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, sometimes abbreviated to SAAM. Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an event that's dedicated to raising awareness of sexual assault. Sexual assault takes place every 68 seconds in the United States, and the impacts of sexual assault can be long-term, lasting far beyond the event itself. So, what are the possible effects of sexual assault, and how can we prevent sexual assault in our communities? Furthermore, what can help someone who is healing from sexual assault? It's time to talk about it.
About Sexual Assault And Sexual Assault Awareness Month
Sexual violence and sexual assault can take several different forms. The Rape, Abuse and 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 prevent and raise awareness for 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 2022, the campaign or theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month is about building safe spaces online. Online harassment, including online sexual harassment, is a major issue, with one in four adult individuals in the United States has faced some form of harassment online and 6% having faced sexual harassment online specifically.
What Are The Potential Impacts Of Sexual Assault?
Based on research, here's some of what we know about the potential impacts of sexual assault:
75% of those who experience sexual assault meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder a month after the event occurs. Symptoms of PTSD can include but aren't restricted to hypervigilance, dissociative reactions (such as flashbacks), prolonged or severe distress when reminded of the event through exposure to stimuli or cues that remind an individual of the traumatic event, nightmares or distressing dreams, avoidance of external stimuli (such as people, places, activities, and events), thoughts, memories, or feelings 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, a persistent negative emotional state (this may include feelings of depression, guilt, shame, anger, or fear), irritability, reckless or self-destructive behavior, social isolation, difficulty concentrating, an exaggerated startle response, and sleep disturbance.
Alongside PTSD, survivors of sexual assault are more likely to face several other mental health conditions. These conditions include but aren't limited to eating disorders*, substance use disorders**, anxiety, and depression.
Research shows that university students who experience sexual assault are more likely to drop out when compared to other students, especially if they're in their first year of school. Additionally, the mean grade point average (GPA) after experiencing sexual assault declined from 2.72 to 2.60. At work, sexual assault and harassment may lead to higher rates of absenteeism and lower performance.
A large body of research shows that poorer general physical health and certain specific physical health effects are more prevalent among those who have experienced sexual assault. There is the potential for STIs and STDs following some forms of sexual assault or violence. Still, those who experience trauma may be at a higher risk for concerns and conditions like insomnia, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more. In addition to direct physical health interventions, mental health therapy may help support someone who experiences these concerns.
Even if a person isn't diagnosed with or does not meet the full criteria for PTSD and other mental health conditions, they may still experience a wide range of effects related to trauma. They may still experience some symptoms like PTSD or depression. Many people benefit from professional support and other forms of support, even if they do not meet the criteria for one of these disorders. It can make it difficult to feel safe or trust other people. The impacts of sexual assault can have somewhat of a snowball effect, interfering with a person's mental health, physical health, interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, and obligations in life, such as those that relate to work or school. However, it is possible to heal and live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life after sexual assault.
Preventing Sexual Assault
First and foremost, it's vital to state that assault is the perpetrator's fault only. It is in no case the fault of the survivor. While we may not have full control when it comes to prevention, some things may aid in preventing sexual assault and harassment. These things include but aren't limited to:
You can do several things, such as reporting inappropriate content on social media and supporting survivors, that can make online spaces safer. Remember that online sexual harassment is serious, potentially leading to stalking and other in-person consequences.
When we discuss sexual assault in spaces like the workplace and schools, we raise awareness about what sexual assault means. Still, it may also encourage individuals to speak up, whether as bystanders or survivors, and understand what happens during an event. There are several situations where it may be more difficult to speak up, and discussions can make it safer. Make it clear that sexual assault and harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in your space as an educator or employer, that consent must involve an enthusiastic "yes," and individuals cannot consent under certain circumstances. Give information at workplaces, in schools, and in your community on how to help someone as a bystander. This can be done through presentations, signage, and more.
It is vital to avoid victim-blaming. Many individuals who have survived sexual assault face symptoms of PTSD, like blaming themselves. Victim blaming can include comments and questions like, "Why didn't you report what happened?" "You shouldn't have gone to that party," or "What were you wearing?" While these questions and comments may not be made with the intent to cause harm, they can still be harmful because they shift the focus away from the issue at hand and may contribute to the self-blame above.
This may include discussions about sexual assault on college campuses and other spaces where individuals may be at an increased risk for sexual assault. Longer education sessions on this topic are said to be more advantageous. Education sessions may include ways to help as a bystander, discussions about what genuine consent looks like, etc.
You might let someone know where you're going if you meet up with someone new, identify ways to leave a potentially unsafe situation, such as providing a friend with a safe word and asking them to call you so that you can safely leave a date if they receive that code word from you, and practice alcohol safety if applicable. Encourage friends and loved ones to do the same.
In discussions about sexual assault, make it clear that sexual assault can impact people of all genders and other demographics. The perpetrator can also be of any demographic group.
As tough as it can be to discuss sexual assault, talking about it is a major part of prevention. Parents can also discuss sexual assault and consent with kids. Some resources can help with this, such as this article on the RAINN website: https://www.rainn.org/articles/talking-your-kids-about-sexual-assault.
Healing From Sexual Assault
In healing from sexual assault, goals that an individual may have include but aren't limited to a reduction of symptoms (i.e., feelings of depression or guilt, sleep disturbance, reckless behavior, etc.), an increase in self-esteem or confidence, and building their life moving forward (finding what makes them happy, building positive social connections, career, and other life goals, and so on).
Support from others is often important in a person's healing process. This may include a combination of trauma-informed therapy with an individual therapist, group therapy, and peer support, which may come in a support group or something else. You may be able to find a support group for survivors of sexual assault in person or online, and these groups are often free. A trauma-informed therapist can be found by searching the web, asking your doctor for a referral, contacting your insurance company, or signing up for an online therapy website if applicable and appropriate for your situation. If you are enrolled in a college or university, you may be able to find resources on-campus.
Personal discovery, exploration, and self-healing practices can play a role, too. Your support network, which may include a therapist, peers, and loved ones, can support you through the process. Since trauma can contribute to symptoms like loss of interest in activities, feelings of guilt, self-blame, and so on, reclaiming your power and enjoyment in life is frequently a part of recovery. This may be a process with ups and downs, but it is possible, and support can help.
If you feel that remote therapy options are a good fit, you may consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy is proven by research to be effective in helping individuals with a wide range of concerns. BetterHelp plans are often more affordable than traditional, in-person therapy services are in the absence of insurance, and financial aid may be available for those who need it and qualify. BetterHelp has continued to improve throughout the years, and over 20,000 independent, licensed providers with a diverse range of specialties offer services on the platform.
Get started with BetterHelp, or read our website's FAQs and therapist reviews to learn more about the platform. No matter how you find support, you deserve to get the help you need.
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:
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.