Sexual Trauma Therapy

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Therapy for sexual trauma can involve discussing challenging topics related to traumatic experiences. Therefore, it may be critical to work with a trustworthy and helpful therapist. Therapists and psychiatrists specializing in trauma-related experiences may provide validation, compassion, medical support, and unique coping skills as you process a challenging moment. It may feel cathartic for victims of sexual abuse to find support and to talk about traumatic memories in a safe space where they do not feel judged. Although talking about what has occurred can be difficult, it can also have mental and physical health benefits. 

The traumatic impacts of sexual assault can last for an extended time after an event. Sexual assault victims might repress these events, with many victims not discussing sexual abuse or trauma until years after. However, discussing the trauma that occurred or how you feel can help you release yourself from shame, feel confident, and learn the right coping skills for the traumatic experience. A therapist specializing in sexual assault trauma can understand its impact on individuals and offer personalized guidance to your situation. Whether you're experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, upsetting emotions, or another concern, you're not alone; support is available.

Wondering about the benefits of sexual abuse counseling?

What are the impacts of sexual trauma?

Sexual trauma of any kind can significantly affect a person's mental health, potentially causing anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. Whether the traumatic event occurred recently or happened 20 years ago, survivors may experience the psychological effects of sexual abuse or trauma throughout their lifetimes. In addition, many of these individuals who have gone through a traumatic sexual event may experience distressing mental health symptoms or a mental illness, such as the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trust issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings and thoughts of shame and guilt
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Fluctuations in mood 
  • Periods of intense anger 
  • Dissociation from emotions 
  • Self-destructive behaviors

Studies show that PTSD, in particular, is one of the leading mental illnesses in women caused by sexual trauma. If symptoms resulting from the sexual trauma go untreated, the effects may occur repeatedly for months or years. Having a therapist to talk to can give these individuals an outlet to discuss the impacts they've experienced due to sexual abuse, trauma, violence, or assault.  

Professional support and therapy for sexual assault

Every 68 seconds, a person in the United States is sexually assaulted. There are over 468,000 survivors of sexual abuse annually in the US, including individuals of all genders, backgrounds, and ages. Although being sexually abused can feel like an isolating experience, you are not alone. Sexual trauma therapy and other forms of support are available to those who have experienced sexual assault. 

One study found that common treatment types like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) were especially beneficial for survivors of sexual abuse. With more survivors coming forward with their stories, the stigma around receiving mental health care can be reduced, and more individuals can receive the compassionate and comprehensive support they deserve.  
Professional support for childhood sexual abuse or assault
Childhood sexual abuse, including cases involving rape victims, can have long-lasting impacts. Many children don't understand what has happened or struggle to understand the concept of abuse or trauma. Due to this, childhood sexual abuse may be repressed until later in life out of a desire to remain safe. In addition, those who have experienced childhood abuse, such as from an abusive counselor, may be more likely to develop PTSD or experience a mental health crisis as an adult. 

If you know or suspect you experienced sexual assault, abuse, or trauma as a child, consider seeking professional support. You can take therapy at your own pace with a therapist and learn trauma-informed coping skills. In addition, you can address any distressing symptoms, thoughts, beliefs, or emotions as a result of the sexual trauma or unrelated to that trauma that are causing challenges for you. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, over half of all women and one in four men experience sexual violence or trauma. In addition, four out of five women report that the sexual abuse or sexual violence happened before age 25. Counseling has proven effective in alleviating the symptoms related to sexual trauma or abuse and can offer support at any age and for any gender. 

What do therapy sessions look like?

When you attend therapy sessions or talk with a licensed mental health professional online, you may start by discussing the reasons you are seeking therapy. You don't have to share the details about the traumatic sexual experience if they make you uncomfortable. Your therapist may ask about the symptoms you are experiencing and what you hope to discuss with them. The therapist may describe the method of therapy they often use and how the method can support your concerns. Then, the therapist will create a treatment plan specific to the therapeutic goals you have set. 

In coming sessions, you can learn and develop various self-care strategies and tactics to aid you throughout your daily life. These strategies can offer support if you feel overwhelmed with thoughts about your experiences. The therapist can also target your specific goals for treatment and start providing the techniques they may have mentioned in the intake. In the end, it is up to you to consent to any treatment, and you do not have to do anything that you do not feel comfortable with in trauma therapy. 

An experience of sexual abuse may leave survivors with negative thoughts, distressing memories, and cognitive distortions or irrational beliefs about themselves. In addition, they might experience an increased awareness of physical sensations that can be reminders of the trauma.

With a therapist’s help, you may be able to help affirm and unlock new thoughts that can reduce the distress. You may want to let them know if you feel therapy sessions are moving too quickly or want the therapist to take a new approach. The therapy services are for you, so asking for what you need is normal and okay. In addition, you can change your therapist at any time if you're uncomfortable or feel disrespected. With therapy for a sensitive topic like assault, it can be crucial that you feel safe, respected, and not judged or shamed in therapy. 
Benefits of sexual abuse therapy

You might receive several benefits from sexual abuse therapy, including the following.

A release of painful emotions 

Some survivors of sexual abuse repress their emotions to function in daily life. Therapists can help these individuals learn cognitive processing skills, such as expressing their emotions in a way that does not cause re-traumatization or extreme distress. Many mindful and experiential techniques during therapy can aid in the recovery process. These include learning to meditate, writing in a journal, creating art, or writing a new story about your life. Some therapists use specific modalities that may help reduce the impact of processing trauma. For example, bilateral stimulation in EMDR typically uses a series of guided eye movements to desensitize and reprocess distressing memories.

A sexual abuse or sexual trauma survivor might also struggle with feelings of numbness, fears of intimacy with a current partner, shame, or low self-esteem after having experienced sexual abuse. While it might be challenging to face the emotions resulting from the traumatic experience, using these emotions for a positive or creative outlet could be easier than discussing them outright. 

If you have difficulty expressing and validating your thoughts and emotions, sexual trauma therapy or other types of therapy may guide you. Talking to a licensed therapist can help you validate your emotions and boost your confidence in knowing how you feel. Tools like trauma narration may help sexual assault survivors express their experiences, helping them process the event and move forward. In addition, studies suggest that expressing your emotions may be beneficial for your physical health, as well as your emotional well-being.

Multiple formats of trauma therapy

Support groups can also provide support to help trauma survivors feel seen and understood. In a group therapy session, you can see that you are not alone in facing specific experiences, thoughts, and emotions. You can tell your story, hear stories from other group members, and discuss what works and what doesn't when it comes to moving forward. Connecting with a social support group might help you manage guilt, shame, and other emotions often associated with this sexual trauma. 

Survivors of sexual abuse may sometimes feel responsible for their trauma, especially if they were sexually abused by a family member. Hearing the experiences of other survivors can help you recognize that abuse and trauma can happen to anyone and that what happened to you is a reflection of the person who harmed you, not yourself. You can potentially learn to validate yourself by validating the struggles of others and seeing how you are similar.

Some people may not connect with calling themselves a “victim of sexual abuse.” Support groups can help people with this mindset connect with being a survivor instead of a victim, as this language can be stigmatizing and outdated. Therapy sessions in a group format through a sexual assault center may also be beneficial in reframing mindset and finding hope after being sexually abused. 

An understanding of defense mechanisms after trauma

The impacts of sexual abuse can affect many areas of an individual's life, such as how they see themselves, others, and the world around them. Survivors may develop defense mechanisms to safeguard themselves during the abuse that make life more challenging outside of it. 

These individuals may feel vulnerable to unhealthy relationships or struggle to set boundaries. Others may become guarded and struggle to let others into their lives to trust and love. Through therapy, survivors can recognize how specific thoughts and behaviors may impact their current relationships and moods. 

Self-awareness through therapy services can enable survivors to identify and implement tools to cope effectively with defense mechanisms or insecure attachments due to their experiences. For example, a therapist might show the client how they tend to ignore messages from their partner when they feel triggered. Understanding their triggers can help them communicate to their partner that they need space the next time it occurs.

Specialization of therapists

Many sexual trauma counselors are specialists in effective treatment modalities such as CBT and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). When you meet with a counselor specializing in a particular type of treatment, they may have more experience with those skills and understand what works and doesn't work for many clients. In addition, meeting with a specialist lets you choose which specialty you're interested in trying.  

Skills such as mindfulness or distress tolerance from DBT can help survivors cope with difficult and painful emotions. Mindfulness techniques can allow them to ground themselves when experiencing dissociation, and distress tolerance skills can allow them to understand and tolerate their emotions.

Healing from the trauma and symptom management

Sexual trauma can lead to painful emotions like anger, guilt, and shame. Through therapy, clients may find that they experience relief over time. After facing their emotions, survivors can have the opportunity to challenge the way they see themselves and foster new hope for their futures.

Your future does not have to be defined by your past. If you need help taking back your life after experiencing sexual abuse, speaking with a therapist is an effective tool to begin your healing process. Those abused as children might choose to stay in therapy for more time due to the complex nature of childhood trauma. However, anyone can benefit from therapy if they feel ready to do so and are able to find a professional and compassionate provider educated in the impact of trauma. 

How to find support

Seeking help for the sexual abuse you have experienced can feel vulnerable and scary, and it may take some courage. Below are a couple of tips you can keep in mind when seeking therapy for the first time.

Trust the therapy process   

Therapy is often recommended because it is effective and proven to work. Specialists trained in trauma-focused crisis intervention have studied methods of treating and supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often recommended for first-time therapy seekers. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, however, you might also benefit from EMDR. One meta-analysis of ten EMDR studies found that EMDR therapy was more effective than CBT for severe PTSD and that seven out of ten studies found remission of symptoms in clients who underwent a complete set of EMDR therapy. 

Although EMDR is not the only effective treatment for PTSD, it can be a valuable option. CBT and DBT have also shown promise in this area. Look for a therapy method that connects to your goals and ideas for treatment. If you're unsure, you can call local therapists and ask questions about their approaches before making an appointment. Once you attend individual therapy, trust that these methods are often effective. If you don't feel results at first, it may be that you haven't been in sessions for enough time. Complex trauma can take time to address, but it is possible with trauma therapy.

Attend therapy only when you feel ready

When you're ready to heal, you may sense it is time. If you feel forced by family members or others to attend therapy and want to focus on other areas of your life first, you can do so. Go to therapy for yourself, not for another person. However, if your symptoms are causing extreme distress and you're considering therapy, try giving it a few sessions to see how you feel. You can leave and come back if you need to. Regardless of your choice, therapy is personal, and it can take some time to feel comfortable with the idea. 
What types of therapy can survivors try?
Several therapy modalities exist to support you as you address your trauma. Consider looking into the following types if they sound interesting to you.

Sex and couples therapy

If you experience trauma that affects your ability to have sex, sex therapy might offer support. Sexual abuse, sexual violence, and sexual dysfunction can all be discussed in sex therapy. In addition, some sex theerapists offer couples therapy. You can also partake in couples therapy with a therapist who doesn't specialize in sex if that is not your priority. 

Art therapy 

Art therapy could also provide relief for those who have experienced trauma, allowing survivors to express their thoughts and emotions creatively and without words. Art therapists may have various supplies available, including clay, colored paper, pens, pencils, paints, canvasses, and more. 

Talk therapy 

Psychotherapy, commonly known as talk therapy, can also have benefits. Through talk therapy, you can talk about your trauma, your daily life, responsibilities, and areas you'd like to grow. Individual therapists can also offer support for sex or relationship-related topics. Many talk therapists also provide activities, worksheets, workbooks, and resources to clients. In certain situations, it may be beneficial for non-offending caregivers to attend therapy with the survivor.

Substance use counseling 

Some survivors may use substances to cope with challenging emotions. Substance use counseling can help these individuals develop a safety plan, care for their physical well-being, and discuss their motivations around usage. 

Animal-assisted support

Talking to a therapist about challenging subjects can be scary for survivors. You can play with, care for, or cuddle with an animal during your sessions through animal-assisted therapy. Some forms of this type of therapy, like equine-assisted therapy, allow clients to spend time caring for a horse and going for rides. Although talk therapy can be beneficial, connecting with an animal could offer emotional healing and connection if you don't feel ready to talk. In addition, studies have found that it is effective in treating symptoms of PTSD.
Wondering about the benefits of sexual abuse counseling?

Internet-based therapy

Getting face-to-face therapy can be intimidating for some people. In addition, leaving home, navigating transportation, and waiting in a waiting room can feel overwhelming and cost a lot. With studies showing that many individuals feel most comfortable at home, online therapy can provide a unique solution. 

Through online therapy, clients can specify their preferences for a therapist by signing up through a platform. They might note any symptoms or diagnoses they want to address, such as PTSD. Afterward, they can receive a match with a licensed therapist that best fits their profile and preferences. If you're interested in getting started, consider signing up with a platform like BetterHelp, which offers over 30,000 licensed mental health providers, many of which have a background in treating PTSD and traumatic experiences.

If you feel unsure about the effectiveness of online therapy, note that studies have found online cognitive-behavioral therapy especially effective for treating symptoms of PTSD and co-morbid depression. Clients can benefit from these treatments at any time and change their therapist if they don't feel a connection with their match.

Counselor reviews

"Christina has been so extremely helpful to me. She has guided me to better myself, build a strong foundation, and helped me know my self-worth. She has helped me understand that I am an individual and strong by myself. She has helped me process and move past my traumas. Because of her guidance, I am a 10x better version of myself.”

"I was very hesitant to try therapy online. I have found Matthew Jones to be a great therapist and resource. I appreciate his ability to discuss issues that make me feel vulnerable. He is very professional and has given me great insights and resources that provide me with the tools to cope with the things in my life.”


Sexual trauma is challenging for many. However, talking to a therapist can help you find relief and support. Use the guide above to learn more about what you can expect when seeking support from a sexual assault center that offers trauma-focused counseling or therapy. You're not alone in your experiences, and trauma-informed care is available. If you have further questions about trauma-related therapy, consider contacting a therapist for guidance. 

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