Sexual trauma is a little talked about but extremely important phenomenon to explore and protect yourself and people in your life from. When you think of sexual trauma, you may only think of someone who was sexually assaulted, or raped. Sexual assault can range from unwanted sexual contact or sexually inappropriate behavior, as well as actual or attempted rape, or unwanted sexually inappropriate touching. However, sexual trauma can also occur with those who have been raised in an ultra-conservative society that shames or hides sexual activity.
Unfortunately, according to the CDC, sexual violence or assault will occur with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men at some point in their lives. Survivors of assault have a higher chance of being assaulted again as well. Someone who has been sexually assaulted may feel very high levels of anger, stress, guilt, anxiousness, and sadness right afterwards. These feelings can last for years. The stigma around being sexually assaulted can also cause long-term embarrassment or shame, as well as depression. Because of these feelings, survivors of sexual assault often have a higher likelihood of developing PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. They may experience nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and general distrust of people. The feeling of needing to be on high alert is also often common and is a sign of sexual trauma.
What is sexual trauma like, and what signs should you look for?
It’s important and imperative to remember that all survivors are going to act and react differently. However, some survivors who are experiencing sexual trauma may also have chronic, severe symptoms of PTSD.
These symptoms can include things such as emotional avoidance – unwillingness to discuss what happened and avoiding anything that reminds them of the incident(s).
They may also display increased arousal, though this does not mean sexual arousal. Increased arousal in this scenario is the loss of sleep, ease of being startled, constant stress about safety, and trouble concentrating. Additionally, intrusive thoughts that remind them of the event, and changes in their thoughts and feelings rapidly also occur. They may believe that they are at fault, feel detached, lose friendships and relationships, and not experience positivity the way they did before.
Though PTSD is a major symptom of sexual trauma, it is not the only mental health disorder that is associated with sexual trauma. Sexual trauma can also trigger the onset of things such as generalized anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), substance abuse, and even in some cases sadomasochistic tendencies.
Sexual trauma can truly take a deep toll on a person for months, or sometimes even years, after the incidents occur. Sexual trauma can affect physical health on top of mental health.
Signs of sexual assault on physical health
Sexual trauma can trigger so many physical disorders that are not considered. Women who have been raped have been shown to be more likely to experience digestive issues, chronic pelvic pain, arthritis, and even seizures unrelated to epilepsy.
Sexual trauma can also affect your sexual health
After experiencing sexual trauma, enjoying sex can be very difficult, if not impossible. However, it seems to go multiple ways. Some survivors experience reduced and low sexual desire and drive. They may experience pain, fear, and anxiety surrounding sexual activities. However, other survivors may find liberation in being open with their sex lives and jumping from partner to partner. They may pique interest in BDSM and humiliation, as this allows them to cope with their guilt and shame by giving them an outlet. This allows for a coping mechanism that assists in exploring the shame they have felt, and expresses their need to be dominated and protected or taken care of. Again, every survivor is different, and there is no right or wrong way to cope with sexual trauma. Sexual trauma is an intense and unique situation for every person going through it.
Mental health and behavioral health
Survivors may go out of their way to avoid situations that seem like they could potentially be dangerous. They may avoid television shows that show sexual scenes, newspapers and news channels that may mention sexual assault, and even going on dates or being alone with someone in a room. These feelings do improve over time for some people, however, some may experience these feelings for years. This distress is psychological, and takes a trained health professional to assist.
As it turns out, those who have experienced sexual assault and have sexual trauma or PTSD are also at an increased risk of having suicidal thoughts and even attempting to commit suicide.
If you or someone you know is experiencing having suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
Healing sexual trauma
Though many may experience their symptoms subsiding over time, for some, these symptoms may never go away. In fact, they may linger or get worse, depending on the person and the situation.
However, we are very fortunate to have access to mental health professionals who are trained to assist and talk with those struggling. These professionals can assist in reducing or lessening the negative effects and symptoms that a victim of sexual assault may experience from the incident. A therapist can suggest the best treatment options based on the individual survivor’s situation and feelings. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center offers many forms of advice, information, and contacts for not only victims, but their friends, families, and even advocates and educators.
We know that recovering from sexual assault, sexual trauma, and PTSD is not something that most people can do or should do alone. Remember that there are trained professionals out there to help you learn how to manage the trauma and symptoms physically, mentally, and behaviorally of sexual trauma and sexual assault. If you are struggling, please remember that it is not your fault. You did nothing wrong, and you cannot control the actions of others. Reach out and accept help, as this is the only way you will recover and move on with your life in a healthy manner. We want to see anyone struggling with sexual trauma flourish and live their best, most healthy lives.