What Is Sexual Trauma?

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Sexual trauma refers to the physical and psychological challenges endured by survivors of sexual assault.

An estimated one in five women and a quarter of men in the United States have experienced unwelcome or forceful sexual contact. This can lead to damaging outcomes for a survivor.

Children are also commonly affected by sexual trauma. Around one in nine girls, and one in 53 boys under 18 will face sexual assault at the hands of an adult. 

The effects of sexual violence may sometimes manifest in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in survivors. This guide will examine the signs and consequences of sexual violence. It will also look at the ways treatment may be provided following the assault. 

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Causes of Sexual Trauma

Sexual trauma is the result of the body undergoing a copious amount of strain. In these situations, the body produces the stress hormone, cortisol. This hormone heads the response to tense and agitated environments.

Following extreme violence, cortisol levels are increased in the body to hold off the shock. 

Higher amounts of this stress hormone guard against strenuous circumstances. However, this volume also raises the body’s stress levels. When this happens, a person is placed in a constant fight or flight response, even without any triggers. This may result in a condition called toxic stress. 

Symptoms of Sexual Trauma

A person’s response to sexual assault can be varied and personal. On one hand, there may be little to no response to the violence that has taken place. Here, the body may simply choose to move on from the damage.

Other times and—very commonly so—obvious signs point to strong responses to violence. An estimated 50% of North American women show symptoms of sexual trauma. The body may respond to sexual violence through psychological, emotional, (and) or physical means. These measures include:

Physical Symptoms

Hyperarousal—also called hyperactivity—is a common response to trauma in sexual assault survivors. Hyperactivity means that your body is in a constant fear response, even without any triggers. During hyperactive states, a survivor may experience: 

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Concentration challenges
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach difficulties

Psychological Signs

The effects of sexual trauma may also intrude on mental function. Psychological symptoms of sexual trauma include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Random emotional outbursts 
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse

Emotional Effects

Emotional reactions are a deep-seated acknowledgment of trauma. Psychological response to sexual violence is seen in:

  • Emotional numbing to avoid feeling any specific pains
  • Avoiding all persons, places, and things that might trigger a memory of the event
  • Intrusive thoughts that playback traumatizing scenes

Sexual trauma may cause a shift in personality. If a previously outgoing person begins to withdraw from others following the assault, this could be a reaction to sexual violence.

Effects of Sexual Violence

When a person's sexual agency is compromised, severe consequences may follow. These effects may manifest in different ways across physical, emotional, or behavioral lines. 

The consequences of sexual trauma include:

Mental Health Challenges

When a person is coerced or manipulated into sexual activity, this can produce clear symptoms of psychological harm.

Severe depression may follow the overwhelming pain that results from sexual assault. Anxiety can also manifest as survivors can feel the need to approach situations with extreme fear and caution.

Assault could lead to harmful behavior such as self-harm or substance abuse. In severe cases, survivors of sexual violence may begin to consider suicide.

Physical Effects

A survivor of assault may notice bodily changes following the event. These changes may not always be ascribed to the trauma endured but could be a direct result of its effects.

Challenges in the lower abdomen, chronic pain, and sleep difficulties are common consequences. Likewise, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, diabetes, and heart diseases, are all linked to the damage of sexual assault. 

Behavioral Outcomes

Assault can also impact survivors in their social interactions with others. Survivors may begin to avoid physical contact with others and may avoid sex altogether. This pain can also prevent the chances of placing trust in people.

Treatment for Sexual Trauma 

Living with the trauma of sexual assault can be very hard to bear. Its impact can cut through every aspect of life, with physical, emotional, mental, and social scars left behind.

However, while the effects of sexual violence can never be minimized, they can be properly managed with the right treatment.

The following are trusted treatments for overcoming sexual trauma:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

CBT targets the negative thoughts and patterns that follow trauma. This form of therapy helps to navigate the emotions and pain of sexual assault. It is also useful for countering these effects by teaching positive behaviors that can manage them. 

Group Therapy

Survivors of sexual assault may find a safe and assuring place to heal from their pain in group therapy. Speaking with others that have been through a similar experience, hearing how they cope, and comforting each other through challenging times can offer an important support system.

Sharing experiences can help to manage the severity of trauma symptoms in survivors.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Isolation, avoidance, numbing, and more serve as emotional reminders of the pain of assault. This form of therapy can help to tackle the emotional conflicts that result from trauma and can help to re-ignite self-esteem.

This form of therapy teaches different systems of thinking and coping with trauma.

Medication

Pharmaceutical options like SSRIs are also highly recommended to manage trauma. These drugs help to increase the brain’s level of serotonin, a hormone that impacts mood, sleep, and appetite. SSRIs are commonly used to manage depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

A Word From Verywell

Sexual assault is a worryingly common occurrence and capable of producing lasting damage.

For survivors of sexual assault, the trauma of this experience can be difficult to overcome. With the right support systems, expert therapy, or medication—survivors can move past and thrive in spite of previous challenges.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Statistics.

  2. RAINN. Children and Teens: Statistics.

  3. Sigurdardottir S, Halldorsdottir S. Persistent Suffering: The Serious Consequences of Sexual Violence against Women and Girls, Their Search for Inner Healing and the Significance of the #MeToo Movement. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(4):1849. Published 2021 Feb 14. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041849

  4. Chivers-Wilson KA. Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments. Mcgill J Med. 2006;9(2):111-118.

By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.