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Sexual Assault & PTSD

sad abused woman sitting in corner

Sexual assault is one of the most terrifying experiences anyone can endure. Whether it stems from early childhood or happens as an adolescent or an adult, it leaves an indelible mark.

Research has clearly shown that many victims have PTSD from sexual abuse. While many people falsely believe PTSD only impacts people in the armed forces, victims of rape and sexual abuse require PTSD treatment, too.

What Is Considered Sexual Assault?

There are numerous ways in which sexual assault occurs and the National Center for PTSD says any of them can cause trauma and require PTSD treatment. It is considered sexual abuse when someone is:

  • Taken advantage of by an authority figure or person who has power over them in some way. This may be a teacher, manager or a physician. For younger people, it may be a parent, relative or friend of the family.
  • Manipulated into unwanted sexual activity, either by aggressive pursuit and persuasion or tricked in some way. A person may ask to see someone for one reason and find it was a ploy to initiate sex.
  • Bribed or promised something in exchange for sexual activity, like the proverbial starlet and producer on the casting couch.
  • Pressured or made to partake in sexual activities while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or at a time when they are unable to give consent because they have unknowingly been drugged by the other person.
  • Forced to submit sexually under threat of their loved ones will being hurt or punished if they do not cooperate.
  • Attached by physical force in an attempted or completed rape, or through a violent assault.

What Happens to Victims?

People can have a wide range of reactions to sexual abuse.

Smaller children who endure early trauma often develop behavioral issues, physical health problems, shame, poor self-esteem and intimacy and trust issues throughout life. Research has shown that when someone is abused in childhood it often starts off a pattern of victimization and revictimization experiences. For example, it may begin with a relative in childhood, happen again in adolescence and lead to similar adult experiences. The trauma of each individual experience may be different, and in some cases, an individual may not even be aware of the “trauma.” But the cumulative effects can devastate their lives unless they get help in recognizing their PTSD from sexual abuse and seek PTSD treatment.

PTSD causes a host of symptoms, such as repeated thoughts and nightmares. The victim is literally reliving the traumatic experience every time it comes into their consciousness. They can feel it happening in their bodies as if they are still in that moment and may even physically toss and turn.  This condition affects every part of their lives and changes their mood, causing jumpiness, trouble sleeping and irritability. Because of the intensity, it is not uncommon for someone with PTSD to try to self-sooth with substances, which can lead to addiction.

Adolescents and adults also suffer many symptoms. In addition to PTSD from sexual abuse, symptoms can include:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Shame and guilt
  • Social problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Alcohol and drug use

It Can Happen to Anyone

People who are victims of sexual abuse suffer from isolation, too, because they are ashamed and afraid to tell what happened to them. Children are often threatened by abusive adults who forbid them to tell anyone.

Grown women and men, fearing retribution from the aggressor, often keep it bottled up for years, too. They are often made to feel blame for their abuse experience and made to feel that something they wore, said or did was seductive and therefore caused the abuser to take advantage―i.e.,they had it coming to them. Or it may be treated by the abuser as if it is no big deal, just business as usual.


Clearly, today’s headlines reflect that sexual abuse can happen to anyone of any sexual persuasion, and that even people who live their lives in the public view have kept their stories secret.

Admitting it happened is the first step toward healing. In recent times their has been a “Me Too” campaign encouraging people to step out of their fear and trauma and share their stories of abuse and harassment. And for many people, telling their stories ― no matter how long ago they occurred―can bring a catharsis. Recognizing PTSD from sexual abuse is the pathway to treatments and finding the right help. Along the way, many people will discover they are not alone.



Sexual Assault Against Females

Cumulative trauma: The impact of child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, and spouse abuse

Impact of Child Sexual Abuse

Acute response to rape- a PTSD variant

Post-traumatic stress disorder following male rape

Avoidant coping and treatment outcome in rape-related posttraumatic stress disorder.

PTSD as a mediator between childhood rape and alcohol use in adult women

Child Sexual Assault as a Risk Factor for Mental Disorders Among Women

Lawyer Says It’s National Duty to Rape Women Wearing Revealing Outfits

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