Sexual trauma

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What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is any type of undesired sexual behavior by one person against another. Sexual assault usually refers to a single event or series of events within a single period of time. Some examples of abusive sexual experiences include:

  • Rape: Stranger assault, acquaintance rape, statutory rape, systematic rape during war
  • Molestation or incest
  • Nonconsensual sexual activity
  • Violent sexual activity
  • Gradual development of a coercive sexual relationship
  • Unwanted sexual comments, advances or harassment
  • Forced marriage
  • Sex trafficking and exploitation
  • Sexual contact with a minor infant, child or adolescent
  • Exposure to sexual matters before a child is developmentally prepared
  • Witnessing or learning about sexual trauma of another person

The majority of sexual abuse happens to people under age 30 because younger people are simply easier to physically and mentally dominate. Some academics have speculated that sexual attractiveness is a risk factor, while the majority asserts that sexual crimes are fueled by the perpetrator’s desire to steal power and control from the victim.

Often perpetrators are already in a position of power over their victims at the time of the event, allowing them to commit their crimes in the first place. Perpetrators may then threaten the victims with further harm if they report it. The secrecy perpetuates the problem.

Because of the secrecy, statistics describing the numbers of victims of sexual abuse probably do not reflect the true magnitude of the problem. In any case, sexual abuse is common and universal. Perpetrators are male, female or transgender, with the majority being male. Victims are also male, female or transgender, but the majority are female.

Sexual abuse often takes place during childhood. About 60 percent of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone within the victim’s social circle. Twenty three to thirty three percent of child sex offenders are juveniles, 40 to 80 percent of who admit to having been sexually abused themselves. Male and female children are both at risk for sexual abuse, particularly those who are taken from their parents by foster care, abduction or war. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors continue to harm countless children worldwide every day.

What Is Sexual Trauma?

Sexual trauma occurs after an abusive sexual experience is so emotionally distressing that it overwhelms one’s ability to cope. This experience may or may not include physical contact or violence. It could be a onetime event or occur over a period of time. The trauma can be experienced by the victim or by a witness or loved one of the victim. The emotional effects of trauma can be short term or last a lifetime.

What Are The Symptoms Of Sexual Trauma?

Symptoms of sexual trauma vary widely. Trauma-specific conditions, such as “battered woman syndrome” and “rape trauma syndrome,” may well occur, but the most recent version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders considers all emotional and behavioral symptoms caused by sexual trauma together with all other trauma- and stressor-related disorders.

Symptoms may impair daily function or become completely disabling. Some symptoms of acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder in adolescents and adults after sexual trauma include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Re-experiencing the event
  • Intrusive thoughts and dreams about the event
  • Exaggerated startle reflex
  • Avoidance of people, places and things associated with the event
  • Behavioral changes

What Are The Effects Of Sexual Trauma?

The very nature of sexual abuse compromises the individual identity of the victim, resulting in disintegration of the psychosocial, physical and spiritual aspects of self. Many then struggle to attempt to redefine themselves and the world in which they live. Suicidal ideation is common but rarely reported.

Although victims are not to blame whatsoever, many feel fear, guilt and shame about the abusive experience. As a result, they often suffer in silence. They internalize their feelings, resulting in depression, anxiety, insomnia, compulsive behavior or drug and alcohol use. Internalized feelings lead to further disintegration of self-identity, deterioration of mental and physical health and even death, if left untreated.

How Is Sexual Trauma Treated?

Many treatment centers offer trauma-informed care, which promotes respect and sensitivity to those who have experienced trauma, but specialized trauma programs cater to the unique needs of those who have experienced trauma and their families. Such centers provide innovative treatment techniques, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), to help reintegrate self-identity and promote healthy lifestyle habits. Specialized trauma care can empower those affected by sexual assault or abuse to transition out of the victim role and unhealthy coping habits toward a brighter future.

Those who report their trauma are much more likely to receive the treatment they need to reintegrate their psychosocial, physical and spiritual aspects of self. Adequate social support can also help them incorporate their experiences into a realistic and reasonable world view that will allow ongoing personal growth and prevent future victimization.

Family, friends and community members must be vigilant for symptoms of sexual trauma. Teachers, health care providers and other professionals are mandated to report suspected abuse.

If you or a loved one is experiencing sexual trauma or symptoms of sexual trauma, get help right away. For those contemplating suicide, crisis support is available. Others may want to take advantage of the recent advances made in the field of neuropsychiatry and enter a specialized treatment program. Such centers may offers a free 24/7 helpline where anyone can talk someone confidentially.

About Sovereign Health of Arizona

Sovereign Health of Arizona offers specialized programs to help women age 18 to 65 who have endured sexual assault or abuse at any point in their lives and still are affected by the trauma. Sometimes emotional and behavioral disorders cannot be overcome until past trauma are addressed. Taking time out to work through the past can pave the way toward a much brighter future.

Our Arizona location is a leader in the treatment of individuals struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. To find out more about our trauma program for women or any of our specialized services, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

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