More than 433,000 Americans are sexually abused each year. If you have been impacted by sexual abuse, you may be struggling with anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. You might be feeling overwhelmed or ashamed, and it may be difficult to know where to turn.
In this guide, we’ll help you understand what to do if you have been sexually abused. We’ll provide details on the support resources that are available to you, and we’ll explain what to expect during the healing process.
As you read this guide, remember that the sexual abuse you have experienced is not your fault. With support and therapy, you can rebuild your life.
Sexual abuse includes any type of sexual activity that takes place without consent. Rape, unwanted sexual touching, groping, and forced oral sex are some forms of sexual abuse. Sexual violence and sexual assault are other terms for sexual abuse.
According to the latest estimates from the National Institutes of Health, over 50% of women and nearly one-third of men in the United States have experienced sexual abuse that involved physical contact. When sexual abuse occurs, it often begins in childhood or young adulthood. For example, most rape survivors in the United States were raped for the first time when they were under the age of 25.
In approximately 80% of cases, sexual abuse survivors know the people who abuse them. It is very common for sexual abuse to be carried out by a survivor’s romantic partners, family members, or neighbors. When an assailant is part of a survivor’s community or family, the survivor may be particularly anxious about reporting the abuse.
People who have been sexually abused may experience physical, psychological, and emotional changes. While each person's response is unique, the following symptoms are frequently reported:
Sexual abuse survivors often face societal and cultural obstacles during recovery. In some communities, there is a stigma associated with sexual abuse. Survivors might blame themselves for what they have experienced, and they may develop a deep sense of shame. These feelings could stop them from telling others about the abuse.
Additionally, some people may try to persuade survivors not to report sexual abuse to medical staff or police. If a survivor is forced to remain silent about abuse, the healing process might take longer, and the trauma could be exacerbated. Recovery becomes much more challenging without social support from family, friends, healthcare staff, and the community.
In the immediate aftermath of sexual violence, the first step is to ensure your safety. You should call 911 if you have serious injuries or if you feel that you are in danger. During this time, it’s likely that you will be in a state of shock, and it can help to call a friend or loved one. You may want to ask them to stay with you for a day or so.
When you are physically safe, experts recommend that you confide in a person you trust. If you can, choose someone who won’t ask for specific details of your experience. Ideally, the person you select should be someone who will provide whatever type of support you feel you need at the time. For example, you might opt to confide in a friend who will just sit with you and keep you company. You could ask a family member to come over to help you with household tasks.
Next, you may want to think about seeking medical attention. If you decide to obtain medical care, you should go to a hospital or a sexual assault treatment center. Having a medical exam will help you protect your physical health, and doctors can treat any injuries you may have.
If you wish, physicians will perform a forensic exam to collect evidence that can be used if the abuser is prosecuted. In most cases, forensic exams must be completed within 72 hours of the assault.
Medical staff will give you information about local resources for sexual abuse survivors. Once you have recovered from any physical injuries and from the initial shock, it’s time to begin the process of healing your mental and emotional health.
As you start your healing process, it’s important to recognize that the abuse you experienced is not your fault. Although feeling ashamed is a common reaction, the shame doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to your abuser. Understanding this could help you make the choice to seek mental health therapy.
Many sexual abuse survivors experience signs of acute stress and post-traumatic stress. These conditions can cause feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and debilitating anxiety. Mental health counseling enables survivors to understand, process, and cope with their feelings. In addition to sexual abuse therapy, survivors may be treated with medicines that ease the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and related conditions.
Trauma-focused therapies are some of the most effective types of sexual abuse treatment for adults. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy are some examples of trauma-focused therapies.
Although each type of trauma-focused therapy is practiced in a different way, all trauma-focused therapies have similar goals. Generally, trauma-focused therapy for sexual assault victims is designed to help clients with the following objectives:
In addition to trauma-focused therapies, survivors may benefit from other types of sexual abuse treatment for adults. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, art therapy, and group therapy.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps survivors identify the negative thought patterns that occur after sexual trauma. They learn to challenge these patterns with positive thoughts and behaviors.
In psychodynamic therapy, clients regain a sense of self-esteem. They replace isolation, avoidance, numbing, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms with more effective coping strategies.
Art therapy is an important therapy for sexual assault victims. It allows clients to express themselves in a non-verbal way. This can make it easier to share emotions and experiences that clients might not want to talk about. In addition, it may help with reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Group therapy provides social support for survivors. It gives them a sense of community and a safe place to belong. During group therapy sessions, clients can share experiences with other survivors. The group members comfort each other during difficult times, and the sessions can be valuable sources of encouragement, hope, and inspiration. Over time, group therapy helps clients reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
To find sexual abuse treatment for adults, you may want to start by reaching out to your local health department or primary care provider. Medical personnel will be able to recommend the treatment options that could be most effective for your unique needs.
If you would feel more comfortable talking about your experience over the phone, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline for support. When you call, a trained staff member will give you information about local healthcare facilities that provide treatment for sexual abuse survivors. Patient advocates are available in some communities. If you wish, the staff member can send an advocate to accompany you to a medical center.
At Free by the Sea in Ocean Park, Washington, we offer specialized therapy for sexual assault victims. Our doctors and mental health professionals work together to design customized care plans that meet the medical, psychological, and emotional needs of our diverse clients.
As a client at Free by the Sea, you can use medications and several types of mental health counseling during your sexual abuse therapy. We provide medications that treat depression and anxiety, and we offer individual and group therapy sessions.
We are proud to provide eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy for the sexual abuse survivors in our care. In addition, we have cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and art therapy options. We will work with you to create a sexual abuse therapy plan that is tailored to your goals. Throughout each stage of your therapy, our staff members will treat you with respect and compassion.
When you’re ready to start your healing journey, contact us to find out more about how we can help. Our admissions team will be happy to answer all of your questions, and we can help you with the insurance verification process. We are honored to be part of your healing journey.
Dr. Richard Crabbe joined our team in 2019 as our psychiatrist and medical director. He attended the University of Ghana Medical School where he became a Medical Doctor in 1977. From 1978 through 1984, he was a medical officer in the Ghana Navy and provided a variety of services from general medicine to surgeries. He received his Certificate in General Psychology from the American Board of Psychology and Neurology in 2002.