The term “sexual abuse” refers to any sexual activity one does not freely consent to.
Examples include unwanted touching, unwanted penetration (also called rape), and any sexual activity with someone who can’t provide consent because they’re intoxicated, unconscious, asleep, or underage.
Many sexual abuse survivors develop health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. Fortunately, with the right support, anyone can overcome the effects of sexual abuse.
Sexual Abuse Statistics
In the United States, sexual abuse occurs every 68 seconds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men experience sexual abuse during their lifetime.
In addition, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men experience completed or attempted rape and 1 in 14 men are made to penetrate someone else (completed or attempted) in their lifetime.
However, these statistics don’t account for all sexual abuse cases.
That’s because many people refuse to report their abuse. They may fear that others will judge them, blame them, or accuse them of lying. They might also worry that if they tell someone about the abuse, their abuser will further harm them.
How Sexual Abuse Happens
Sexual abuse can happen anywhere, including work, school, home, a party, or on the street. It can also happen to any person of any age or gender.
Some people assume that in most sexual abuse cases, the victim doesn’t know the perpetrator. However, the opposite is true.
Only 19.5% of rapes are committed by a stranger, while 39% are committed by an acquaintance, 33% are committed by a current or former spouse or partner, and 2.5% are committed by a non-spouse relative.
In 6% of rape cases, there’s more than one perpetrator or the victim can’t remember the perpetrator.
The Aftermath Of Sexual Abuse
All forms of sexual abuse can cause physical health problems, mental health problems, and addictions.
Physical Health Problems
Sexual abuse may cause bruises, genital injuries, and other physical damage. Additionally, according to the CDC, sexual abuse survivors face a higher risk of:
- cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease
- gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease
- reproductive and sexual health problems
Mental Health Problems
Sexual abuse can wreak havoc on a person’s mental health. For example, many survivors experience shame and guilt. They may feel dirty, flawed, or responsible for the assault.
Some survivors also struggle with trust issues and self-isolate to avoid further harm. Others may deny or minimize the abuse in an attempt to make it less painful. They might say, “It wasn’t that bad” or “I know people who’ve suffered worse.”
In addition, many survivors experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Some also develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Common PTSD symptoms include:
- flashbacks, where you feel like you’re reliving the abuse
- dissociation, where you feel disconnected from your own body
- avoidance of people, places, events, or objects that remind you of the abuse
- mood swings
- irritability and anger
- trouble concentrating
- trouble sleeping
- trouble remembering details about the abuse
- feeling tense, jittery, or easily startled
- social withdrawal
- loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
With poor mental health, a sexual abuse survivor may fall behind at work, which could lead to job loss and financial problems. They might also lose relationships, especially if they self-isolate or display trauma-induced irritability.
To cope with the above problems, some sexual abuse survivors turn to alcohol or other drugs. While drugs may temporarily make you feel better, they can cause serious health problems, including drug addiction.
Also called substance use disorder, drug addiction is a serious disease that makes you feel unable to control your drug use despite negative consequences. Other symptoms may include:
- mood swings
- avoidance of family and friends
- loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- loss of motivation
- tolerance (needing increasingly higher or more frequent amounts of a drug to feel the desired effects)
- physical dependence (experiencing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you don’t use a drug)
Along with drugs, some sexual abuse survivors self-medicate with sex. They try to numb their pain with risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex with multiple partners.
Over time, this behavior can lead to sexual addiction.
This condition is characterized by a compulsive need for sexual stimulation that interferes with your daily life. You may find it difficult to think of anything besides having sex. You’ll also face a high risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
How To Recover From Sexual Abuse
As mentioned above, many people hide their sexual abuse. However, you can’t fully heal without outside help.
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, tell someone, such as a therapist or trusted loved one. You can also reach the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-4673 or chatting online.
The person you tell can help you design a recovery plan. Most recovery plans include:
The most commonly used therapy for sexual abuse survivors is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). During CBT, you can reframe the way you think about your sexual abuse.
For example, if you feel like the abuse was your fault, your therapist can help you understand that the only person to blame is your abuser. You can also learn coping skills to deal with the effects of sexual abuse.
For instance, if you experience frequent flashbacks, you can cope by:
- telling yourself that the abuse is over and you are safe now
- taking deep breaths, which can help you feel calm and relaxed
- listing things you can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, which can help you reconnect to the present moment
Another popular therapy for sexual abuse survivors is EMDR.
During EMDR, your therapist will ask you to think about your sexual abuse while administering bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is something you see, hear or feel in an alternating, left-right pattern.
For example, the therapist may ask you to keep your eyes on a light as it moves from side to side.
This type of stimulation can help you process traumatic memories and change the negative beliefs surrounding them. For instance, if memories of the abuse make you believe you’re constantly in danger, EMDR can help you realize that you are now safe.
Many sexual abuse survivors feel alone and misunderstood. In a support group, you can share your thoughts and feelings with people who’ve faced similar challenges. Also, more experienced group members can share coping strategies to help you on your recovery journey.
Search online for sexual abuse support groups in your area. If you can’t find one, or if you’re not ready for an in-person support group, consider an online group.
As described above, sexual abuse can cause a number of physical and mental health problems. Thus, as you recover from your abuse, you should look after your health by:
- exercising, which boosts natural brain chemicals that make you feel happy and relaxed
- eating plenty of vegetables and fruits
- getting at least eight hours of sleep each night
- meditating, which helps you stay focused on the present moment
- journaling, which helps you process unpleasant thoughts and feelings related to the abuse
- expressing yourself through art, music, or other creative mediums
- spending time with people you love
You should also avoid unhealthy activities like substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. If you use these activities to self-medicate and feel unable to stop, seek help at an addiction treatment center.