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Covert Sexual Abuse


So I posted on facebook a little while ago to get an idea of what people understood to be covert sexual abuse.

It didn’t seem as though many knew what I meant by it, but it certainly piqued the interest of some.

So this blog is going to set out to explain that to you. Please make sure you are in a safe space when you read this, as you may not realise that the content relates to you until it’s too late.


Here we go.

What is covert sexual abuse?

Well, the best way to first answer that, is to perhaps consider what we thing of as ‘overt’ sexual abuse.

Overt sexual abuse can be described as anything that has an obvious sexual intent. For example molestation, rape (which includes forced oral sex and sodomy) and anything else you might consider as obviously sexual. (As a side bar, rape is typically about power more than sex but that’s another blog).

Therefore, anything that does not have an obvious sexual intention, but nevertheless leaves a victim feeling violated or that ‘ick’ feeling, could be regarded as covert sexual abuse.

It might look like the family member who squeezes just a bit too tight when they hug you, pressing against your breasts. Or they stroke your thigh a little too high up for comfort, but not quite touching your genitals. Perhaps they press their body against yours holding your waist as they ‘squeeze’ past. It might look like a parent not allowing you privacy for a bath or shower, far beyond an appropriate age.

Or not leaving the room when you ask them to so you can change, dismissing your concerns. In some cases it might look like asking to check your development to make sure you’re ‘healthy’, rather than trusting you to come to them if needed.

It might be discussing your body with others without your consent, for example your period starting, your bra size, your sexual experiences, your wet dreams, your masturbation habits.

It’s this kind of exchange:

‘please can you leave, I’m want to change’

‘Don’t worry, I don’t care, I’ve seen it all before, you’ve got nothing to show anyway’

Or maybe overhearing your parent talking to a friend

‘Oh did I tell you I Tom started getting pubic hairs, I wonder when the wet dreams will start?’

It leaves you feeling violated and confused but without really understanding why, and should you be brave enough to complain, you will likely be dismissed, possibly mocked, and devalued.

The impact of covert sexual abuse is one that leads to a detachment from your physical self, because you haven’t been taught your body is ‘yours’. The abuser has taken ownership of your physical being.

As a result, you might struggle to assert, or even know your physical boundaries, allowing others to decide them for you.

For example in relationship you may find it difficult to say no to sex with your partner because you don’t feel as though you have a right to do so. You haven’t been taught to listen to and respect your physical needs.

And worst of all, because this subject is so little understood, you may not know why you have these feelings, and you may not have had them validated by anyone around you. Because this is what we call ‘little t trauma’ and not ‘big T trauma’, it’s harder to pin point. It’s harder to explain and it’s harder to process the feelings with it.

And yet the impact of it will reach far into your life if you don’t recognise and process it, and reset the boundaries you weren’t allowed when you were a child.

If you’ve read this and are feeling a bit shocked and stunned because it relates to you, take a moment.


Feel the feelings and reflect.

Write down incidents you can think of that relate to this.

And get into therapy, making sure the therapist really understands the subject. Covert sexual abuse is insidious, nuanced and the impact is far reaching into adulthood. It should not be downplayed or dismissed. It should be taken as seriously as overt sexual abuse, and understood as well as that.

It wasn’t right, It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t you. It was them.

Thank you for reading, and please take great great care of yourselves.

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