The Traumatic Nature of Sexual Assault

For sexual assault victims, the amount of time it takes to recover cannot be calculated. Sexual assault affects the victim in different aspects, including physically, mentally, and socially. Some aspects of a person’s character take longer to repair than others. After an assault or any other type of traumatic experience, the victim has to readjust nearly every part of who they are. To better aid victims in the recovery process, it is important to understand the trauma caused by sexual assault and how it is developed.

This post is an adaption of text from Sexual Assault Quick Reference 2E For Healthcare, Social Service, and Law Enforcement Professionals.

The most effective way to understand the trauma caused by sexual assault is illustrated through trauma theory, which is intended to help others understand how victims’ bodies and minds respond normally to abnormal events. These responses start as a state of mind that can become a personality trait over time.

The theory acknowledges that victims of abuse, assault, and rape are not in imminent fear of loss of life or even loss of physical integrity. These experiences become traumatizing based on what occurs during the event, particularly in terms of the complexity of the interaction of the victim and the offender throughout the traumatic event, and events subsequent to the traumatic event, particularly in terms of the response by whom the victim discloses the event to. Both of these make a difference in how the victim experiences and interprets the event because:

“It is not only the trauma itself that does damage to the victim, it is how the individual’s mind and body perceive, process, and react to the traumatic experience combined with the unique response of the individual’s social group.”

Trauma from sexual assault can cause victims to establish states of being that become character traits if not acknowledged and treated. This includes irregular fight or flight response (which causes victims to be hypersensitive), learned helplessness, altered thinking under stress, dissociation, and trauma bonding and reenactment. These can cause further problems, most notably PTSD, which is common for victims of abuse and assault. Understanding how trauma affects victims of sexual assault can help determine proper assessment and intervention.

If someone you know has experienced sexual assault, here are some ways that you can help them heal and make the experience less traumatic. If you are someone who is part of the process of helping victims of sexual assault, please consider our books or subscribe to our newsletter.

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