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Sexual Abuse

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that occurs without consent. Also referred to as sexual assault or sexual violence, it includes unwanted sexual touching, forced oral sex, and rape, among other sexual acts. No matter which act occurs, it’s not the survivor’s fault that they were assaulted.

Sexual violence is a pervasive problem. In America, one in three women and one in four men experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to the National Institutes of Health. And those numbers are likely an underestimate due to the shame and fear that prevent many survivors from reporting abuse.

Most victims know their assailants: 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows, such as a neighbor, family member, or romantic partner, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The offender being in the survivor’s community can make it especially challenging or scary to come forward.

Sexual abuse can lead to shock, fear, sadness, and in some cases, an anxiety or depressive disorder. But therapy, coping skills, and social support can relieve the burden and help survivors heal.

What Are the Signs That Someone Has Been Sexually Abused?

If you’re concerned that a loved one is suffering sexual abuse, asking them directly can lead to relief, support, and treatment. The signs that an adult may have been sexually abused include:

  • Anxiety about specific situations that didn’t previously prompt anxiety
  • Avoiding specific people or places
  • Persistent sadness or depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • New sexually transmitted infections

How to Identify and Address Child Sexual Abuse

Signs that a child may have been sexually abused include:

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Genital injuries including bruising or bleeding
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual knowledge
  • Regressing to past habits such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
  • New fear of removing clothing to change or bathe
  • New fear of being alone at night or having nightmares
  • New discomfort or anxiety around certain adults
  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Extreme agitation or angry outbursts
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

If parents or caretakers are concerned about sexual abuse, they should gently but directly ask. While some children may bring up abuse themselves, many do not.

Some survivors of sexual abuse dissociate to cope with chronic abuse, unconsciously disconnecting from reality to some degree in order to bear the experience and the traumatic memories. Dissociative disorders are more commonly found in victims of sexual abuse than among any other psychiatric population. Children who are 9 years old or younger are especially prone to dissociative disorders under conditions of severe sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.

If an incident is suspected, avoid putting the child in situations in which they might encounter a potential offender or be in an unsupervised situation with an adult, until the matter is resolved.

If an incident is confirmed, report it. Reaching out to a rape crisis center, domestic violence center, or sexual assault hotline can help. (The National Sexual Assault Hotline number is 800-656-4673.)

How to Heal from Sexual Abuse

Survivors of sexual violence may experience physical injuries due to the assault, as well as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This can negatively influence one’s health, career, and relationships.

Therapy can often effectively address the trauma of sexual abuse. Survivors learn how to identify and understand their emotions, process their memories, develop coping skills, apply stress-management strategies, and restore their confidence.

Trauma-focused therapies may be especially beneficial, including Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, and the somewhat controversial Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. If a dissociative disorder is present as a coping mechanism, it is important to fully address the disorder so that its root cause can be addressed.

To find a therapist with experience treating sexual abuse or trauma, click here to visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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