Sexual Abuse - What You Need to Know

Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that happens without consent. For example, unwanted touching and rape. Keep reading to learn more.
Sexual Abuse - What You Need to Know
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force. For example, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Believe it or not, most victims and perpetrators know each other. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear, or disbelief. Likewise, long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear, or post-traumatic stress disorder

Nowadays, they also refer to this horrible abuse as sexual assault or sexual violence. But, no matter which action occurs, it’s surely not the survivor’s fault that they were assaulted. Therefore, help is available to begin healing from such abuse. Sexual assault includes:

  • Unwanted inappropriate touching.
  • Forced vaginal, anal, or oral penetration.
  • Sexual intercourse that you say no to.
  • Rape. 
  • Attempted rape.
  • Child molestation.

Sexual assault is verbal, visual, or anything forcing a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. For instance, voyeurism, exhibitionism, incest, and harassment . It can happen in different situations, by a stranger in an isolated place or even on a date. Likewise, at home by someone you know. In other words, rape is a common form of sexual assault and occurs in many situations.

For example, on a date, by a friend or an acquaintance, or when you think you’re alone. So, consider educating yourself on “ date rape ” drugs. Abusers slip them into a drink when a victim’s not looking. Therefore, never leave your drink unattended, no matter where you are. Try to always be aware of your surroundings. In fact, date rape drugs make a person unable to resist assault and have a type of memory loss.

Understanding sexual abuse

Firstly, sexual violence is a pervasive problem. The abuse can lead to shock, fear, sadness, and, in some cases, anxiety or depressive disorders. But therapy, coping skills , and social support can relieve the burden and help survivors heal. Personal, societal, and legal hurdles prevent survivors from disclosing the abuse, receiving the help they deserve. 

As the nation debates, the terms sexual assault, harassment, and rape pop up daily in the news. This isn’t new. In other words, the #MeToo movement over the last year put those terms in more common circulation. However, there’s still a long way to go to create cultural change and stop sexual violence.

How common is it?

Unfortunately, sexual violence is a pervasive problem. According to the National Institutes of Health, in America, one in three women experience sexual abuse. Likewise, one in four men experiences sexual violence in their lifetimes. Those numbers are likely underestimated due to the shame and fear that prevent survivors from reporting abuse.

What are the psychological consequences?

Most importantly, sexual abuse can be traumatic. In the two weeks following an assault, 94 percent of women in one study reported experiencing symptoms of PTSD. For instance, flashbacks, insomnia, hypervigilance, and avoidance. They also struggle with anger, anxiety, and depression. But research suggests that up to 90 percent of survivors may recover naturally with time. Mental health professionals are always available to help process this painful experience.

Healing from sexual assault

Firstly, survivors of sexual violence may experience physical injuries due to the assault. Secondly, they may also suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This can harm one’s health, career, and relationships. Luckily, therapy can often effectively address the trauma of sexual abuse. 

Rape survivors learn how to perfectly identify and understand their emotions, while processing their memories. But they develop coping skills, apply stress-management strategies, and restore their confidence. There are many useful online directories where you can find an expert therapist with experience treating assault or trauma.

How do you leave a sexually abusive relationship?

Believe it or not, it can often take a long time and multiple attempts. However, most people eventually leave abusive relationships. To make this difficult decision, women reported that it was crucial to:

  • Firstly, confront reality and recognize that the abuse won’t end. 
  • Secondly, release feelings of self-blame to reclaim self-esteem. 
  • Accept support and perspective from loved ones or a mental health professional.
  • Lastly, reach a transition point regarding feeling personally overwhelmed or consideration for a child’s well-being.

What therapies can help survivors recover from it?

For instance, trauma-focused therapies can be especially effective for survivors overcoming sexual assault. These include cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy. Likewise, the somewhat controversial Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. 

Lastly, art therapy may also be a valuable outlet for individuals to process the trauma if a dissociative disorder is present as a coping mechanism. It’s imperative to treat the disorder so that they can perfectly address its root cause.

Helping survivors

Believe it or not, powerful forces often prevent survivors from disclosing or reporting sexual abuse. For instance, from the fear of retaliation to the potential of reliving a traumatic assault. But when survivors do decide to come forward, unwavering support from friends. In addition, family members can help them process the experience and move forward.

What are the signs of sexual assault?

If you’re concerned that a loved one is suffering sexual assault, simply asking them directly helps. This leads to relief, support, and treatment. Lastly, the signs that an adult may have been sexually assaulted include:

  • Anxiety about specific situations that didn’t previously trigger anxiety.
  • Avoiding specific people or places.
  • Persistent sadness or depression.
  • Very low self-esteem.
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares.
  • Self-harming behavior.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • New sexually transmitted infections.

What can I do to support a survivor of sexual violence?

Firstly, the most important thing to do is to simply listen and believe your loved one. Secondly, validate their emotions, ask questions, and avoid casting judgment. Help them explore options and resources. For example, seeking medical attention, reporting the crime, calling an abuse hotline, or seeking therapy. Although you may have strong opinions, set those aside. The survivor should make every decision for themselves when they feel ready to.

What exactly prevents survivors from reporting the abuse?

Sadly, sexual assault often remains hidden due to a combination of denial, manipulation, and confusion. In other words, victims of sexual assault may not report due to fear. Fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, or fear of further experiencing the trauma. Likewise, they  struggle with shame, consequently blaming themselves for being “in the wrong place” or not “getting away”.

Child sexual abuse

Are there any offenses more painful to contemplate than child sexual assault? Parents or loved ones may hesitate to raise such a concern with their own child. However, if they’re worried, they should gently but directly ask. Most importantly, ending any contact with the perpetrator is vital. Lastly, starting therapy can help survivors of childhood abuse begin to heal, regardless of how recently the event occurred.

What are the signs of child sexual abuse?

The signs that a child may have been sexually assaulted include:

  • Sexually transmitted infections.
  • Genital injuries including bruising or bleeding.
  • New discomfort or anxiety around certain adults.
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual knowledge.
  • Regressing to past habits such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
  • New fear of removing clothing to change or bathe.
  • New fear of being alone at night or having nightmares.
  • Excessive worry or fear.
  • Extreme agitation or angry outbursts.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.

What should I do if I learn that a child was sexually abused?

If parents or caretakers are concerned about sexual abuse, they should gently but directly ask. While some children may bring up abuse themselves, many do not. Likewise, if you suspect an incident, avoid putting the child in situations where they might encounter the potential offender. Avoid putting the child in an unsupervised situation with an adult until you resolve the matter.

However, if you do confirm the tragic incident, report it. Reaching out to a rape crisis center, domestic violence center, or sexual assault hotline can also help. Therefore, once you report the abuse, discuss the next steps for the child with a doctor and health professional.

Sexual violence in the LGBTQ community

Believe it or not, LGBTQ communities in America face higher rates of sexual violence than the general population. As a matter of fact, non-LGBTQ individuals often perpetuate this sexual violence. For instance, it often comes in the form of hate crimes. Most importantly, they perpetrated the crimes specifically in response to someone’s identity. But also by other LGBTQ individuals.

Sadly, many survivors face barriers that utterly prevent them from reporting sexual violence, such as fear. For instance, fear of others judging or not believing you. But the members of LGBTQ communities often face additional barriers to reporting or getting help. One of the main barriers facing LGBTQ individuals is discrimination. So, even if they want to get help, they’re reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

After all, service providers often judge. Therefore, when they disclose it, they’ll face future discrimination or denial of services. If someone tries to get help and isn’t taken seriously. If their experience is minimized, that adds to the trauma. Thus, it’s crucial that LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence have access to support that’s affirming of their identities and competently addresses their needs. Lastly, some LGBTQ survivors are reluctant to report because they fear being unjustly labeled as the perpetrator. 

Have you been sexually assaulted? Call a friend or family member you trust. You also can call a crisis center or a hotline. One hotline is the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). As feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and shock are normal, it’s important to get counseling from a trusted professional.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.