Understanding what sexual abuse is has changed hugely over time. This has in part been influenced by societal myths on who a perpetrator is (male, a stranger), who victims are (female), and where sexual abuse happens (outside of our homes).
Although there are many survivors who experience sexual abuse in these circumstances, it is much more common for it to happen between persons that know each other. It is also true that sexual abuse happens in many different spaces, including online.
Sexual abuse is any type of non-consensual sexual contact between people, even when there may not be bodies physically in a room together. There are examples of abuse that can take place online such as: requesting participation in a sexual act and being asked to share personal information or photographs.
Online interactions can be abusive by nature even if sexual contact (in the ‘real world’ and/or online) hasn’t taken place. Grooming and coercive control are two examples of what can precede sexual abuse in order to create a relationship or connection between the perpetrator and victim.
Trust, loyalty, feeling special, and feeling validated are created alongside the abuse that takes place so that it is enabled to happen in a way that is out of the survivor’s control. This happens to the benefit of the perpetrator and at the disempowerment and violation of the survivor. Because of this, many survivors feel a sense of blame, shame, and guilt for what happened.
Untangling the sudden intrusion into one’s physical, psychological, and online boundaries with a trusted person can therefore be distressing and confusing. All of these boundaries must be kept safe in accordance with what feels right for the individual survivor, regardless of any lived experiences of sexual abuse.
Boundaries are important in securing your relationship with yourself, as well as extending those boundaries via relationships with others. Relationships of any kind that are established online need to take into account what is lost behind our screens, as this can blur our sense of what feels right and wrong. We have less information and social cues to go on in our back and forth communication with someone, so our boundaries may be flexed more than usual.
My work as a psychotherapist, specialising in supporting survivors, involves a lot of work on boundaries and creating personal safety. A sense of safety is created by checking in with your psychological (thinking) and somatic (body) cues, as these provide information on what is right or wrong for you. If you feel physically uncomfortable in any way, including feeling anxious or numb, then it’s likely a personal boundary has been crossed.
You can re-establish this boundary by taking a little time on your own to re-connect comfortably with your body. Making use of any of your five senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell) is a helpful starting point. When we are calm and safe somatically, our brains are more able to think clearly, which can assist in making decisions to keep safe and perhaps verbalise your boundaries more effectively.
Psychotherapy can offer a safe space to explore your feelings, you can look for an accredited therapist on the UKCP website
You can also find support by contacting:
In an emergency, call: 999
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47
The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123
The NHS website where you can find contact details and other information for help after rape or sexual assault