What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is a broad term that describes any sexual act that is coerced or in which the victim is incapable of providing consent. Rape (including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration), drug facilitated assault, intimate partner violence, groping, and sexual torture are all forms of sexual assault, as are flashing, peeping, cat calls and sexual harassment.
How common is sexual assault?
Unfortunately, sexual assault is incredibly common. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, someone in the United States is physically assaulted every 98 seconds. About 1 in 6 women and 1 in 10 men has been a victim of rape. The majority of sexual assaults are committed on people under the age of 30.
Who perpetrates sexual assault?
There is a general belief that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers, but that is not true. In reality, more than 70% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows. About half of all perpetrators are over the age of 30. Sexual predators tend to be repeat offenders. In fact, more than half of all alleged rapists have been convicted of a least one prior rape.
What are the effects of sexual assault?
Sexual assault causes a staggering array of negative effects. Immediately after an attack, victims may have to cope with physical injuries, STDs, or pregnancy, as well as flashbacks, lingering feelings of fear, and insomnia. If these feelings persist, they can eventually lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of sexual assault are also at increased risk for developing depression, suicidal feelings, substance addiction, and eating disorders. Victims often have problems with trust after an assault and may have problems forming healthy relationships. They are at increased risk for self-harming behaviors.
The second injury
How a victim of sexual assault is treated right after an attack—or right after telling of an attack—has a direct impact on how quickly and how well she will heal. If victims are treated with callousness by medical personnel, law enforcement, friends or family, if they are blamed for the attack or not believed, they are much more likely to develop long-term symptoms of trauma. Historically, victims of sexual assault have been treated very poorly by other members of society, and many victims claim that this poor treatment is harder to deal with than the actual attack. This has led some to dubbed the poor treatment of victims the “second injury.”
What are remedies for the effects of sexual assault?
In order to insure the best long-term outcome for a victim, she or he must be treated with kindness and compassion directly after an assault—or anytime the victim chooses to disclose information about an assault. First and foremost, it is important to believe a victim of sexual assault. It is equally important not to imply to the victim that the attack was somehow her or his fault.
Directly after a sexual assault, helpers should ensure the victim’s physical safety and facilitate medical care if necessary. After this, it is important to give the victim control over the situation by allowing him or her to decide where to go and who to be with. Right after an assault, victims may or may not want to talk about what they’ve been through. It’s important not to press the matter. The first rules are to help the victim feel safe again and back in control.
If treated well by the people around them, many victims of sexual assault will naturally start to feel better over time. Others may need some form of group or individual psychotherapy to process what they’ve been through. Medication can also help in alleviating feelings of depression or anxiety.
With proper care and treatment, victims of sexual assault can overcome what they’ve been through and go one to lead satisfying, successful lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).