Trigger warning: This content might be triggering or traumatizing to survivors of sexual assault or other forms of violence. It might also be disturbing or upsetting to some readers.
First and foremost, sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. This is the most important piece of information, ahead of understanding sexual assault more completely. Additionally, there is no right or wrong response to sexual assault — it is an act of violence and a highly traumatic experience that can cause one’s mind and body to react in a multitude of ways.
Now, let’s outline exactly what will be discussed in this article — this is a tough topic, and we don’t want there to be any surprises. First, we’ll define sexual assault and understand the different types. Then, we’ll look at the difference between sexual assault and sexual abuse, followed by the effects of sexual assault. Finally, we’ll have a conversation about consent — including what it is as well as who is not capable of giving consent or engaging in consensual sex.
What Is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is sexual contact that is forced onto an individual. Perpetrators — who can be both strangers and loved ones, including one’s intimate partner — sexually touch their victims without explicit consent or make them engage in a sexual act unwillingly. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence.
What Are Some of the Acts of Sexual Assault?
There are different types of sexual assault. These include:
- Unwanted sexual touching
- Rape (sexual intercourse against a victim’s will or without their consent)
- Attempted rape
- Forcible sodomy, or oral sex by force or without one’s consent
- Any unwanted sexual contact
What Are the Differences Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse refers to sexual contact or behavior that is inflicted on a minor, or a child under 18 years of age. Sexual abuse can take on different forms, including:
- Exposing oneself to a minor
- Forcing a minor to have sexual contact
- Directing obscene communication at a minor
- Sex trafficking
- Recording, watching, or sharing child pornography
Sexual assault, on the other hand, typically refers to sexual contact that is forced onto an adult victim.
What Are the Effects of Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault can impact survivors differently — importantly, there is no right or wrong way to react or feel post-sexual assault. Each individual’s mind and body process sexual assault (and other traumatic experiences) in unique ways.
That said, one will likely experience a range of emotions as well as physical reactions and behaviors as a result of the assault. Here are a few effects that commonly occur immediately or shortly after the event:
- Guilt and shame: Survivors of sexual assault might think (wrongly) that the abuse was their fault, resulting in guilt. Typically, it’s difficult for these individuals to blame the perpetrator who is often someone close to them. Additionally, survivors might feel humiliated by the assault, causing them to harbor shame around the incident.
- Denial and minimization: It’s also common for survivors to deny that they were assaulted or to downplay the seriousness of it — insisting, “It isn’t a big deal,” because, “it only happened once,” or, “it could have been worse.”
- Amnesia and dissociation: A sexual assault survivor might struggle to remember the assault — as a whole or specific details. They might also dissociate during the sexual assault as well as post-sexual assault when memories of the event are triggered. This means that they disconnect from their thoughts, memories, and surroundings.
- Other mental and emotional effects: Survivors are likely to experience a gamut of emotions including anger, sadness, disbelief, and anxiety. Again, there is no right or wrong way to feel. It’s also common for them to block out the assault from their memory or, conversely, be unable to block out thoughts of the assault. They might also obsess over thoughts about what they could or should have done differently. Nightmares are common, too.
- Physical effects: In addition to physical harm and/or changes to the body as a result of the assault, survivors of sexual assault might experience eating disturbances and/or significant changes in weight.
What Are the Lasting Effects Post-Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault survivors might also endure lasting or long-term effects, which often require professional help to address and manage properly. Ongoing support from their loved ones is also imperative. Long-term effects include:
- Boundaries: Sexual assault can skew one’s understanding or sense of boundaries; they might not know how to or when to enforce them. And in these instances, survivors often need help understanding and setting boundaries in their life again.
- Trust: It’s also common for sexual assault survivors to struggle with trust. On one hand, they might refuse to trust people or even themselves; on the other, they might be too trusting.
- Sense of safety: Survivors’ sense of safety has been tainted, too. This can cause them to struggle with the assessment of safe or unsafe situations moving forward. They’ll need assistance here, too.
- Mental health conditions or challenges: Sexual assault can also cause or contribute to the development of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other long-term mental health challenges may result, too, like loneliness and isolation, persistent fear, panic attacks, and paranoia.
Managing and Healing from the Effects of Sexual Assault
As mentioned above, sexual assault can leave a lasting or long-term impact. However, mental health treatment can help one manage the effects, heal from the traumatic experience, and ultimately live a happy, healthy, and successful life again.
A therapist or counselor can assist sexual assault survivors in addressing difficult thoughts and feelings. They can also help them understand and set healthy boundaries with others, develop the right amount of trust in relationships, and rediscover a proper sense of safety. Additionally, they can help survivors manage those resulting mental health conditions and other challenges that result.
What Is Consent?
Consent is when an individual explicitly agrees to sexual contact or activity. Consent communicates that sexual contact or activity is wanted and permitted. Consent is clear, conscious, and unambiguous. Consent must be expressed by all parties involved prior to sexual acts. Consent can be revoked at any time.
Consent cannot be given by minors, incoherent individuals (such as those under the influence of drugs or alcohol), people who are asleep or unconscious, or those with severe disabilities that render them unable to understand the nature or consequences of the sexual act. Additionally, consent cannot be given under pressure — it must be given freely — nor can it be implied or assumed.
Everyone has the right to say no, at any point in time. Whether they say no to someone’s initial request or desire to engage in sexual activity or they initially agree and then change their mind or decide they don’t want to go further.
The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.
If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 — they’re available 24/7 and operated by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Or, use these resources to get immediate help.