What is Sexual Trauma?

Sexual Trauma: What it is and How to Heal

"I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged into sunlight, stronger. I am no longer an empty shell. I look forward to living every day. There is joy in the simple things of life. Fear no longer grips me. I feel that I am able to breathe and that I have a right to live".   – Calli.

     Sexual trauma has a powerful and lasting effect on the victim.   It occurs when someone is used in a sexual manner by an older or more powerful individual. Sexual trauma can come in various forms: Incest is sexual abuse committed by a family member or someone the victim views as family.  Sexual assault is rape or forced intercourse. Sexual trauma may be verbal, visual, or physical. An example of verbal trauma is making sexually suggestive comments to the victim. Visual trauma occurs when the abuser exposes his or her body to the victim, watching the victim bathe or shower, and showing pornographic material to the victim. Physical sexual trauma is the act of touching: from fondling to actual intercourse. One thing remains certain: sexual trauma is NEVER the fault of the victim.

     Statistics about sexual trauma are startling: Research has shown that 1 out of every 3 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys will experience some form of sexual trauma by the age of 18. Additionally, 1 out of every 6 women and 1 out of every 33 men will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime The frightening fact is these statistics may be conservative because of under-reporting.  And now, the internet has opened up a new area of concern:  online solicitation.  Statistics show that 1 out of every 5 children are sexually solicited over the web. Perhaps the saddest statistic of all: 90% of victims know their abuser.

    What are some signs of sexual trauma you may see in children or adolescents? There are many signs including, but not limited to, increase in nightmares or other sleeping difficulties, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with certain individuals, inappropriate sexual knowledge, foul language, change in eating habits, bed-wetting, trouble concentrating, extreme fears of “monsters”, sexual activity with toys or other children, cutting or self-injurious behaviors, and unexplained physical complaints. Does the presence of any of these signs mean your child has been abused? No, but they should serve as warning signs and should be taken seriously. As parents, we are our children’s most powerful advocates.  If you see something that doesn't look right, check it out.

          How should you respond if your child discloses sexual abuse? First, remain calm. It does you or your child no good to lose control of your emotions.  Under no circumstance, should you ever blame the child!! Remember, sexual trauma is NEVER the fault of the victim. Always believe your child and let them know you are glad they told you. Be open to your child talking when they are ready.   Try to keep as normal a routine as possible. Contact DCPP (formerly DYFS) at: 1-877-NJABUSE. They can help you decide what to do next.

What about the adult victim? Adults can suffer from feelings of shame, distrust, feeling dirty or worthless, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeping problems, anxiety, depression, rage, despair, phobias, emotional numbness, grief, damaged body image, relationship struggles, feeling different, extreme need for control, self-destructive behaviors, suicide attempts, addictions, body symptoms, negative beliefs about self and the world, and sexual dysfunctions. 

      Can counseling help sexual abuse survivors? Yes! It helps survivors understand the abuse was not their fault and they are not alone.  It gives symptom relief, corrects unhealthy ways of looking at their self, helps them to grieve the loss of their childhood, and to learn new relationship skills. It gives voice to the survivor’s story of trauma that may have never been spoken.  It can help the survivors begin to trust again and relieves them of the heavy load of shame they have carried. To paraphrase Calli, survivors can finally breathe again and realize they have a right to live.  Not to just live, but to live an abundant, joyful life! It is hard road to healing, but every tear and heartache is worth it!





Excerpt from Calli came from the book, Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse, by Carolyn Ainscough and Kay Toon, 2000, Da Capo Press.