Sexual Abuse: What It is, Your Rights and How to Heal

You have the right to recover after sexual trauma

Sexual abuse is about power

There are different types of sexual abuse but what’s important to know is that it’s a manipulative power dynamic. Sexual abuse describes someone using their position of power by taking advantage of another person’s trust to coerce them into sexual activity. It’s different from sexual assault, which is random, spontaneous sexual violence. Not all sexual abuse is rape, but rape is a type of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse includes any and all types of recurring non-consensual behaviour like incest, touching, kissing, groping, etc.

Sexual abuse often happens at the hands of people who are close to us. That makes recognising and reporting it that much more complicated.

‘I didn’t consent to this’

Often, abusers will try to cut the victim off from their support system. Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng – GP, sexual-health advocate and writer – says that there are no clear-cut warning signs (especially if you’ve been groomed or conditioned to accept abuse as normal or something you deserve to happen to you). But there are ways to spot dangers. ‘It’s that feeling you get when you know “I didn’t consent to this.” Like if when you say no to sex in a relationship and they ignore you but you do it anyway because you love them – that’s not consent. Women in these situations, even when they don’t want to have sex, will force themselves because women must always be willing and available, according to how we’re socialised to view gender roles,’ says Mofokeng.

You’re not alone

Approximately 25,3% of women have experienced sexual abuse. And 18% of women have experienced intimate partner rape on one or more occasions.* That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) reports that only two percent of sexual-abuse occurrences get reported. One reason is likely because many are abused by someone they know – an uncle, father, brother, family friend, community leader or pastor – making reporting the crime complicated.

Another common part of sexual abuse is that it is often ongoing. For women who live under the same roof as their perpetrator, or who have to engage with them in some way every single day, the risk of reporting is terrifying.

Mofokeng describes the reasons why myths and misconceptions about sexual abuse, especially at the hands of your partner, have made it difficult for women to come forward and seek help. ‘Unless we have a strong support system for women when they exit a sexually abusive relationship, we cannot expect women to speak up,’ she says. ‘Unless we have a supportive justice system and place for women to safely escape abusive relationships. Women need support and society needs to stop victim-blaming survivors.’

Even if you have very few resources or feel entrapped by a sexually abusive relationship, there are organisations across the country dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual abuse – for free.

Getting out and finding help

Get to safety ASAP

Help At Your Fingertips is a phone service by the TEARS Foundation – a network of counsellors and volunteers offering support for survivors of abuse and assault. SMS *134 *7355# (for free, on any phone) and the service tracks your location, sending you a list of the nearest healthcare facilities to provide immediate support for survivors of sexual assault and rape.

Find help to process your trauma

Survivor of assault and writer Lily Reed says recovery takes time, but talking about your experience can help you get there. ‘To progress from the mind-set of a victim to a survivor is a big step. The next step is to see that you are a warrior,’ says Reed.

Reed was gang-raped by 12 men in Malawi in 2012, in front of her daughter

‘Trauma counselling was an essential part of my healing process,’ says Reed. ‘I was helped by a psychologist at Fountain Of Life in Malawi to get myself and my daughter to a safe place. After that, I went for counselling at the Centre For Victims of Violence And Torture where I received intensive counselling and information which helped me to deal with immediate decisions.’

She went through intense therapy and counselling. Since then, she’s authored The Dark Seed, a way of reclaiming her narrative and sharing her story. And she’s dedicated her life to empowering survivors through her organisation, The Lily Reed Foundation, which offers FREE counselling and support services to victims of trauma and rape.

Self-care is an important part of the healing process. You may feel a lack of control or autonomy over your body or decisions, but looking after your mind and body can help you regain your sense of self.

Reed’s 9 ways to empower yourself and others after abuse

1 Admit that something happened.

2 Focus on healing yourself. Make notes of what triggers you. Write down your story, your feelings and your thoughts.

3 Know that you have done nothing wrong. A crime has been committed against you and you don’t need to be ashamed of what someone else did to you.

4 Arm yourself with knowledge. Know your rights.

5 Practice being grateful every day for all the little things.

6 Be humble. Ask for help.

7 Have faith that you will get through this. It takes time and effort.

8 Restore your dignity. Hold your head up high. What the perpetrator did to you does not define who you are or who you are going to become.

9 Be brave. Don’t hide because others can’t handle the truth. Speak your truth. Those who support you will be there for the duration of your healing and beyond. Those who don’t support you were not worthy of hearing your story in the first place.

Get help

Lawyers Against Abuse

Legal Aid Advice Line (free)

  • Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service on 079 835 7179
  • Legal-aid.co.za
  • They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location


  • Call 011 642 4335
  • Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near to you


  • Call 0861 322 322

TEARS Foundation

  • Dial *134*7355#


*The Gauteng Based Violence Indicators Project (2010)

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