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Breaking another silence : the long-term impacts of child sexual abuse on committed lesbian couples : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
This qualitative research enquiry sought to develop an understanding from forty-four women, comprising twenty-two couples in committed lesbian partnerships, of how they managed the long-term impacts of child sexual abuse, both on themselves and on their relationships. This is an area that is under- theorised in the literature. A number of key findings emerged from the analysis. The sexual abuse that women had experienced had impacted their adult lives in various ways. Of these the personal aspect featured most highly, with feelings of self-blame, shame and low self esteem commonly reported. Those women who reported physically invasive sexual abuse also reported a wider variety of effects, and in proportionately greater numbers, than women whose abusive experience had not encompassed that particular dimension. Just as the survivors were impacted in a variety of ways by their abuse, so too were their partners, although the effects upon the partner varied over time and in intensity depending on the length of the relationship and the degree of resolution experienced by the survivor. Despite challenges the over all view of couple relationships was positive, and couples were able to articulate coping strategies they felt would be useful to others in similar circumstances. Partners were able to identify with many of the relationship issues outlined by heterosexual male partners of female survivors, although lesbian partners had more a positive view of counselling. The emotional support and commitment of a caring partner was clearly valued although in these partnerships both women wanted their relationship to be based on more than the reparative needs of one member. Finally, being lesbian was no barrier to seeking counselling assistance. A large proportion of the participants had used counselling as a way of working through their experiences of child sexual abuse and had found this to be valuable. These findings have implications for social work practice with child and adult female survivors. They emphasise the long term impacts of sexual abuse, the important contributions made by partners and counsellors in supporting women sexually abused as children and the levels of inter-sibling sexual abuse perpetrated by brothers. The research findings also contain information from the women themselves on what facilitated their ability to cope with the effects of child sexual abuse from the varying perspectives of survivor, partner and couple. This will be essential information for counsellors and social workers wishing to employ strengths and evidence-based approaches in their work with this client group and others, particularly heterosexual women and heterosexual couples.