Recovering from sexual violence and assault isn’t an easy journey, but it’s possible to manage and heal from the trauma.
Sexual violence and assault can happen to anyone, regardless of race, age, or gender.
The emotional and physical toll it can take on the survivor and those around them can vary significantly from person to person.
Some report their assault or abuse immediately and seek out support and help to manage their feelings. Others may feel that the act was “minor” or happened “so long ago” that it doesn’t matter.
Some may feel too ashamed or embarrassed to discuss it with anyone. There are even some who may feel guilt, thinking it was their fault.
Coping with any form of sexual violence can be challenging. If you or a loved one has experienced any sexual abuse or assault, there are ways to get the help and support you need.
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Sexual abuse and assault are sometimes used interchangeably, but it’s essential to understand the distinction.
Sexual abuse refers to unwanted sexual behavior toward children, including oral, vaginal, or anal penetration.
This can occur when a child is touched sexually or is coerced or forced to touch the predator sexually.
Noncontact sexual abuse can occur without any touch at all — such as coercing a child to watch a sex act, look at the perpetrator’s genitalia, or engage in sexual activity.
Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault or rape. This can include:
Sexual violence or assault can happen to anyone. The
- Approximately 1 in 5 (or 25.5 million) women report experiencing completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
- About 1 in 14 men (or 7.9 million) state they were forced to penetrate someone else at some point in their lifetime.
- Nearly 43.6% of women (or 52.2 million) report experiencing some type of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
- About 24.8% of men (or 27.6 million) report experiencing some type of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
- Nearly 81.3% (20.8 million) of women and 70.8% (2.0 million) of men report they experienced completed or attempted rape for the first time before the age of 25.
- About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing intimate partner violence — such as sexual and physical violence and/or stalking — at some point in their life.
In fact, 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women report experiencing some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.
Sexual violence can also occur in the military or prison systems, regardless of the race or gender of the survivor.
Sexual violence can have an impact on your physical and mental health.
Quincee Gideon, PsyD, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif., and founder of Woven Together Trauma Therapy, explains that our bodies are primed to have an intense physiological response (fight, flight, or freeze response) to pain and trauma to survive.
“The body moves into a state of fighting off the aggressor, fleeing from the scene, freezing and waiting for the threat to pass, or engaging with the aggressor to try to create a better outcome,” Gideon says.
According to Gideon, the most common physical symptoms can include:
- fear of touch
- increased heart rate or sweat response
- increased startle response
- pelvic floor issues
- psychomotor agitation or lag
Nicole Prause, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in the impact of sexual violence and trauma, says the mental health effects of sexual abuse and assault can range from immediate to delayed trauma and stress.
“The nature of the abuse and the environment in which it occurs drastically impacts how such abuse is likely to impact the person,” she says. “Abuse that includes the experience of physical pain, and when reports to authorities are not believed, are much more likely to become a psychological disorder.”
Common psychological symptoms include:
If you’re experiencing sexual violence or assault now or have in the past, there are things you can do to help you cope.
If it’s an emergency, consider getting help immediately
If you’ve been physically hurt, it’s essential to see a healthcare professional or an emergency room right away. You may also need to report the act to the police.
The police and a doctor can help you report the violence or assault and help with documentation. This will be important to have if you consider filing charges.
If you’re not comfortable visiting an emergency room, talking with a healthcare professional, or calling the police, consider reaching out to a trusted friend or confidante.
Talking with someone you trust could help you decide your next steps.
If you’re in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.
Emergency care for victims of sexual violence
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can connect you to a hospital with specially trained staff members who can collect evidence of sexual assault. You can also ask for a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) or a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE) for specialized care.
Consider talking with a mental health professional
Whether it happened years ago or yesterday, a mental health professional can offer several ways to help you cope with the mental health effects of sexual violence and assault.
They can help you manage your feelings and learn new coping skills. You can discuss ways to improve your sleep and handle flashbacks or memories of the trauma.
If your symptoms begin to impact your daily life negatively, they may recommend medication to help reduce or manage them. Different types of therapy may be helpful, including:
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- trauma-focused therapy
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Gideon says that social support helps victims of sexual violence find safe communities and meaningful support systems to engage with during the aftermath of sexual trauma, which can be especially difficult for survivors.
“Some survivors may try to hide or avoid reminders of their trauma, and social engagement can feel like a big threat for experiencing triggers,” says Gideon. “Group therapy is sometimes a way for trauma survivors to feel connected to others while also knowing they’re in the company of others that ‘get it.'”
Gideon says that many sexual assault survivors may need extended periods to heal and recover, which may have a financial impact.
“Financial resources can be a game-changer for someone that needs respite while they attempt to heal from their trauma,” Gideon says.
Some financial resources may be available in your area. The U.S. Department of Justice offers several grant programs authorized by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 to help support survivors of sexual assault throughout the United States.
If you’ve experienced any form of sexual violence, here are a few organizations you can call for help and support:
For survivors of sexual assault, the journey toward recovery isn’t easy. But with the right tools, emotional support, and the help of healthcare professionals, you can start to heal from the trauma.
Sexual violence can happen to anyone. No one deserves it. Sexual violence isn’t your fault, and you’re in no way responsible for what happened to you.
To help prevent sexual violence, spreading awareness and providing adequate sex education for youth and young adults could be a good place to start.
If sexual violence occurs, mental health professionals can work with survivors to provide them with tools and strategies to cope with flashbacks or feelings of guilt and shame and help manage the mental health effects of sexual trauma.