Sexual assault and sexual abuse are umbrella terms used to apply to a variety of sex offenses. They are painful experiences that can happen to anyone no matter their gender, sexuality, and economic status. Ninety percent of all rapes are committed against women, with 1 and six women experiencing rape, and one in five girls and one in 20 boys experiencing childhood sexual abuse.
These sexual crimes include:
- Rape: Rape is unwilling sexual contact with someone who does not or cannot consent. This crime involves forcing sex upon someone who does not want it, an individual who is intoxicated, or someone who is not the legal age of consent (age of consent is different depending on the location). Despite that many states define rape as forced sexual intercourse, any form of forced sexual contact can have long-term effects on the victim, and now most states see oral sex and other comparable forms of assault as rape.
- Child Molestation: Child Molestation is any sexual contact with a child. Instances include fondling or demanding sexual favors from a child.
- Incest: Incest is defined as any sexual contact between family members or close relatives. Incestuous sexual activity may happen between two consenting adults, but it’s not common. A bulk of reported incest occurs as child abuse and over a third of American sexual assault survivors under the age of 18 are abused by family members, according to recent statistics. Since incest is underreported, the definite number of actual abuse survivors may be higher.
- Sexual Assault: This sexual offense is non-consensual contact with another person. The behaviors include groping, unwanted touching, and attempted rape.
- Other forms of sexual abuse: These are forms of sexual violence that do not fit neatly in the legal and psychological definitions. It can include having sex in front of children, indecent exposure, revenge porn, and stalking.
Long Lasting Mental Effects of Sexual Assault and Abuse
The aftermath of rape and sexual assault is horrific. Victims report feelings of fear, shame, depression, guilt, and blame (especially towards themselves). Here are some of the common psychological scars associated with sexual assault and abuse.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD comprises of a variety of emotions that include anxiety, depression, and fear. Also, victims can have flashbacks to experiencing the terrifying event. ( I further explore PTSD here.)
- Depression: This can include prolonged sadness, feelings of despair, changes in appetite with significant weight gain or loss, loss of energy or loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
- Addiction: Research shows that sexual assault and abuse survivors are 26 more times likely to use addictive substances to numb the pain of ill-treatment and memories. More than anything, use of these addictive substances leads to more concerns.
- Anxiety: For sexual abuse survivors, the loss of bodily autonomy, along with the fear that the attack could happen again, can cause high stress. Some individuals develop agoraphobia and are terrified to leave their home base. Furthermore, others develop panic attacks, anxiety, and the chronic fear of the type of person who attacked them.
- Dissociation: This mental state usually refers to the feeling that one has “checked out” or is not present. In situations where individuals have experienced sexual assault and abuse, dissociating may impair an individual to focus on work related duties or school.
- Personality Disorder: Personality Disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, can sometimes be a result of sexual abuse. The behavior associated with the mental illness could be an adaptation to the abuse. An example characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder is the fear of abandonment. While this may be odd in adulthood, it may have protected someone in childhood.
- Attachment Disorders: Relationships can be challenging for sexual abuse survivors. Adults abused as children may have an insecure attachment, struggle with intimacy, or get attached too quickly.
- Triggers: Triggers are stimuli that remind the victims of the trauma they experience. One example is that a rape scene in a television show could recall a survivor of the event. Triggers vary widely and are often a polarizing subject for survivors and non-survivors.
Therapy for Sexual Assault and Abuse
Recovery is possible for people who have gone through sexual violence. Three proven therapeutic approaches to dealing with sexual trauma are:
- Exposure therapy: This therapeutic module is used to treat anxiety. It involves exposing the client to the feared object or context without any danger, to overcome their fear/and or distress.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR): In this therapy model, developed by Francine Shapiro, clients use subtle eye movements to help “rewire” the brain and remodel the way the way they view their trauma. (I go further in depth with EMDR here. )
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): In CBT, the psychotherapist teaches the client skills to modify their dysfunctional thinking and behavior. ( I go more in depth with CBT here.)
How to Respond to a Survivor
It can be awkward to answer to someone who has been through rape or any sexual violence. It’s sometimes difficult to talk to my friends about their experiences with sexual assault. Some have been so open that I felt overwhelmed and had no clue what to say. I’ve had other friends who’ve hinted at their trauma, but when asked more about it, they shied away and told me, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Either way, I had to respect their decision to be open or closed off about it.
Here are some phrases you can consider to support someone who has been through this trauma:
- “I believe you.”– It can be tough for individuals come forward and say they’ve been raped or sexually abused one way or the other. They may feel shame, blame themselves, and worried they wouldn’t be believed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts. As a confidant, it’s your job to support them.
- “I’m sorry this happened.”– It’s important to recognize that this event has negatively affected this person’s life. Similar phrases include “This must be really tough for you,” and “I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
- “It’s not your fault.”– It easy for survivors to blame themselves, especially if the violator was someone they knew. As a friend, you may have to remind the survivor more than once that it’s not their fault.
- “Are you open to seeking medical attention?“- The survivor might need medical treatment even if it happened a long time ago. You can offer support by accompanying them to a doctor or to finding out more information.
- “This doesn’t change how I think of you.“- Some individuals may feel concerned sharing about their rape or abuse because of how they will be perceived. Console them and say that surviving sexual violence does not change the way you view them.
There is no time limit to recovering from sexual abuse. Here are more ways you can show your constant support.
- Avoid Judgement: This is important. It can be hard to watch a loved one suffer from the aftermath of sexual assault. Don’t imply that they are taking too long in their recovery. Phrases such as “You’ve been acting like this for awhile,” or “How much longer will this take?” are not useful and can be detrimental.
- Check in periodically: Even though an assault happened a long time ago, that still doesn’t mean the pain has vanished. Ask ever so often the survivor how they are doing because it shows you care about their well-being and believe their story.
- Know your resources: It’s wonderful that you’re a supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to handle someone else’s health. Research and become familiar with the information out there, such as Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN), that you’re able to recommend to survivors.
- Understand the Process: Recovering from any trauma, (especially from sexual violence) is often an arduous and shifting process. Flashbacks, bad days, or quiet days don’t show defeat; they are all part of recovery.
From my observations and experiences, the best way to support someone who has gone through sexual violence is to be empathic, an active listener, and to be there for them. Respect their boundaries and be patient when they are going through bad days. It’s not an easy road, but healing is possible.
Photo attribution: Fibonacci Blue via creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Here are more posts dedicated to exploring sexual violence.