Understanding the Effects of Sexual Violence

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Understanding the Effects of Sexual Violence

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: pxfuel


Even in this time of the #metoo movement, sexual aggression is a topic that many people would rather not talk about. But given how common it is, you or someone you know has likely been a victim of it. In addition to this distressing reality, victims of sexual aggression suffer so much that it changes the way they see and experience themselves and the world. So, it’s important to understand the impact that it might be having on your life or the lives of those you love.

According to Dr. Mary Ann Layden, director of Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, the statistics are sobering: 25% of college females experience rape or attempted rape; 50% of females will be sexually harassed at some time on their life; and 38% of females are molested by the time they are 18 years old. (Though anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, this post will focus specifically on cisgender women.)

Though the physical harm may heal, such events often change a woman’s beliefs about herself, her future, and others — and this becomes the trauma that damages her life.

This damage can show up in many ways. For instance, women who have experienced sexual violence might struggle with being easily distressed, depressed, or emotionally numb. They might also have painful memories that intrude on their daily lives. Or, they might unconsciously put themselves in positions that re-enact the traumatizing relationship – that is, they might find themselves repeatedly being victimized.

To heal, these women must learn to recognize their emotional pain and the problematic beliefs that have arisen from the trauma. Consider these common examples of such beliefs and the healing that needs to happen:

“All men are self-centered and sexually predatory.” This thinking prevents women from ever feeling safe around men and from ever having healthy relationships with them. To move on, they must reconsider these beliefs and open up to the possibility that men can be kind and caring.

Two common self-blaming beliefs are; “It was my fault” and “I am worthless.”  The women might be made to feel that they were somehow at fault because they were drunk, dressed provocatively, or simply because he expected sex. To be relieved of such self-damning thinking, a victimized woman may need help in seeing that it was not her fault, and help in feeling the truth that she is worthy and lovable.

“There’s nothing to be upset about.” Women sometimes begin to think this way when the perpetrator acts as if nothing bad happened. There can be healing only when their pain is acknowledged and the truth about being victimized is validated.

“I am helpless.” It is understandable how molestation, rape, or harassment can leave a woman feeling helpless. However, even when she could not have prevented the traumatic event(s) in the past, there are many ways in which she can be empowered in her current life.

“Thinking about it will only make things worse.” Women often carry the trauma of being sexually victimized for years – even decades – because they try to avoid thinking about the event(s). But, again, healing can only happen when the pain is seen and treated.

The list of struggles goes on. A woman who has been victimized may have many thoughts, feelings, and experiences that can be overwhelming and confusing. Whether you are that woman or know someone who has been victimized, it’s important to understand that the struggles are not a sign of weakness or worthlessness, and they do not need to be an ongoing part of life. With professional help, a woman who has been victimized can be freed from that trauma to lead a happy and full life.

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.