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Mental Health

What is Sexual Trauma?

by Monica Urbaniak, LMFT-S

Sexual trauma is comprised of the psychological, physical, behavioral, spiritual, and cognitive reactions experienced by an individual as a result of undergoing sexual violence or gynecologic trauma. Events that would be considered sexual violence can and frequently do lead to sexual trauma. While crimes and their definitions vary from state to state, sexual violence can include:

  • Rape or sexual assault (including drug facilitated sexual assault, military sexual trauma, non-stranger sexual assault, and intimate partner sexual assault)
  • Incest and child sexual abuse, molestation, and fondling
  • Sexual exploitation and trafficking
  • Sexual harassment
  • Unwanted sexual contact
  • Female genital mutilation

Sexual trauma may also occur due to medical trauma or other trauma associated with sexual organs.

Sexual Trauma Statistics

While it is difficult to identify statistics representing the full spectrum of sexual trauma experiences, we do have some data on the prevalence of sexual violence. According to a prevalence study published in 2000, research indicates that, at some time in their lives, 1 in 6 women have experienced an attempted or completed rape; more than half occurred before the woman was 18, and 22% before age 12.

UNICEF estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the countries where the practice is concentrated.

Effects of Sexual Trauma

As with any type of trauma experiences, reactions to events are highly individualized and defined by the person who is experiencing them. Something that might be experienced as a trauma for one person might not for another. However, it is undeniable that impacts from sexual trauma affect women in profound ways. The spectrum of impacts is wide, including feelings of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, feelings of worthlessness, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual difficulties like low or no libido, and relationship difficulties.

When looking at the mental health impact of sexual violence on women, that statistics speak to high levels of traumatic responses from immediate impact to months later. Research on post-traumatic stress indicates that:

  • 94% of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape, and
  • 30% of women report symptoms of PTSD 9 months after the rape.

A study by the Department of Justice also indicated that sexual violence also affects victims’ relationships with their family, friends, and co-workers.

  • 38% of victims of sexual violence experience work or school problems, which can include significant problems with a boss, coworker, or peer.
  • 37% experience family/friend problems, including getting into arguments more frequently than before, not feeling able to trust their family/friends, or not feeling as close to them as before the crime.
  • 84% of survivors who were victimized by an intimate partner experience professional or emotional issues, including moderate to severe distress, or increased problems at work or school.
  • 79% of survivors who were victimized by a family member, close friend or acquaintance experience professional or emotional issues, including moderate to severe distress, or increased problems at work or school.
  • 67% of survivors who were victimized by a stranger experience professional or emotional issues, including moderate to severe distress, or increased problems at work or school.

Sexual Trauma and Sexual Functioning

Due to the pervasive nature of its effects, it is not surprising to realize that sexual trauma can have a significant impact on sexual functioning for many women. Problems with sexual arousal and desire are commonly reported by women with histories of sexual abuse. The ability to feel safe in one’s own body is a challenge reported by many. Trauma reactions designed to aid in survival can lead to feelings of disconnectedness to one’s own body, as well as psychological dissociation. Avoidance of circumstances and situations that remind one of the traumas they experienced is an evolutionarily designed mechanism and can manifest as sexual avoidance or the need to numb oneself in order to engage sexually. Physical arousal can result in feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. Trauma reactions such as flashbacks can occur when circumstances trigger the body’s alarm system due to past experiences setting off the body’s chain reaction of responses. Considering the understanding that most sexual assaults are committed by a person known to the victim, trust and relationship development can be an area of great concern and result in difficulty finding safety enough to engage sexually. Any physiological genital trauma or lasting physical impacts of sexual trauma can also be a source of physical pain, reduces sexual desire, and the need for additional medical intervention.

Help is Available

Healing from trauma is possible! With support and care, many survivors of sexual trauma reclaim and rejoice in their sexual selves.

  • Trauma-informed health care providers can help women with sexual trauma histories to identify ways to identify, manage, and heal from trauma impacts.
  • Trauma-informed mental health practitioners provide a well-spring of information on the impact of trauma on the brain and body, and can help women to heal from the emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational, and mental toll that sexual trauma can take.
  • A trauma-informed medical provider can assist women with a sexual trauma history in understanding the physical impacts, in identifying ways to receive healthy and safe medical care, and in providing referrals for collateral medical services.

All trauma-informed care providers will ensure that all women impacted by sexual trauma know that they are not alone, that they are not to blame for their trauma history, that they can heal from trauma, and that they are worthy of living a rich, healthy, safe sexual life.

Resources

Rosy’s new class Navigating Through Sexual Trauma offers an entire lesson all about partner communication. You can take this class for FREE until September 30. Download Rosy and take this class today.

References

  • D.S. Riggs, T. Murdock, W. Walsh (1992). A prospective examination of post-traumatic stress disorder in rape victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress 455-475.
  • Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Socio-emotional Impact of Violent Crime (2014).
  • J. R. T. Davidson & E. B. Foa (Eds.) (1993). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: DSM-IV and Beyond. American Psychiatric Press: Washington, DC. (pp. 23-36).
  • Tjaden, P. and Thoeness, N. (2000). Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women: finding from the National Violence Against Women Survey.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (2016). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A global concern. UNICEF. New York.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (2013). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change. UNICEF. New York.

Monica Urbaniak is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and works as a consultant, trainer, and clinician specializing in sexual assault and trauma. For eighteen plus years, she has worked with survivors, helping through therapy and support. She also dedicates her time training other clinicians, advocates, and community members on issues related to sexual violence.