The Long-Term Impact of Sexual Abuse and Violence
By: Stacey Inal, Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, MA, MBA, PMH-C
We cannot minimize sexual trauma’s impact. It is one of the most invasive types of abuse that can single-handedly destroy someone’s overall mental state and life. When someone is sexually abused, he or she is robbed of his or her innocence and peace of mind. The victim fights self-identity issues and self-hatred for years. If not processed in a healthy way, the abuse can impact his or her marriage.
Statistics and diagnosis
According to the National Sexual Violence and Resource Center:
- One in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime in the U.S.
- 81% of women and 35% of men report significant short- or long-term impacts such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Many clients who have a history of sexual trauma suffer from PTSD. Some of the most common psychological impacts of sexual trauma as well as behavioral impacts relating to sexual intimacy.
Four psychological impacts of sexual trauma:
- Pushing away their partner/spouse
Victims of sexual abuse sometimes believe they caused the abuse, triggering unhealthy thought patterns. They may believe they influenced their perpetrator to take advantage of them. Often a perpetrator can successfully manipulate the victim’s mind to believe it’s his or her fault. Victims may say things such as “I shouldn’t have worn that” or “It’s because I was too nice.” Once the abused individual convinces herself that it’s her fault, she sees herself as bad and unredeemable. She constantly tries to reach an unrealistic standard she has created in his mind. She can also hate her body because it was “damaged,” therefore no one would ever want to be with her if they knew who she really was.
This psychological impact can harm a relationship or marriage. Insecurities can cause the her to distrust her partner without reason. It can also produce consistent self-doubt. These insecurities lead to unintentionally pushing away an intimate partner while the victim can’t express his or her true feelings. Trust issues and shame begin to develop as an outcome of the childhood or adult sexual abuse.
- Feeling like their body is not theirs
One of the outcomes of sexual abuse is the defenseless feeling that overwhelms the victims. This happens because their body was used without permission and sometimes used despite aggressive objections; therefore, it may create a sense of powerlessness.
Some clients work through weeks, sometimes months, of intense therapeutic sessions just to regain confidence and accept ownership of their bodies. Victims of sexual abuse may struggle to understand or accept what transpired during the assault and how it impacts future sexual relationships. For instance, an intimate partner may cause the sexual abuse victim to shut down emotionally and experience an unfilled sex life if they are not sensitive to the victim’s past trauma.
However, a more helpful approach is found when partners show love by being empathetic, caring and understanding. This can bring peace to someone who was previously abused and is now married.
- Distorting views of people and over-sexualizing intent
Victims of sexual abuse usually have a heightened sense of awareness because their trust was violated. They may view others negatively and assume everyone has evil intentions, causing paranoia and false accusations. These beliefs often apply to their spouse as well. These negative views lead to over-sexualizing innocent behaviors. For example, if a male family member has a young child on his lap or if a mother kisses her son on the lips, someone who was sexually abused may view those actions as sexual encounters.
- Rehearsing the abuse during intimacy and exhibiting anxiety symptoms
This is an immense issue and is more common than people realize. It’s a problem that should not be ignored, because experiencing flashbacks especially during intimacy is to suffer through angst during a sacred moment that should be enjoyed. Often the partner who is not experiencing the anxiety symptoms does not realize that his or her loved one is not fully engaged in intimacy. Sometimes victims have learned a coping skill of disassociating when triggered by physical or mental memories of the betrayal they once endured.
Five behavioral impacts on sexual intimacy
- Not expressing discomfort during intimacy with your spouse
Victims of unprocessed sexual trauma may believe they cannot share something they did not enjoy during intimacy because their abusers told them to “keep it a secret” or silenced them forcefully. They become accustomed to staying quiet and being oppressed. This mindset becomes distorted when the victim of sexual trauma accepts discomfort during intimacy with her spouse and never says anything.
- Reliving the traumatic experience if the spouse is forceful
A spouse may replay her sexual trauma in her mind if her husband is dominant or commanding during intimacy. He may desire a vibrant sexual experience without any malicious intent. To the victim, it may come across as too forceful.
- Startling and heightened chronic hypervigilance
Victims of sexual trauma may startle easily when touched or surprised. Victims of unprocessed sexual trauma may exhibit a chronic sense of hypervigilance. Unexpected touches are neither pleasant nor appreciated.
- Unwilling to explore new ways to be sexually intimate
Unprocessed sexual trauma can cause an individual to be sexually cautious. He may feel anxious if his wife deviates from a comfortable routine. Some abusers use their victims as a means to explore different sexual fantasies. That’s why some victims refuse to try different ways to be intimate with their spouse in the bedroom, as they fear unpredictability.
- Developing unhealthy habits at a young age
Children and adolescents are not cognitively developed enough to understand the physical and emotional effects of sex. If a minor is sexually abused and he or she doesn’t receive treatment, they may become curious about sexual activity. This curiosity may lead to misguided behaviors such as obsessively watching pornography, engaging in compulsive masturbation or being overly promiscuous. In addition, experimentation and addiction to alcohol and drugs can occur to help dull the senses.
Sexual trauma should not be dismissed as insignificant. No matter how long ago the horrific act occurred, the effects are long lasting. However, this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
Healing for the victim, the spouse and the couple
With psychotherapy and therapeutic interventions, individuals with sexual trauma, over time, report a significant improvement in their mind, physiological reactions and marriage. Here are some practical solutions for the individual victim, the individual victim’s spouse and the two of them as a married couple.
For the spouse with the traumatic experience
What happened to you was horrific, and your feelings are valid. With help, understanding and hope can begin the healing. Here are some tips that can help start your healing process:
Begin with awareness. Acknowledge that you can’t put the experience on a shelf and walk away.
Don’t avoid the issue. Avoidance is a defense mechanism. It gives the Enemy power over you. By not bringing your experience to light, the Enemy can continue to feed you lies about the trauma. Lies such as “It was your fault” or “You will never get better.” Keeping your emotions suppressed can create anxiety, depression, anger and bitterness.
See a counselor. Find a therapist who specializes in trauma. Clinicians who work with sexually abused victims will handle your sessions with great sensitivity. A good therapist will support you through the healing process step by step. Counseling can help you discuss the abuse without shame, experience clarity and improve your relationships. Counseling is not easy, and progress is not always immediate. But it can benefit you in time.
Share with your spouse. Be open and honest with your husband or wife about your feelings. Sharing your feelings can create deeper intimacy between you and your spouse. Enlist your counselor to mediate if communicating your emotions to your spouse is not constructive.
Journal your feelings. Many of my clients find journaling helpful. There’s something about taking the thoughts bouncing around in your head and putting them down on paper. It’s a release, and it reduces stress since those thoughts can become overwhelming.
Another great benefit of journaling is looking back and tracking your emotions. Journaling is also a great tool for self-discovery. Sexual trauma can cause an individual to struggle with finding purpose and self-identity.
Take time to read your thoughts and look for common themes. Learn more about yourself and stop seeing yourself through the lens of your trauma.
For the victim’s spouse
Psychoeducation around sexual assault can help a spouse understand avoidance and anger around sexual activity.
Schedule physical intimacy. When intimacy is scheduled, it’s an agreement with consent from both the husband and wife. This is a temporary suggestion. The goal is to eventually have spontaneous intimacy without your spouse having anxiety symptoms.
Discuss new ideas first. Engage only in intimate positions you’ve agreed to in advance. Do not introduce them in the moment.
Call out your spouse’s name. Let your spouse know you’re approaching her before you touch her. By calling out your partner’s name, you will ground them into the hear and now.
Attend counseling sessions. Process subtle areas in which your spouse’s past experience have affected your marriage.
Listen without judgment. Ask your spouse how you can help.
For the married couple
Increase your quality time dramatically. Sexual abuse victims need to develop safe, nonsexual relationships. Engage in romantic activities that do not lead to intercourse. For example, plan a candlelight dinner followed by snuggling under a blanket with music and light conversation.
The road to healing can be long and tenuous. However, with the right support system in place you can go on to have a healthy sexual relationship with your partner. Have patience with yourself and those around you. There may be times when you feel overwhelmed and this is normal. Journaling, yoga, exercise, healthy eating and resting can all help aid in the process.