Michael J. Prince, B.A., Psychology


National Center for PTSD: SEXUAL ASSUALT
- Sue Orsillo, Ph.D.

Although anyone — men, women and children — can be assaulted, this fact sheet will focus on female, adult victims of assault.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is defined as any sort of sexual activity between two or more people in which one of the people is involved against his or her will.

The sexual activity involved in an assault can include many different experiences. Women can be the victims of unwanted touching, grabbing, oral sex, anal sex, sexual penetration with an object, and/or sexual intercourse.

There are a lot of ways that women can be involved in sexual activity against their will. The forced used by the aggressor can either be physical or non-physical. Some women are forced or pressured into having sex with someone who has some form of authority over them (doctor, teacher, boss). Women can be bribed or manipulated into sexual activity against their will. Others may be unable to give their consent because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In some cases, the sexual aggressor threatens to hurt the woman or people that she cares about. Finally, some assaults include physical force or violence.

Who commits sexual assaults?

Often, when we think about who commits sexual assault or rape, we imagine the aggressor is a stranger to the victim. Contrary to popular belief, sexual assault does not typically occur between strangers. The National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 76% of women who were sexually assaulted were attacked by a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, friend or date. Strangers committed only 18% of the assaults that were reported in this survey.

How often do sexual assaults happen?

Estimating rates of sexual violence against women is a difficult task. Many factors stop women from reporting these crimes to police and to interviewers who attempt to collect statistics on the rate of crime in our country. Women may not want to report they they were assaulted because it is such a personal experience, because they blame themselves, because they are afraid of how others may react, and because they do not think it is useful to make such a report. But, some estimates do exist that demonstrate the magnitude of this problem in our country. For instance, a large-scale study conducted on several college campuses found that 20% of women reported that they had been raped in their lifetime. Another national study found that approximately 13-17% of women living in the U.S. have been the victims of completed rape, and an additional 14% of women were the victims of another form of sexual assault. The National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 500,000 sexual assaults occur in the U.S. in 1992-93. Of those assaults, about 1/3rd were completed rapes and an additional 28% were attempted rapes.

What happens to women after they are sexually assaulted?

After a sexual assault, women can experience a wide range of reactions. It is extremely important to note that there is no one expected pattern of response. Some women respond immediately, others may have delayed reactions. Some women are affected by the assault for a long time, whereas others appear to recover rather quickly.

In the early stages, many women report feeling shock, confusion, anxiety and/or numbness. Sometimes, women will experience feelings of denial. In other words, they may not fully acknowledge what has happened to them or they may downplay the intensity of the experience. This reaction may be even more common among women who are assaulted by someone they know.

What are some early reactions to sexual assault?

In the first few days and weeks following the assault, it is very normal for a woman to experience intense and sometimes-unpredictable emotions. She may have strong, repeated memories of the event that are difficult to ignore, and nightmares are not uncommon. Women also report having difficulty concentrating and sleeping and they may feel jumpy or on edge. While these initial reactions are normal and expected, some women may experience severe, highly disruptive symptoms that make it incredibly difficult to function in that first month following the assault. When these problems disrupt the woman’s daily life, and get in the way of them getting things done like seeking assistance for the assault or telling friends and family members they may suggest the presence of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). Symptoms of ASD include:

Many victims of sexual assault report struggling with anger following a sexual assault. Although this is a natural reaction to such a violating event, there is some research that suggests that prolonged, intense anger can interfere with the recovery process and further disrupt a woman’s life following the assault.

Shame and guilt are common reactions associated with sexual assault. Some women blame themselves for what has happened or feel shameful about being an assault victim. This reaction can be even stronger among women who are assaulted by someone that they know, or who do not receive support from their friends, family, or authorities following the incident. Shame and guilt can also get in the way of a woman’s recovery by stopping her from telling others about what happened and getting assistance.

Social problems can sometimes arise following a sexual assault. Women can experience problems in their marital relationship or with friends. Sometimes an assault survivor will be too anxious or depressed to want to become involved in social activities. Many women report difficulty trusting others after the assault, so it can be difficult to develop new relationships. Performance at work and school can also be affected.

Sexual problems can be among the most long-standing problems experienced by women who are the victims of sexual assault. Women can experience fear and avoidance of any sexual activity and an overall decrease in sexual interest and desire.

Alcohol and drug use can sometimes become problematic for women who are the victims of assault. A large scale study found that compared to non-victims, rape survivors were 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 6 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use other major drugs. Often, women will report that they use these substances to control the other symptoms they have related to their assault.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis that involves a pattern of symptoms that some individuals develop after experiencing a traumatic event such as sexual assault. Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the assault through repeated thoughts, memories and nightmares, avoidance of thoughts, feelings and situations related to the assault, and increased arousal (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability). One study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped found that 94% of women experienced these symptoms within the first two weeks of the rape. Ninth months later, about 30% of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms. The National Women’s Study reported that almost 1/3 of all rape victims developed PTSD sometime during their lifetime and that 11% of rape victims are currently suffering from the disorder.

What should I do if I have been sexually assaulted? Where can I go for help?

If you were sexual assaulted and you are experiencing symptoms that are distressing to you, or are interfering in your ability to live a fulfilling and productive life, we urge you to talk to a mental health professional. Depending on the nature of the problems that you are having, a number of therapeutic techniques may be extremely helpful to you.

The type of treatment that you will receive will depend on the symptoms that you are experiencing, and will be tailored to meet your needs. Some therapies involve talking about and making sense of the assault so that memories and pain associated with the assault can be reduced. Therapy can also involve learning some skills to cope with the symptoms associated with the assault. Finally, therapy can help survivors to reestablish meaning in their life.

Unfortunately sexual assault is fairly prevalent in our society today. Survivors of sexual assault can experience a wide variety of symptoms and they should not have to suffer in silence. Mental health professionals can offer a number of effective treatments tailored to a woman’s needs. We urge you to seek help today.