Every 109 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. One in three girls and one in seven boys have been sexually assaulted by the age of 18. It’s so common, yet so hidden. While most people fear being attacked in a dark parking garage, over half of all incidents occur at home. Only 21 percent of sexual perpetrators are strangers to their victims. Most often, they are family members, friends or even spouses.
Sixty-six percent of sexual assaults go unreported. Many victims fear being shamed, blamed or not believed. They are “convinced” by the perpetrator that it was their fault and they “wanted it” or “caused it” to happen. Others fear retaliation against themselves or family members as perpetrators often threaten their victims. With such threats and fears looming, many stay silent. So, how can one know if their loved one has been abused?
Here are some warning signs of sexual trauma:
- Distrust of others
- Being afraid to sleep on a bed or in the dark
- Bedwetting, in children who are potty trained
- Sensitivity to/avoidance of being touched
- Wanting to have one’s body covered or hidden
- Promiscuity or avoidance of intimacy
If left untreated, other conditions can develop as a result of and a means of coping with sexual assault. These commonly include: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and substance use. Relationships often suffer as people begin to feel detached from people with whom they were once close. Physical intimacy can become extremely difficult and often a survivor of sexual abuse will dissociate during sex, leaving their mind to become just a body.
What should you do if you suspect a loved one has been abused?
Talk to them in a gentle, loving manner. They may feel ashamed of the abuse or they may fear what will happen if they share their story. Do not press them to disclose details. Simply state your concerns about the symptoms you have seen and offer a safe space for them to share.
Use key phrases, such as:
- “It’s not your fault.”
- “You didn’t deserve this.”
- “I don’t see you any differently.”
- “I am here when you are ready to talk.”
- “I believe you.”
These can help to create an environment of trust and help combat some of the negative thoughts in their mind. Encourage the use of resources such as therapy, medical attention or police intervention, while allowing them to choose when and under what conditions these assets are brought in to help. Empowering the survivor to have control over their life again is a key step in recovery.
Lastly, remember to check in periodically, particularly on anniversaries of the event(s). Though the physical scars may fade, the emotional effects may linger for a long time. Though restoration is possible, there is no set time frame for recovering from sexual trauma.
Kasi Howard, Psy.D. is Executive Director of Innova Recovery, a telehealth treatment program for relationship and combat trauma serving the entire state of Texas.
For more information visit Innova Recovery.