was my own fault. I believed them when they told me it was.

The night would bring fear, as I wondered whether or not I’d be left alone. Whether or not I could sleep.  As a child, I wasn’t even safe in my own bed. A little tight ball of anguish,  I cried myself to sleep every single night.  I prayed to God that I would never wake up again. Then morning would come, and I would wake up and knowing what the days held for me, I would conclude that even God didn’t want me to live with him. I was that bad.

I lived with a knot of fear in my stomach. I was afraid of everything and everyone. I was such easy prey for bullies;  even now,  in my 30s, a bully can stop me in my tracks and reduces me to a gibbering wreck (not a good look!).  Fear is a debilitating disease. It crippled me, and chased away any sense of esteem I might have had.

But my past does not define me. I no longer feel that I walk around with a visible thumb-print of abuse on my forehead. I no longer believe I am to blame for what happened. The guilt and shame are not mine to own.

I firmly believe that the more people who talk about abuse…the more people will talk about abuse. And the more people who talk about abuse, the more people will get help to overcome the trauma. That’s something else Lorraine Mulvey and I have in common.


Please don’t keep secrets about sexual abuse. Phone the rape crisis centre nationwide hotline: 1800 77 88 88 or One in Four: 01 6624070 /