Content Warning: This article contains an extensive discussion of sexual assault. If you or someone else you know needs help or someone to talk to, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, available 24/7.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a campaign dedicated to raising awareness and fostering the prevention of sexual violence. Sexual assault takes place every 68 seconds in the United States, and its impacts can last far beyond the event itself, potentially leading to trauma and other serious mental and physical health challenges. Organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a chance to learn more about how we can address this serious concern in our communities. Below, we’re going to discuss the potential impacts of sexual assault, the importance of awareness when it comes to this topic, and the resources that are available to those who have lived through such an experience.
About Sexual Assault And Awareness
Sexual violence and sexual assault can take several different forms. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual violence as "an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse." Sexual assault awareness initiatives often aim to raise awareness of and prevent all forms of sexual violence and assault, including but not limited to sexual harassment (including online and in-person harassment), rape, exploitation, and the use of technology to harm other people.
Every year, there is a different theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In 2023, the campaign revolves around building safe spaces online. Online harassment, including online sexual harassment, is a serious concern, with one in four adult individuals in the United States having faced some form of harassment online.
Potential Effects Of Sexual Assault
Sexual violence can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects, including damage to an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional health. The following are some of the potential impacts of sexual assault.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious mental health disorder that arises following a traumatic event. Sexual assault survivors are at increased risk of experiencing PTSD. In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, researchers discovered that 75% of participants who experienced sexual assault met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder a month after the event occurred. Symptoms of PTSD can include:
- Distress when reminded of the event
- Avoidance of external stimuli, thoughts, or memories that are closely affiliated with the traumatic event
- Ongoing and exaggerated negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world
- Difficulty remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
- Irritability, reckless or self-destructive behavior, social isolation, difficulty concentrating, an exaggerated startle response, and sleep disturbances
- Comorbid mental health conditions, such as eating disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety, or depression
Other Mental Health Concerns
Even if a person does not meet the full criteria for PTSD, they may still experience some of the disorder’s symptoms, along with other mental health challenges, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorder. The effects of assault can make it difficult for individuals to feel safe or trust other people, which can lead to isolation and loneliness. Additionally, many people who have experienced sexual violence engage in self-harm.
For those who are experiencing mental health concerns following sexual assault, there are many resources available. RAINN lists several national resources on its site, and there are often local organizations that provide support as well. Additionally, mental health professionals are available to help, which we’ll discuss more later.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 and can be reached by calling or texting 988, or by chatting with a representative.
Workplace And Academic Challenges
Research shows that university students who experience sexual assault are more likely to drop out and struggle with grades, especially if they're in their first year of school. At work, sexual assault and harassment may lead to higher rates of absenteeism and lower performance.
Physical Health Effects
A substantial amount of research shows that is more prevalent among those who have experienced sexual assault. Sexual violence increases the risk of STIs and STDs, and trauma often leads to increased rates of insomnia, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more.
Spreading Awareness And Safeguarding Against Assault
Avoiding the above effects of sexual violence often starts with preventative measures and awareness. In keeping with the theme of Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2023—“Building Safe Online Spaces Together”—there are several things you can do to participate in discussions surrounding sexual assault and help defend yourself.
Discussions on the subject may encourage survivors to speak up and get resources that can help them through the healing process, educate people on how to act as potential bystanders and help individuals in at-risk communities safeguard themselves.
A good way to start is by having conversations with friends, family, co-workers, and others about prevention. Discussions surrounding consent can be crucial to educational efforts. Teaching people what is and is not appropriate sexual conduct can be crucial to preventing assault. If you’re interested in helping foster these discussions, consider participating in a workshop or training course. These can help you learn effective methods of educating others and helping them safeguard themselves against sexual violence.
It can be particularly important to highlight available resources in at-risk communities. This may include discussions about sexual assault on college campuses and other spaces where individuals may be at an increased risk for sexual assault. Education sessions on this topic are thought to lead to a better understanding of sexual violence, in addition to improved attitudes toward the subject.
If you’d like to become more involved in spreading awareness, consider donating to relief funds or women’s shelters that support survivors of assault. You can also volunteer with these organizations. Even just providing information on social media can help increase awareness.
Taking Personal Safety Measures
There are several practical steps you can take to safeguard against potential unwanted sexual contact. It can be important to identify ways of quickly leaving a potentially unsafe situation. If you’re unfamiliar with a place, try to identify the exits and have a plan for using them if necessary. You can also provide your location to trusted friends and family so that they know where you are. Practicing alcohol safety can also help you safeguard yourself. Avoid leaving drinks unattended, accepting drinks from people you do not know, or consuming drinks that you did not see being made.
Because the internet provides countless forums for communicating with others, those who use it often risk experiencing harassment. There are several steps you can take to stay safe online, though, such as reporting inappropriate content on social media, limiting the personal details you provide online, avoiding sites and forums that aren’t moderated, documenting harassment that occurs, and blocking any users who are engaging in the behavior. You may also want to only accept friend/follow requests from people you already know.
Healing From Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is often a traumatic and painful experience—one that can produce serious effects. If you are a survivor of sexual violence, it’s important to remember that you are not alone, and it is possible for you to process your emotions, address trauma, and feel better. It may take time for you to heal from sexual assault; but with the right help, you can move forward.
One of the first things you can do is reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. They can help you determine the next steps to take and point you in the direction of helpful resources. Talking about your experience may be difficult, but it can be an important first step toward healing. It can also help to confide in those you trust most. Your loved ones can provide emotional support, care, and guidance as you recover.
Mental health care and similar forms of support are often important in a person's healing process. This may include trauma-informed individual or group therapy. A trauma-informed therapist can be found by searching the web, asking for a referral, or utilizing an online therapy platform. If you’re enrolled in college, you may also be able to find resources on campus. There are also many support groups for survivors of sexual assault that can be received in person or online.
Self-compassion can be important for those who may be internalizing negative feelings after experiencing assault. Practicing self-care can help you remember that you’re worthy of love and give you the opportunity to nurture your body and mind. Additionally, self-care activities like journaling, meditating, and exercising can provide an outlet for your feelings.
Addressing Trauma With Online Therapy
The results of a large number of studies suggest that online therapy is an effective method of care for individuals who have experienced traumatic sexual violence. For example, in one study, researchers found that online therapy led to significant decreases in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in participants who had experienced sexual assault. The study also notes the increased availability provided by online therapy platforms.
If you’re looking for emotional support and guidance while coping with trauma, sexual violence, or similar concerns, know that help is available. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed mental health professional remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not comfortable discussing topics like assault in person. You’ll also have the option of reaching out to your therapist outside of sessions; if you have a question about trauma or just want some extra support, you can send them a message, and they’ll respond when they’re able.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Defines Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault can take different forms. Justice.gov defines sexual assault as "any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim cannot consent."
How Do You Promote Sexual Assault Awareness?
Here are some ways to promote sexual assault awareness:
- Define sexual assault and the different forms of sexual assault, violence, or harassment that may occur.
- Promote or provide education on enthusiastic consent and what it means.
Discussing the impacts of sexual assault on individuals and society, discussing what victim blaming may look like and how it can affect a survivor, and talking about how to help as a bystander often also promote sexual assault awareness.
How Should We Prevent Sexual Assault In Today's Generation?
To prevent assault, it's crucial to talk about sexual assault and consent.
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